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Call Center Articles

How Long Should a Call Take?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

My wife and I recently moved. There were the typical myriad of details to attend to, including arranging for utilities. I had three calls to make: one for natural gas, one for electricity, and one for water.

I called the electric company first, as I assumed this would be the easiest. They had provided us with natural gas at our prior home for a quarter of a century, so we had an existing relationship with them and an excellent payment history. Pulling up our account and tying it to our new location would be easy – or so I reasoned.

After navigating a slew of options on the automated attendant, I was finally routed to a person to begin my quest. One of his first questions seemed most promising: “Have you ever done business with us in the past?”

I was ready. “Yes!” I gave them the address, the dates, and our old account number.

He typed on his computer, mumbled a lot, and finally asked me to repeat the information. The fact that our old service was for natural gas confused him. “We don’t provide natural gas at your new house,” he said.

“I know that, but you do provide electrical service. That’s why I’m calling.”

I’m not sure if he gave up looking for my records or actually found them, but he eventually launched into a string of questions as if he was setting up a new account. I watched the clock as the call dragged on: five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and climbing. He also put me on hold a few times. As the call reached the twenty-minute mark, he announced he was done.

Whew! I needed to psych myself up before making the next call, one I was sure would be much more involved. Summoning my resolve, I bravely called the natural gas company, one I’d never done business with.

For the gas company, the call started out much the same. There was an IVR tree, and one of the first questions the rep asked was, “Have you used us in the past?”

I braced myself. “No, we haven’t.” I expected to hear a sigh. I did not. She asked my name, address, and social security number. Before I knew what was happening, my account was set up. It only took a couple of minutes.

I then called the township who handles the water. A person answered the phone and transferred me to the “water department.” The person there was out, so I left a voicemail message with my name, address, phone number, and reason for my call. When I didn’t hear back by the next day, I called again. This time he was in. “Oh, I set it up yesterday when I got your message; you’re all set.”

Setting aside the township, my experience with the electric and gas companies are in contrast. Why was it so easy to initiate service with my natural gas provider and so time-consuming with my electricity provider?

Both are large concerns. I’m sure they track the efficiency of their call center reps, including average call length. Though one call took about ten times longer than the other, I’m sure the rep wasn’t ten times more efficient. I’ll place the blame on agent training, the technology infrastructure, and operational processes, all of which add up to about ten times less efficient.

Though the rep might be criticized for his long call time, the real blame resides with the call center management and its technology.

Make sure your reps aren’t at a similar disadvantage.

[From Connection Magazine Mar/Apr 2015]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Categories
Call Center Articles

“One Moment Please, While I Disconnect Your Call”

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The success rate of agents transferring calls is not good. In fact, based on my experience, successful call transfers actually occur less than half the time. The most common result is being disconnected. When a disconnected caller calls back, the happy caller has likely become irritated, the irritated caller has become irate, and the irate caller has become abusive.

You can tip the odds in your favor, by following some common sense, but often overlooked steps:

Training: The proper transfer procedure must be covered in training. Additionally, the trainee should be able to experience the transfer from three different perspectives: the caller, the agent, and the recipient. All too often, agents are deprived of seeing the call transfer process from the standpoint of either the caller or the recipient. Doing so gives them a better understanding how errors affect others and evokes empathy.

Practice: To master a skill, it must be practiced until it becomes rote—prior to attempting it with a real caller. Plus, for agents not frequently transferring calls, ongoing practice is wise.

Consistency: Most switches provide multiple ways to transfer calls. Pick the most universally applicable method and teach it to all agents. Get the trainers to concur that this standard method will be taught and no others. Finally discourage agents from using different approaches and seeking shortcuts.

Methodology: Decide on one philosophy for transferring calls. A blind transfer is the quickest, but least professional. With it the agent dials the number, connects the caller, and hangs up before the call is answered. In an announced transfer, the agent dials the number, tells the recipient about the call, connects the caller, and then hangs up. A confirmed transfer is one step beyond an announced transfer, in which the agent stays connected long enough to insure that the recipient can address the caller’s needs.

Verify: Transfer lists need to be periodically checked—by dialing them. Frequent verification is the only way to purge wrong numbers and ensure agents have accurate information.

First-Call Resolution: If you pursue first-call resolution, the need to transfer callers is greatly reduced. Perhaps that is the best solution of all.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Categories
Call Center Articles

Call Scripting the Caller Experience

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

At one time all call centers used a free-form philosophy of recording caller provided information and communication, be it an order, a message, or an information submission. Free-form documentation is analogous to a paper phone message pad, with the agent filling in whatever blanks deemed appropriate, in any order preferred. As such, there is great discretion in how the forms are completed. The free-form approach works well for simple transactions that have a high variability of outcomes. Plus, for the diligently focused agent, free-form is faster. To excel in a free-form call center, however, higher standards in agent screening are necessary, with greater emphasis on training mandated.

In today’s customer-centric world, the caller experience is of increasing importance, and the free-form approach to call processing is increasingly deficient in meeting the need. If callers aren’t delighted with the process, their treatment, and the results, they will quickly take their business elsewhere by merely picking up the phone. In an effort to exceed customer expectations, managers have focused on agent training, retraining, and more training. The outcome of all this instruction, however, does not always produce the preferred results to the extent desired. Therefore, a second convergent tack is needed to supplement all this agent training: the application of assisting technology.

As call processing became more complex, the free-form approach to caller interaction and data collection became increasingly error-prone and less advantageous, as well as problematic in an age requiring standardized databases. Enter a technology solution: call scripting. Call-scripting software allows the flow of the call to programmed, or scripted, for the agent. In essence, call control is embedded into the call processing system, with consistency and quality as the welcome results.  Additionally, the proper implementation of a scripted call platform into the call center results in agent screening, training, and supervision becoming less critical than in a free-form environment. Still, preplanning a call via scripting does not negate the need for proper agent hiring, training, monitoring, and evaluation, but it does make those efforts simultaneously more effective and more likely to achieve optimal results.

Properly configured call-scripting software can produce the following outcomes:

  • Increased data consistency
  • Improved quality
  • Greater caller satisfaction
  • Fewer errors
  • Embedded intelligence into the script
  • Simplification of complex tasks
  • Quicker agent training
  • Call flow branching based on caller input or requirements
  • Enforcement and validation of data in real time
  • Prohibition of entering conflicting data
  • The ability to handle far more complicated transactions with better results
  • Screen pop information based on entries
  • Pre-populated fields based on prior information gathered, or even prior calls
  • The ability to control the disposition and dissemination of the information after the call is complete

Programming a call script does require more thoughtful effort than configuring a free-form solution, but the extra effort invested one time, at the creation of the script, pays dividends over and over, day after day.

See our listing of call center vendors that provide call-scripting software.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2008]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Categories
Call Center Articles

A Perfect Answer

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

How often have you called someplace and wondered if you reached the right number? All too often, calls are answered hurriedly, haphazardly, or incompletely. Or perhaps the agent seems out of breath by the time they complete a lengthy, tongue-twisting answer. It is vital that all calls be consistently answered in the same way, regardless of location or agent.  Here are three parts of the ideal way to do so:

Greeting

The greeting serves to set a positive tone for the call. It is simply “Good morning,” Good afternoon,” or “Good evening.” The greeting tells the caller that the phone has been answered — and that it is time for them to listen! These words signal that it is time for the caller to listen, but it is not critical if they are missed.

Company Identity

This is simply the name of your organization or client, such as, “Acme Call Center.” It lets callers know who they’ve reached, confirming that their call has gone through correctly. Say the company name as it would be used by and most familiar to those outside the organization. Therefore, drop legal suffixes, such an Inc, LLC, and Ltd.  Also, avoid abbreviate the company name; saying “ACC” when everyone knows you as “Acme Call Center” will only cause confusion.

Agent Identity

The final element is your first name. It adds a valuable personal touch. It is much easier for a caller to get mad at an anonymous voice, than an identifiable person. Using your name allows you to build a rapport and establish a track record with the caller. As the last word of the answer phrase, it is also the one most easily remembered by the caller. Omitting your name implies an avoidance of personal involvement; ending with your name, signals confidence and competence, which are critical in problem solving and customer service situations.

Avoid Unnecessary Information

It is all too common for people to tack on the inane phrase, “How may I direct your call?” A direct response to this senseless question would be “quickly and accurately.” This is a waste of time.

Putting these elements together, results in the perfect answer: “Good morning, Acme Call Center, this is Peter.”

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Categories
Call Center Articles

Answering the Call

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

A few weeks ago, I did something outrageous. I stopped answering my phone. Although that is a bold, foolhardy step for anyone in business, it is heretical for someone whose entire professional career has revolved around the telephone. However, before you plan an intervention on my behalf, let me assure you that this was a short term situation and I am once again totally accountable to my phone, dutifully answering its ringing with Pavlovian consistency. Here’s what happened.

Over the past few years I have noticed what many of you have experienced in your call centers; I was not getting as many phone calls as I used to. In fact, there are days when I only get one or two calls; occasionally, no one calls!

I am fortunate to be in a unique position in that I am privileged to communicate with a wide range of CEOs, directors, and managers at outsource call centers. About five years ago, the overwhelming concern of inbound centers was that call volume had dropped off and revenue was down, way down. It seemed to happen unexpectedly and no one was sure why, but most had their theories. Interestingly, this information was always shared with me confidently. Seemingly, each person was seeking confirmation that this was an industry wide dilemma, while at the same time declining to publicly acknowledge that they had been affected in like manner.

Since then, at each hint that a rebound was eminent, something would happen to squelch it – bad economic news, a terrorist attack, a war, and more than a few natural disasters. However, there has now become some divergence in the empirical feedback that I receive. Although most reports continue to confirm that call traffic is languishing, some indicate that it has leveled off, and a few claim to be experiencing a robust rebound, asserting that business has never been as good or more promising. Although a skeptic might maintain that such grandiose statements are nothing more than an attempt to talk oneself into prosperity, I prefer to believe that some call centers have indeed successfully navigated these troubled waters.

Perhaps the most buffeted segment of call center outsourcing work has been the outbound arena, specifically, consumer calling. With the combined effects of a public outcry, political expediency, and the enactment of state and ultimately a national do not call (DNC) law, outbound calling to consumers has, by most accounts, been devastated. Some call centers elected to cease all outbound work, migrating to inbound (thereby diverting work from existing inbound centers, resulting in a smaller slice of the pie for everyone – compounding the issue of lower call volume).

Other outbound call centers elected to make the switch from consumer campaigns to business calling, something that I can personally attest to. Before the national DNC law, I would only occasionally receive a sales call, from the Fraternal Order of Police or a high school student selling an ad in their organization’s program. That has changed. Now I receive all manner of telemarketing calls. I am sad to report that these call centers have learned nothing from the motivation behind the DNC legislation. They are employing the same tactics with business calling that caused the demise in consumer calling such as inadequately compiled lists, poorly trained agents, badly written scripts, and overly aggressively programmed predictive dialers. I’m all for a smartly targeted call, dispensing useful and relevant information – but that’s not happening. These firms still insist on employing the old numbers game, quantity over quality.

On all too many days, I receive more inept telemarketing calls than “real” business calls. To make matters worse, often the dialing rate is seemingly set too tight and I get dead air or am disconnected. It is one thing to get interrupted by a useless phone call, but it is even more infuriating to be interrupted so that a machine can hang up on you. Outbound call centers need to be careful. The same lackadaisical business practices that resulted in the government regulation and legal restrictions of making calls to residential numbers could easily be extended to include business numbers.

Even more troublesome is that the political fodder gained by enacting laws limiting outbound calling has emboldened legislators to turn their attention to inbound calling. The spate of these various proposed restrictions would be laughable, if not for the seriousness of the politicians proposing them. These laws could end up regulating how you staff your call center, what technology is used and how it is programmed, the location of your office and staff, and your hours of operation. Furthermore, they could mandate statistical response rates, customer satisfaction levels, and even invoke penalties for long hold time. The offshore outsourcing of call center service is often a prime target in these proposed bills, but the wording is often vague or general enough to include outsourcing within the United States.

However, I am digressing; let’s go back to my story. My phone had rung for the fourth time that morning and thrice in 15 minutes. Each time I was met with silence; there was no one there! I was working on last month’s column – you remember, “The Ripple Effect” – and wanted to write without needless interruption. In frustration, I did something that I had never considered before. I decided to stop answering the phone and let voicemail handle it. Although I received many more phone calls throughout the day, no one left a message. There were some hang ups and dead air messages, but no people, not even breathing. It wasn’t until the afternoon the next day that someone left a message. After three days of letting voicemail screen my calls, I had amassed only three messages. What about the rest? Were they all telemarketing calls? Were some from people who didn’t feel their call was important enough to leave a message? If so, why were they calling? Frankly, it makes me wonder if I even need to have a business phone line! (Forgive me for my academic musings – yes, I do need a phone.)

Even with this spike of telemarketing calls that I have received, my overall incoming call volume is still down. At the same time, email communication has soared. The increased quantity of email is attributable to both spam and “real” messages. It is not uncommon for me to spend an hour or more each morning responding to the email messages that came in during the night. On Mondays, it sometimes takes all morning to handle the weekend’s deluge.

So where does this leave the outsourcing call center? Call volume is down, regulation is present, and more is looming. There is an apparent shift from telephone to email. Some possible solutions have already been alluded to. Many outbound centers have switched from consumer calling to business calling (just make sure you do it right). Those who are opting to continue doing consumer calling are needing to navigate regulatory restrictions, spending increasing amounts of money to ensure compliance, and take measures to protect themselves from increasingly large fines and damages if mistakes occur. These facts favor larger call centers (think economies of scale) plus they produce a nice barrier to entry, thereby reducing competition.

It is counterintuitive, but now may be the right time for some call centers to get into consumer calling. Interestingly, in the past few years, some inbound centers have successfully begun outbound work. Their key, seemingly, is focused around carefully selected and crafted niches, the details of which they are reluctant to share.

Another switch, or diversification strategy, is for outbound centers to move to inbound work. Many have done this and although it is presently a much safer arena in which to operate, this advantage may not last for much longer.

The real call center opportunity, however, may reside in the Internet. More on that next month.

[See part two of this article, entitled “Growing Your Call Center.]

[From Connection Magazine June 2006]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.