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August 2008 | Volume 27 / Number 3

Customer versus Company: with Contact Centers in the Middle

By Brendan Read
Senior Contributing Editor, Customer Interaction Solutions

While I was at a call center industry conference several years ago I bought a fridge magnet that shows a rotary-dial phone covered in cobwebs surrounded by the words: 'Apathy. If we don't take care of the customer maybe they'll stop bugging us'.

The magnet now rests on a filing cabinet next to my desk. It reminds me just how little has really changed in contact centers over the years.

That is despite huge sums that have been poured into contact center solutions and services. Instead the opposite appears to have happened: service may have actually become and appears to getting worse.

A disturbing new benchmarking report from Dimension Data reveals that the average time to answer has climbed to 39 seconds from 23 seconds a decade ago.

Callers, not surprisingly, aren't taking it. The same study shows that call abandon rates more than doubled to 14 percent of all calls in 2007 from just six percent in 1997 and that callers are abandoning a call after waiting on average 45 seconds compared with 53 seconds in 1997.

One big accelerant has been customer relationship management (CRM). CRM, like most concepts, started out as a great means to achieve a positive goal: in this case to maximize customers' value by knowing them and delivering service and prices as befits their value.

Most customers do not mind 'regular' or 'special' patrons getting better service; they expect the same if they fall into that category for a firm that gets a lot of their business. They do mind, however, if they are being treated badly.

Unfortunately in too many cases CRM has become a tool to do just that, herding the great unwashed into the self-service pens from Hades. When they were let out to reach live agents to they were then forced to endure eternity queues.

Yet thanks to the Internet many customers have turned back the swords of CRM through product, service and price research. They return fire with devastating feedback, spread worldwide at the speed of light. These ticked off buyers have opened chinks in the armor by publicizing how to get around the IVR/DTMF and speech rec gatekeepers.

The bad news for enterprises is that, as in most conflicts, the leaders of this revolution are the elite that they are set up to cater to with their CRM strategies i.e. the maximum-value buyers.

Both sellers and buyers have unfortunately whipped themselves into a nasty, unstable mass. They each want it all, are less willing to take responsibility for their actions, and are more willing to blame each other rather than working together and when called for apologizing for their foulups.

This mass collides at the contact center level, with agents as the collateral damage. Customers that have spent 40 minutes on the automated voice or online trying to resolve an issue, call in to demand the company fix the problem, even though they may partially or wholly be at fault. The organizations that they are contacting may also have caused some of the problems prefer that the callers get off the phones to keep costs down so that they can stay within their budgets.

The agents are left to force smiles, trying to mollify irritated callers who seemingly hold them personally responsible to the world-ending calamity they are faced with, with no authority other than 'speak to the supervisor' to do anything about it.

Not surprisingly, many workers have often had enough. Dimension Data reports that attrition rates leapt to 27 percent over the past 10 years from 14 percent while absenteeism hit 11 percent from just 5 percent.

Little wonder. Who likes to go to a job where they get screamed at all day long, from people who wouldn't dare act that way in person? I heard about this every day from my wife and a student who rents a room in our house when they were working in contact centers.

If this trend keeps up, the only contact center agents customers will soon be talking to will be residing in speech rec applications.

If that happens all of us as customers will be the big losers. No automated system can beat live agents for intelligence, empathy, and responsiveness, and for quality service. Service is almost always part of the intangible but very real value that we get when we purchase something or obtain assistance.

It doesn't have to be this way. Companies can get their acts together like making sure that their products and services are up to standard and beyond and other team members, like sales and delivery are doing their jobs, which lessen the amount of calls from angry customers. They can dial down the CRM rules and speech rec apps so that treating some buyers like royalty does not mean inflicting poor service on the rest.

In turn, customers need to be educated, treating them firmly and super politely, and with information like on web sites gently reminding to be patient while we serve all of you.

After all, by truly thinking about the 'the other person': the customers or the companies, including the people in the middle i.e. the contact center staff, we will be thinking about ourselves.

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