Call Center Articles

They Just Don’t Get It

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I wonder if my local phone company is clueless; it seems that they just don’t get it. By “it,” I mean everything: marketing, pricing, customer retention, technical support, and customer service. Although they are surely aware that they no longer function in a monopoly environment, their actions belie that reality. Of course, within their extreme missteps are imbedded opportunities for introspection and relevant truth for all businesses, especially those who field phone calls for a living. To wit:

Marketing: My phone company sends me direct mail and uses bill stuffers. Since I have been their customer for twenty-two years, they should know me by now, making offers applicable to my service. Alas, they do not. I was recently delighted when a bill stuffer offered DSL service for only $17 a month, guaranteed to never go up.

That is half what I currently pay, so I immediately called. The rep was engaging and helpful – until she learned I already had DSL service. She explained that this offer was for new customers only.

Pricing: I understand the propensity to offer promotional rates to snag new business, but doing so is a slam on loyal and longstanding customers. It is even worse to flaunt it, by sending that special offer to someone who is already paying twice as much – and then refusing to lower their rate. She apologized for the error.

Nevertheless, I expressed my desire to lower my bill. She offered me several packages: DSL and long distance, DSL and local calling, DSL and satellite TV, and the triple play: DSL, cell phone, and satellite TV. In each instance, I would need to make a long-term commitment – and my bill would actually increase.

Even so, none of the packages made sense. Long ago, my phone company had inadvertently trained me to not make long distance calls on my landline, opting to use my cell phone instead with its free long distance. My satellite service and cell phone are with competing companies; she tried to get me to switch.

Customer Retention: Just the month before, I had slashed the cost of my business service 40 percent just by asking them to lower my bill. I’m not sure what the rep did, but she made it happen. Now my business line is a fraction of the cost of my residential service! Surely, my residential service could be likewise lower.

I pleaded with her for a way to reduce my rate. Not making any progress, I asked if I could cancel my local number and retain my DSL. Yes, that was possible, but the cost of the DSL would increase by 50 percent (and be almost three times their promotional offer). Sensing that my entire account might be in jeopardy, she offered to change my  “unlimited” local dialing plan to “economy.” Now I will be charged four cents for each local call, but at my limited usage, this will still save several dollars a month.

In reality, however, we will merely make those local calls from our cell phones as well, saving even more. Once again, they have provided motivation to bypass their network.

Technical Support: When we first had DSL service, I would report problems as soon as I was aware of them. The response of the technical staff was shocking: they would assume it was my problem and that their equipment was without fault. They would have me changing the configuration on my computers and network, moving cables, and effectively migrating to an unworkable situation. Then they would reluctantly admit that the problem was not on my end, but theirs. They would promise a twenty-four-hour response time and hang up, leaving me to put things back to normal.

I eventually learned to not call to report outages but to take a break instead, as the issues tended to be resolved within an hour without me doing anything. Recently, however, there was an exception to this otherwise reliable pattern.

Customer Service: We lost our DSL service one Saturday evening. It was late anyway, so we stopped for the day. On Sunday morning it was still down, and it was the same in the afternoon. By evening, I acquiesced to report it, with the expectation that it would be working by Monday morning.

Reporting phone trouble is an arduous task, with multiple levels of menus to navigate, dealing with speech recognition software, and entering and verifying my phone number. Of course, once I finally reached a person, the first thing they did was ask for my phone number. What was most exacerbating, however, is that after I pressed the option indicating I couldn’t connect to the Internet, they kept referring me to tech support online for faster service.

Initially, the tech said the problem was on my end but later changed his mind, claiming that a repairperson would need to be sent on-site. Someone would call me on Monday between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. To my shock, he warned that if I didn’t answer when they called, the trouble ticket would be cancelled.

I never left the phone on Monday, and they never called. On my second attempt that day to reach them, I got through, asking what happened to their promise to fix it by 5:00 p.m. The agent apologized, testing the line again. This time she wondered if it could be fixed remotely, as the test results were different. She told me that I would receive an automated call once the problem was resolved; this would be on Tuesday.

However, knowing better than to believe anything they told me, I tested the Internet later that evening, and it worked. The automated call, however, didn’t come until the next day.

My local phone company just doesn’t get it – but I’m sure you do!

[From Connection Magazine September 2009]

Call Center Articles

Call Center: The Wrong Way

Peter Lyle DeHaan

I selected on an Internet firm to file my trademark application for my new publication, TAS Trader. After a perfunctory phone call to remove concerns over their viability, I submitted my information online. This set in motion a series of email communiqués with their “trademark team” that became increasingly frustrating, lacking in substantive communication. Once it became apparent that we were at a communication impasse, I called again. To my dismay, “customers” are routed to a different group than “prospects.” My customer service contact was not nearly as impressive as my sales contact.

Regardless of what I asked, she responded with: “We cannot guarantee that your application will be accepted,” or “We do not provide legal advice, as was stated…” Neither response was relevant to what I was saying. Each time her tone was mechanical and even-paced, as though I was talking to a robot, possessing limited response options.

“You’re not listening to me,” I implored. “I can appreciate you have to read this disclaimer to me, but…”

This evoked an emotional retort, “I’m not reading a script,” she declared with irritation. “I’ve worked here for five years and know what I’m saying; I don’t need to read it.” Soon, she regained her composure and reverted to her tired verbiage, punctuated with, “Shall I place your order or not?” Eventually I acquiesced, albeit with grave reservation.

Although she answered quickly, after minimal IVR interdiction, her efforts were dispassionate and distant. Her responses were polished to the point of boredom, while her rebuttals were few, likely limited by a legal department intent on minimizing lawsuits. Although she salvaged my account, the interaction was not successful and my customer satisfaction was nonexistent. The rep may have won the proverbial battle, but she lost the war; my account was salvaged, but my future patronage was lost.

[See “Call Center: The Right Way” for a much better outcome.]

Call Center Articles

Call Center: The Right Way

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Recently, I had questions about my HSA (Health Savings Account). Expecting the worst, I reluctantly called my provider. To my delight, my call was quickly answered, there was no queue, and no queue announcements. I don’t even recall being subjected to an IVR on the front end of my call. The agent was cheerful and pleasant — dare I say perky — while communicating in English with ease and aplomb; I never once had to ask her to repeat herself. I explained my dilemma, and she agreed that their statements were hard to understand, assuring me that she would help me to understand mine.

Telling me that supplemental information was online, I logged in and she walked me through the options to get to the page that would provide the additional detail. Amazingly, she went through this information with me line by line, explaining what each item meant and informing me how I could click on any entry to obtain more detail. Upon doing so, I was able to obtain the additional clarity I sought.

She then said something surprising, “The Web site is confusing to use, so feel free to call back next month when you receive your statement, and I can go over this again.” It was as though she was paid on commission and wanted me to call again. Wow, that’s customer service that I’ve not experienced in a long time.

So for this call, call center technology was not used to restrict me from talking with someone, my call was answered quickly by a personable, knowledgeable, and trained person who spoke English clearly, my frustrations were acknowledged and validated, and I was not treated as though I was ignorant or incompetent. Plus, I was asked to call again.

[See “Call Center: The Wrong Way” for an alternate tale.]

Call Center Articles

Effective Change Management

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

There has been a great deal of change in the DeHaan household over the past year. Last summer Laura and Chris were married, with Laura moving out of state and looking for a new teaching job. Plus, they both started graduate school last fall. This spring, Dan and Kelli graduated from college and married the next weekend. In this short time, our family of four grew to become a family of six.

Although neither Laura nor Dan have really lived with us since they departed for college, there have had been brief intervals, such as the occasional weekend or school break, when they have returned to the nest. Additionally, on holidays they and their significant others often show up for welcomed visits. Even so, our nest has been effectively empty for quite some time. Notwithstanding, people have been inquiring about their perceived change in our status. Last week, a friend asked how my wife, Candy, and I were dealing with the empty-nest syndrome. “It doesn’t seem empty,” I remarked dryly. “Even though they’re gone, their stuff is still here!” In time, I hope that each child’s belongings can be consolidated into one room until the day they are ready to accept full possession of their possessions. Yes, things are changing, albeit good and normal changes.

Another change has been Candy’s work. Although her employment has remained intact, her company’s local office has been closed. She now makes an hour-long drive twice a week to a nearby city, working from home the other three days. She has accepted this change admirably – although it has not been so easy for me, since I also work from home.

I now realize that I had unintentionally developed a comfortable and functional routine, which dovetailed around Candy’s comings and goings. Now that her schedule has changed, mine has been affected as well. As a result, I am finding it more challenging to focus on work when I need to be working. I recognize that it is much easier to work at home when I am alone at home.

There are also many significant changes happening in the United States and globally. There is the credit crisis, the recession, the woes of the automotive industry, increased unemployment, companies laying off staff or shutting down, various state governments scrambling to accommodate lost revenue and prop up budget shortfalls, and various bailout plans that are increasingly challenging to track. The amount and degree of these changes is formidable and threatens to overwhelm us. Yes, as a nation and a world, we are experiencing a time of great change.

When considering change, there are three general truisms: change is opposed, change is loss, and change is mourned. These apply at home, for our nation and our world – and at work in the call center.

Change is opposed: Change represents a deviation from the status quo, from what can be expected, regardless if it is good or bad. Change represents moving from the known to the unknown. Therefore, it is normal that people will oppose change and resist it to whatever degree they can. This might mean clinging to the old ways, lobbying against the change, or rebelling by acting out, offering resistance, or passive-aggressive behavior.

Change is loss: All change means giving up something – even if it is something bad. Many people view change as a “zero-sum-game,” which implies that there are winners and losers. When things change, they assume that someone else must have won and therefore they have lost. This assumption is natural when the change that is taking place was not their idea.

Change is mourned: When something is lost, that loss is lamented and grieved. Sometimes the loss is perceived (it didn’t happen) or potential (it might happen), whereas other times it is real and tangible (it did happen). Regardless, the emotional reaction to that loss is mourning. Just as there are steps to grieving (be it five, seven, or ten), mourning the loss wrought by change will progressively proceed down a similar path.

However, it doesn’t need to be this way. Change can be accepted if it is understood, occurs in small increments, and is within the control of those affected by it. This trio of suggestions may not offer much relief when we’re confronted with global or national upheaval that is foisted upon us, because those situations are not within our control, nor do they generally occur in small doses – though we can seek to understand them. But this advice is helpful when responding to changes in our personal lives, like children marrying and moving on, or work situations, such as layoffs, job cuts, restructuring, office closings, and wage freezes or pay cuts. In these circumstances, we can make a reasonable and successful effort to accept and even embrace change.

Change that is understood: We can best accept and deal with change if we understand it. That doesn’t mean we need to agree with the reasons for the change, merely that we comprehend why the decision for change was made. In Candy’s situation, it was clearly communicated that cuts needed be made and pointed out that the physical location of her office was not germane to her organization’s success. Though the work being done there was important, it could just as easily be done from the main location.

Change in small increments: Change made over time and in small doses has a much better chance of acceptance and becomes more manageable. For Candy, the decision to close the local office was discussed over several months, thoughtfully planned, and a phased transition timetable was established. This gave time for the change to sink in and for Candy and her coworkers to adjust mentally and emotionally as the change transpired.

Change within control of those affected by it: Whenever people can experience some degree of control over a change, they are more likely to handle it positively. Although Candy did not have any input over the office being closed, she was afforded a great deal of control over the ramifications. She was given the option to work at home, she and her boss decided how many days a week she would work in the main office, and she has a great deal of discretion over which days those are and the number of hours she works on those days. Each of these has served to make the office closing more palatable.

A final consideration is directed at those who make decisions for change. Yes, it will be opposed, viewed as loss, and mourned, but you can take steps to greatly minimize those responses by communicating the reasons necessitating the change, making the change in small increments over time, and providing as much control as possible to those who will be most affected by it.

In the end, we might not escape change, but we can alleviate some of the negative reactions to change. That is successful change management.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2009]

Call Center Articles

The What and Why of Call Center Outsourcing

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In this column in the March issue, “Perceptions of Call Center Outsources,” I shared from a recent study conducted by ContactBabel, called The US Contact Center Operational Review.  Billed as “the largest and most comprehensive study of all aspects of the US contact center industry,” this was their second edition of the survey.

From that report, I shared respondents’ views of call center outsourcers, addressing outsourcer value, experience, visibility and information, offshoring, and comparability. Here is a summary:

  • “Outsourcers give good value for money.” Twenty-six percent agreed, 52 percent were neutral, and 22 percent disagreed.
  • “Our experience with outsourcing has been very positive.” Nineteen percent agreed, 58 percent were neutral, and 23 percent disagreed.
  • “Outsourcers do not provide the visibility or information that we would like.” Sixty percent agreed, 22 percent were neutral, and 19 percent disagreed.
  • “Our company is very receptive to offshoring customer contact.” Eighteen percent agreed, 11 percent were neutral, and 71 percent disagreed.  (Note that the other statements addressed both onshore and offshore outsourcing.)
  • “Outsourcing does not provide the same service as in-house operations.” Seventy-five percent agreed, 21 percent were neutral, and 4 percent disagreed.

Clearly, we have some work to do in response to these appalling perceptions. Some of this work is needed within our call centers, such as in improving our processes and procedures, with the rest being external. (See Perceptions of Call Center Outsourcers for the complete column, along with my observations and recommendations.)

The external work requiring attention falls in the areas of PR (public relations) and marketing. While PR efforts are largely a group effort at the industry or association level, marketing is something that is done on the call center level in conjunction with sales activities. Towards that end, the report offers additional insight to help tailor your call center’s marketing message and services.

First, consider what types of services companies seek call center outsourcers to handle. Of the organizations surveyed, the largest reason for turning to call center outsourcers was for overflow calls, at 18 percent. Overflow calls include covering for expected time-of-day, day-of-week, or seasonal shortages, as well as covering for unexpected inadequate staffing levels due to illnesses, vacations, and call traffic peaks. This response rate was consistent for all size companies.

The second most frequent reason for outsourcing was “out-of-hours” coverage, which handles call activity outside of the hours when call centers are normally staffed. This was cited by about 14 percent of respondents and was significantly more pronounced (five times) for smaller call centers (those with under 50 agent positions). With customers increasingly expecting to be able to contact companies 24/7, out-of-hours outsourcing is a critical consideration for those organizations that, for whatever reason, are not staffed around the clock.

Conducting market research and handling phone surveys of customers came in third, at 11 percent. This was most common for small (under 50 agent positions) and medium (51 to 200) sized businesses, while less pronounced for larger ones (over 200).

The fourth item being outsourced is not actually call processing, but rather related services that are labeled as back office processes. These include payment processing, billing services, and debt management. Outsourcing back office processes was done by 9 percent of those organizations surveyed. Interestingly, it was slightly more pronounced for medium and larger companies than for small ones. This points to an area of possible diversification for outsourcing call centers.

Ongoing customer service came in fifth at just under 8 percent. It was most sought after by medium-sized companies (those with 51 to 200 agent positions). The category of outbound sales campaigns was next at slightly less than 6 percent, with interest diminishing slightly as company size increased. Lastly was multimedia response (such as email and SMS processing) at less than 2 percent. The interest in this was universally low for businesses of all sizes. Perhaps that is because email response does not need to occur in real time and can be handled in-house during times of slow call volume.

Implicit in these numbers is the implication that many organizations do not outsource any call center activities. This suggests an opportunity to explore why – and to present compelling reasons for companies to consider call center outsourcing.

In summary, the services organizations seek from outsourcers are:

  • Overflow: 18.3 percent
  • Out-of-hours: 13.7 percent
  • Market research / customer surveys: 11.1 percent
  • Back office processes: 9.1 percent
  • Ongoing customer service: 7.8 percent
  • Outbound sales campaigns: 5.9 percent
  • Multimedia response: 1.9 percent

A second area to consider and incorporate into a company’s marketing plans is what drives call center outsourcing. Cost was cited as important (eight or higher on a ten-point scale) by 47 percent of the survey respondents. This varied by company size. Small organizations (fewer than 50 agent stations) were more than twice as likely to cite this than larger ones (over 200 agent stations), with medium-sized organizations (51 to 200 stations) over four times more likely than large ones.

The second most given reason was flexibility; 35 percent deemed this to be important. Flexibility includes being able to quickly add agents or launch new campaigns with greater ease. This desire was proportionally more pronounced as the size of the business increased, with large companies most desirous of achieving increased flexibility.

The inability to recruit and staff capable agents was cited next, with almost one-fourth calling it an important consideration that influences call center outsourcing. This is a perplexing finding, given the current high unemployment rates. Therefore, it is likely that this reason will increase in importance over time as employment rates are pushed up and government regulations and requirements make hiring more challenging. This preference was slightly less important for medium-sized companies (51 to 200 agent positions) than for small or large ones.

Lastly, businesses outsource to call centers to obtain abilities and skills not found in-house, such as multilingual capabilities or technical expertise. This was important to 18 percent of those surveyed and was more pronounced as the size of the organizations decreased.

In summary, the drivers of call center outsourcing are:

  • Cost savings or containment: 47 percent
  • Increased flexibility: 35 percent
  • Inability to recruit the needed staff: 24 percent
  • Obtain special abilities unavailable in-house: 18 percent

Incorporating these findings into sales and marketing plans can help outsourcing call centers better position themselves in the market and target their services more effectively to prospective clients.

[From Connection Magazine June 2009]