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Building Your Customer Relationships With Good Agents

By Tracey E. Schelmetic, Editorial Director, Customer Interaction Solutions
• A special editorial series sponsored by InfoCision•


Not very long ago, each customer interaction, whether it was inbound or outbound, via telephone, e-mail or the Web, was considered a disparate customer interaction. The customer sends an e-mail? Reply to the e-mail, transaction finished. You call the customer for a follow-up? Task completed, close the file. The customer calls in with an inquiry? Get her an answer and check the "finished" box. But treating a customer relationship as a mountain of individual components is inherently unstable. Sooner or later, something's going to shift and the whole pile is going to come down and bury you.

In an increasingly multimedia world where the customer chooses the channel, the time and the tone of the contact, it's vital that the customer relationship not be a creature with nine heads and five arms. Successful customer relationships cannot be built on an unstrung series of events. If it is, the old adage that "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" comes into play. That weakest link in many companies comes in the form of a bored, unpleasant, unrewarded or poorly trained agent. You can't service a customer well only three-fifths of the time, or even 90 percent of the time. All it takes is one blatant error in dealing with a customer to drive him or her away. It may not be fair, but customers are far more likely to remember a bad customer interaction than a good one and, even more damaging, customers are more likely to pass news of bad interactions to friends via word of mouth.

What this means is that your company's reputation as a failure, a mediocrity or a brilliant success comes down to your agents. An airline would never dream of putting a trainee pilot with lower-than-average simulation scores in the captain's seat of a passenger flight. (Let's hope not, anyway.) So why would you put your customers into the hands of a poorly trained agent? Granted, unlike with the airline example, it's not a matter of literal life or death. But your company presumably has a goal of surviving and thriving into the future.

Well trained agents are a start. But even well trained agents can lose interest in their jobs, fail to keep up with new developments, burn out or otherwise become poor agents. Only by maintaining a high level of initial training, continual training, motivation, evaluation, feedback and rewards can you ensure that the people who are on your front lines are not going to exacerbate customer problems. If you run an in-house operation and find that you are cutting corners in your customer service processes or worse, creating more problems than you solve, it's vital that you rework your entire call center structure before you become your own worst enemy. The processes that were successful 10 or even five years ago are, in most cases, no longer valid.

To be stellar, you need to turn your relationship with each customer into a single entity, regardless of how many media, how many contacts and how many agents the customer interacts with. If each of those agents is not performing to his or her best ability, then you're spending more time unraveling the customer relationship than building it. Your agents are your most precious commodity. Building customer relationships using good agents as the "raw material" ensures that those relationships will last long into the future.

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