Inception: My Dream Call Center within the Dream Call Center as Dreamed by Chip Bell

Chip Bell, the keynote speaker of the upcoming ICMI Call Center Demo and Conference here in Atlanta, today posted his wish list for a perfect call center. He makes great points that I believe are spot-on and essential, but to prevailing attitudes today, they may seem counter-intuitive.

I just couldn’t resist offering additional insight to his excellent wish list for his dream call center, and I’ve borrowed his original list and offered my input below. Hope you don’t mind Chip – it’s the highest form of flattery I can offer.

I’ve lumped the first two wishes together:

Conversation, not checklist .  I can spot a script a mile away.  Even done with the skill of a master thespian, it reminds me of those boring days of “Thank you for shopping at J Mart, next.”  Talk with me like a good friend, not like you are primed to ask me some call center variation of “Would you like fries with that?”

Inconsistency, not robotics .  I appreciate the virtues of consistency.  It makes operations much easier to manage and measure.  But, people communicating with people is by definition inconsistent.  Customers hope for untidy and inefficient personalization.  Don’t be so methodical you fail to leave room for serendipity, ingenuity and personality. 

The theme here is that our customers are people, not problems to be solved. Rather than checking all the boxes (greeting, identification, problem details, resolution, close), and robotically going through the same script on each call, we need to slow down and HEAR the customer—human to human interactions are by definition inconsistent.  We need to allow, or better yet encourage, our agents to have meaningful conversations and not only focus on problem resolution.

In addition to training and shift incentive programs, we need to provide agents with tools that enable this kind of freedom by providing all needed information at a glance. Concepts like a truly universal interaction history (more on that later), and access to a “big data”-like repository of information are useful. Sure, there’s a dark side (think “big brother”) to big data, but used correctly it can personalize interactions and provide amazing experiences for our customers.

Focus on my needs, not your handle time .  I can always tell when I am disrupting an operator’s AHT.  Please take the time that is required to get me what I need.  When you force me to call back on the same issue, your stats are already blown.  If I was your best friend, would you rush me? I’m not your best friend; I’m your paycheck!

This can be a tough balancing act. You don’t want to make a customer feel rushed, but at the same time you don’t want interactions to take longer than necessary. One answer is to better anticipate their needs. Unfortunately, many call center solutions today make it hard to put “exception processing” logic up front. Here’s an example of the dream scenario:

Imagine you got a late payment notice from (insert your favorite service provider). If you were to call and inquire further, wouldn’t it be amazing if the IVR and/or ACD systems realized that you were late paying and also knew that your credit card had expired? And wouldn’t you be suitably impressed if, upon speaking to a live agent, they already understood the situation without keeping you on hold for 10 minutes of research? Oh, and wouldn’t you also feel valued if any late fees were automatically waived?

What if you as the service provider had the ability to see and act on those kinds of situations throughout the enterprise, without having to change 18 different touch points from billing to CRM to ACD and IVR? New, “magic” technology isn’t the key. Being able to apply technology to the customer’s problems, rather than trying to shoehorn a business into the available technology, enables a company to better serve customers by providing an individualized experience.

In my version of the perfect call center, the customer gets their needs met effectively without negatively impacting handle time. And this all happens because a properly designed solution makes the customer feel like the agent was practically expecting the customer’s call.

Mentoring, not just manners .  Smart operators give me security.  I am impressed when they are savvy enough to tutor me on things that improve my experience.  It tells me I am dealing with an ambassador concerned with the welfare of his or her company, not a person just filling a seat and waiting to punch out. 

Instead of just focusing on being polite, agents should be empowered to educate the customer about better choices, rather than robotically executing whatever requests appear in front of them. It’s not supposed to be “agent assisted self-service”—there should be some consultative side where your agents are experts in your company’s products and services.  Obviously, agent training is the focus here, but supporting systems that intelligently and dynamically suggest offers (or identify savings or other synergistic, available options) can help agents become better customer advocates.

Problem solving, not transaction management .  Some of my call center calls are for information or purchases; most are related to an issue.  My problem is not solved until I believe it is solved.  Just taking me through your steps or procedures may feel to like real work to you.  But, without closure, it is just noisy hassle that wastes my time.

Executing a process doesn’t guarantee that the customer has a sense of resolution.  One challenge here is having the right kind of metrics, and many call centers are still managed by ACD reports.  How do you handle issue tracking? Is that how you’d want your issue tracked? Is FCR measured by the customer’s perspective or your own? Using “compound” metrics that come from disparate systems can be a key to getting this correct, and by definition, no one system is going to report on anything that’s outside of its domain. Systems that allow for data transparency make it easier to tell, for instance, if a customer turned around after a call was “resolved” and complained on Facebook about their service. That’s NOT first call resolution.  Agents provide the service, but if you’re not measuring it right, you can’t tell if it’s being done right.

Easy, not laborious .  Wait time tells me either your organization does not care about customers or your call center is so poorly managed. I am unmoved by your excuses and indifferent to your attempts to remind me of my importance as I wait to be served.  Making me repeat anything tells me your systems are archaic and perhaps I should steer clear what you are selling.

This issue in particular is less a function of agent behavior than having well designed systems in place and using the right channel for the right purpose. It’s possible to shift peak hour traffic to other non-agent channels using strategies like proactive outbound notification (SMS, outbound IVR, email, social, etc.) to head off obvious reasons for inbound calls. Go ahead and confirm payments, order and shipment updates and status checks via non-voice channels to eliminate those inbound calls. Make sure that if someone can be identified by caller ID, PIN or department that you keep customer information in context and don’t prompt again.

How many times on one call have you ever been asked to provide a 16 digit account number that you don’t remember? Insist that your systems communicate with one central repository of interaction history. Why shouldn’t agents see that a caller just bounced around from account balance to order status in the IVR before they wound up with a billing question? Without having a “bird’s eye” view of the whole customer experience, it’s hard for an agent to assign context to a particular call. Because of that, interactions with customers tend to follow the same patterns, rather than seem like personal conversations.

So thanks to Chip for the insights – we need to move past efficiency and automation into the realm of reinvention and transformation.  This starts with having a well thought out business process, moves to effecting a culture change in your agents, and extends into the technology infrastructure by insisting that the process you’ve settled on doesn’t get watered down with systems that can’t support it. Integration is possible; getting the systems to report the metrics you need is possible.  Think “reinvent and transform,” not “settle for the best you can get.”