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October 2001

Rich Tehrani Taking The Frustration Out Of Customer Service


As the economy slows and companies are finally being forced to do what they should have been doing all along -- pay attention to their customers -- it seems only appropriate to address those scenarios that have the most potential to make customers reluctant to contact a customer support center. This is an oft-addressed topic in this magazine, but I know from speaking to companies with contact centers, not to mention from my own personal experiences as a customer, that many companies still haven't realized the power and potential positive impact on the bottom line that improving customer interaction functions represents. In short, many companies are still driving their customers away.

Your customer has a question to pose to your customer service department. Which of the following scenarios are your customers likely to encounter?

IVR Headaches
Because this month's issue of this magazine is dedicated to voice technologies, let's start with what is quite possibly a customer's biggest headache. IVR (interactive voice technology) is a wonderful tool when used properly. In theory, IVRs exist to route your call to the appropriate department in the fastest, most convenient way...it should be a win-win situation: the agent receives the calls he or she is educated to answer, and the customer need not explain a problem many times over.

In the earliest days of IVRs, however, and even today, many people didn't understand that properly setting up and administering an IVR is a fantastically complicated process that requires considerable skill. A poorly set up menu tree of options in your IVR system can send your customers screaming for your competition.

You may have once or twice received an e-mail circulated from your friends and colleagues in which the e-mail instructs you to call the toll-free number of a financial services firm. The recorded voice progresses through the menu choices ("Press one for investments, press two for mortgages") until it concludes with, "Press seven if you would like to hear a duck quack." If you press the seven key, sure enough, you hear a duck quack.

If only all IVR menus had a sense of humor. However, as you probably already know, many don't. What may seem like a logical flow to someone who knows your company, may be hopelessly confusing to a caller who doesn't know how your company is organized. While you may call your human resources department "employee relations," an unwitting caller may not understand this and will quickly zero out to an operator, still searching for the human resources department. If most of your callers zero out of your IVR, you are not only spending more money than necessary (on live human contact), you're frustrating potential customers to the point where they may give up.

Many of the editors at TMC have shared the opinion that now and again, they will encounter an IVR menu tree that confuses and frustrates them, and requires them to finally give up. Here we are...professional telecommunications technology editors, and even we encounter systems that confound us. If you're confusing the professionals, what are you doing to your everyday callers?

Many companies have begun to figure out how important it is for them to implement good IVR systems to better encourage self-service. Self-service, we know, is much cheaper than human interaction, and studies indicate that many customers actually prefer it.

Many more companies are opting for speech recognition technologies to replace or enhance the standard touch-tone IVR menu. Advanced speech technologies are growing fast and expanding to fit customers' needs.

Although our TMC offices are in Connecticut, we are just a few miles from the New York State border, where it is now illegal to use a handheld cellular phone while driving. It can be expected that many more states will follow New York's example. Have you ever tried to interact with a touch-tone IVR while driving? Most companies that use customer account numbers for some bizarre reason insist that the numbers be excruciatingly long (for example, does the electric company really have tens of billions of customers, and if not, why do they require us to use 11-digit account numbers?)

Speech technologies, in their simplest form, recognize simple commands of the human voice ("Press or say 'one'"). If you have decided to implement speech recognition into your IVR system, this simplistic form of the technology may be all your contact center requires.

Advanced speech technologies include natural language processing, which recognizes pertinent information from callers who speak in normal phrases. ("I would like to buy a roundtrip ticket to fly from Cleveland to Miami on October 27th, please.") These more advanced technologies are being used by airlines and financial firms, most notably, to accommodate the heavy load of customer requests they receive on a daily basis.

In any case, I know the next few years will bring about enormous growth in the area of advanced speech technologies, and I, for one, look forward to it, particularly if it can reduce the anxiety involved in making a simple inquiry to my utility companies.

The Self-Service Trap
Have you ever been desperate to talk to a knowledgeable human being when you had a query? It would be hard to find anyone who hasn't. Self-service is a wonderful concept but, sometimes, it can't answer your question. Nor can a chatterbot, a list of FAQs, a customer chat group or a user's manual.

Many companies assume their self-service options are so perfect, no one will ever need to speak to a human. This assumption is almost as nave as theorizing that the world is flat. No matter how clever a company thinks it is, it can never anticipate all potential customer needs. It must consider that customers are humans, and humans get confused, misunderstand, fail to read directions and are sometimes just too lazy to seek the answers themselves. Imperfect as they are, they are still customers, and you can't afford to lose them to a competitor because you couldn't answer their questions.

But not only is it important for an agent to be available, it's important that the agent who picks up the query is informed, helpful and can get the question answered. In other words, avoid the following scenario.

The Robot Agent
Have you ever made a call to a contact center, only to have your call picked up by one of these agents? This is the agent who reads from a cue card, and if your question deviates from what he or she has been trained to deal with, you begin receiving irrelevant answers that don't address your question. Not only can this agent not answer your question, he or she has no idea who can. You even begin to suspect that the agent does not even know what the company he or she represents sells. Even worse, the agent becomes rude when you become exasperated at the lack of progress on your query.

Many companies have still not recognized the importance of thorough agent training via both classroom and simulation, as well as some of today's Web-delivered training modeling software, which allows the agent to progress at his or her own pace during slow periods in the contact center.

Chances are good that you have spoken to both bad agents and good agents. If you have, you'll know that it is the agent's skill, attitude and demeanor that can lead you to hang up angrily or conclude your customer service experience with a warm, fuzzy feeling. A bad agent is a liability to your company...a good agent is the most valuable asset your call contact can possess.

May I Have Your Account Number?
We've all been here before, many times. This is the contact center that has many databases of your information. Unfortunately, none of these databases communicate with each other, and if you have multiple accounts or have bought different products from the company, you exist as nine different people according to the company. Billing? You'll have to be transferred to accounts payable. Did you receive my payment? Oh, sorry...that's accounts receivable. Where is my shipment? I'm sorry, that department is at lunch right now, and they're the only ones who can answer your question.

This type of contact center usually asks you to enter or repeat your account number a half-dozen times, and then finishes up by disconnecting you after you've worked your way almost to the end of their circuitous procedures. For this reason, database and knowledge management technologies are hot properties right now. What many companies that store their data in separate silos still don't understand, is that an integrated database structure will benefit the company as much as the customer. While the wise contact centers have begun leaning toward the "one and done" philosophy of solving the customer's queries on the first call, the clueless contact centers that require six different agents to take care of a routine call is spending many more times the resources on each customer, essentially becoming a giant, customer-churning call center.

Let Reason Prevail
This magazine has often told you that if you're not devoting all the attention possible to improving your contact center's CRM, your business is in trouble. Even more important, the current economic downturn means that there are more players scrambling for a decreasing pool of customers. More than ever, customers are able to pick and choose among products and services from a variety of companies. This means that your customer service must be absolutely stellar...no excuses.

Practical wisdom is what is required to come out on top of the service heap in a flattening economy, and practical wisdom is what this magazine aims to supply you with. Good luck in making your call center one you would want to contact.


Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher
Group Editor-in-Chief

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