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Bill Durr - TMCnet Call Center Management Columnist[July 25, 2005]

Listening to Customer Interactions: Is Our Focus Misplaced?

BY BILL DURR


I recently attended a call-center conference in Orlando. The second-day keynote speaker was Lisa Ford, professional speaker and author of the best selling business videotape on customer service in the U.S. over the past three years. She is an excellent speaker and figuratively held the audience in her hands for an hour as she discussed customer service and the power motivated and inspired agents have to create real economic value. Her message highlighted how important it is for front-line management teams to lead and motivate the agents to higher levels of customer-pleasing behavior. It was an inspiring message, all the more powerful for the fact that Ford did not use a single PowerPoint slide. How rare is that?




At the end of her presentation, there was an obvious increase in energy among the audience. I could well imagine several hundred supervisors and managers thinking about how they would take the challenge Lisa Ford presented to help their agents focus more heavily on pleasing the customer. Accomplish this and contact centers can expect to garner the highest in customer satisfaction ratings.

That night, I began to think about the basic premise of this message. While I may not have it exactly right, Ford seems to be saying that exceptional customer service is increasingly rare these days. Many external facing organizations do not place emphasis on or care about providing service. Ford suggests that it's a matter of proper training, desire and motivation. Agents need to be trained and then motivated and inspired to deliver good service. Supervisors and team leaders need to realize that customer satisfaction lies in agent behavior. Improve their behavior and customers will be more satisfied. What kind of behaviors? Courtesy and competence, mostly.

A voice in the back of my head reminded me of some recent customer service research insights.

Upon my return from the event, I referenced a copy of John Goodman's presentation from an event last year that I keep handy. Goodman is president of TARP, a management consulting and research company that has provided services for five Baldrige winners and 43 Fortune 100 companies. Goodman's message, culled from recent research, suggests that customer dissatisfaction is more strongly correlated with bad enterprise processes than with bad or indifferent agent behavior. He says that to be successful in creating higher levels of customer satisfaction, one simply needs to do the “basics” well. His definition of the “basics” is as follows:

  • Define the desired customer experience.
  • Develop and provide the staff with response rules with clear believable explanations.
  • Be easy to do business with.

Goodman's recommendation seems to be at odds with Ford's. What, exactly, is a front-line manager to do?

There's no one right answer here. Front-line management teams need to motivate and inspire agents as well as understand the sources of customer dissatisfaction and work to eliminate them. As Goodman's research reveals, management focus ought to be moving from agent motivation towards process improvement. This is exemplified by the changes taking place in quality monitoring solutions.

Quality measurement processes and vendor technology to support them are undergoing an amazing transformation. The shift is from an internal company-centric quality view to an external customer-centric quality view. And, it involves an adjustment in listening.

The shift in listening shouldn't be regarded as trivial. To this point, internal quality scoring had focused attention on what the agents said and how they handled the caller. Listening to the caller requires a different focus. When you listen to an agent, you listen with "expert" ears. You know how the transaction should go. The common mistake when trying to shift focus to the caller is to keep the "expert" ears on. The key to being successful in capturing the voice of the customer is to listen with "novice" ears on. There are valuable lessons to be learned from customers who encounter your contact center infrequently. Their reactions to the contact center organization blueprint give guidance to more simple, customer-pleasing designs in the future.

An exciting new direction for quality measuring processes has to do with the digital recording files themselves. As computers become faster and less expensive, computing tasks that previously had been beyond practical consideration have become more accessible. Software development in speech to text and voice recognition has progressed rapidly. Software tools are available that permit users to scan hundreds of hours worth of recorded conversations looking for voice markers of interest - perhaps center management wants insight on the number of customers defecting, or the effectiveness of an existing retention program. Theoretically, the organization can scan recordings in search of key words that strongly associate with an angry customer who is ending the relationship. Words like "cancel," "refund," and "quit" might be representative. The computer scans the recorded conversations looking for a digital pattern that represents the words of interest. It flags conversations that have an indication that words of interest are spoken.

Depending upon your interest, you could conceivably shake out a subset of conversations on nearly any aspect of the company or a particular agent. There is potentially a great deal of latent information locked in the stored digital recordings of conversations in the contact center. Software that has powerful algorithms built in to sift and sort voice conversations of interest is a new powerful tool in understanding the customer, requisite before achieving real customer satisfaction improvements.


Bill Durr is Principal Solutions Consultant for Witness Systems, provider of workforce management software and services.


 

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