Off Center
Constant Contact is getting very good at not handling calls, emails and chats from customers.

And the customers love it.

One look at the company's comprehensive and highly customer-focused web self-service resources and practices, and you’ll understand why.

From its powerful knowledgebase – that enables online users to instantly find what they need – to its dynamic demos, podcasts, tutorials and FAQs that help users quickly become product experts, Constant Contact serves as a prime example of how self-service can empower rather than alienate customers.

And, of course, such self-service success hasn’t exactly hurt the bottom line. With so many customers embracing Constant Contact’s potent online resources to help themselves, the company has been able to keep call center costs down in the midst of rapid growth.

“Mike Pace, our Director of Customer Support responsible for our self-service channels, has come up with a unique way of measuring the impact of this channel on our overall operations,” says Larry Streeter, Constant Contact’s VP of Customer Support. “Month over month we see a savings of 20%-25% in headcount based on what the self-service channel [has done for us].  As for our overall operational costs, self-service is one of the primary reasons why our ‘Support Costs as a Percent of Company Revenue’ ratio has gone down year after year!”

The Self-Service Experience from the Customer’s POV

It’s pretty easy to get customers to let go of agents’ hands when you give customers everything they need at their fingertips. 

Even the most staunch self-service skeptic is likely to become a believer after visiting the Constant Contact website for the first time. Let’s say the customer is looking for information on creating an effective online survey; they will find a load of helpful resources by simply typing “survey creation” in the “Search” box that appears on every page of the website. Not that customers need to be so terse in their wording; Constant Contact’s search engine is equipped with natural language processing, and thus has little problem making sense out of such search requests as “How do I create an online survey?”

The results of the aforementioned search? Topping the list of relevant resources provided is a link to a comprehensive yet concise 7-step tutorial entitled “Creating an Online Survey”. On the same page as the tutorial are clearly visible links to other relevant items, such as:

• A recorded podcast covering Constant Contact’s online survey creation process
• Survey templates that customers can use, as well as examples of actual surveys used by existing Constant Contact corporate customers (with each company’s name provided)
• An article on why online feedback is so important

There is also a link to sign up to attend a live online demo on Constant Contact survey creation. (These demos are conducted every Tuesday at 2 pm ET.) In addition, the page provides information on pricing and a free 60-day trial offer.

The original search on “survey creation” also provides links to relevant FAQs, as well as customer success stories and additional articles on the topic.

And if by chance a user is unable to find exactly what they are looking for online, or has a specific question about something they read, heard or saw, Constant Contact makes it easy for them to reach a live agent (a best practice, but one that's embraced by far too few customer care organizations). Under a clearly marked “Coaching & Support” section that appears on practically every page of the site, users can click on a link called “Get live help from real people”, which directs users to a page containing the call center’s toll-free number as well as a “Chat with us now” and an “Email us” link. (When I tested the chat feature, I received a friendly greeting and response from a live agent within seconds.) 

Even when customers choose to contact an agent, the agent is often able to pave the way for future self-service by showing the customer where the answer was located as well as other features of the website, explains Streeter.

“Having our reps use the same [knowledgebase] as our customers helps them promote the usage. Many times I hear reps on the phone with a customer saying, ‘Here’s the answer to your question and here’s how I found that answer.  Would you like me to show you how I found it?’ They then walk the customer through their first knowledgebase search!”

Keeping the Knowledgebase in Quality Shape

Of course, a knowledgebase is only as strong as the information that is put into it. And since a company’s products/services and customer issues as well as expectations continuously evolve, a call center’s work is never done when it comes to sustaining self-service success.   

Constant Contact is well aware of this, and thus strives to keep its knowledgebase well fed and highly functional at all times for customers. This entails regularly updating and testing the system internally and, even more importantly, monitoring customers’ actual self-service interactions. 

“With our fanatical focus on the customer experience and the scalability we enjoy, you better believe we monitor our self-service apps!” says Streeter. “Customer usage of the self-service channels is continuously analyzed for patterns, keyword usage, and even failed knowledgebase searches.” 

In addition, the call center uses an online survey to solicit direct feedback from customers regarding their self-service experience. Survey results are tracked and trended – with customer comments categorized for content – and then reviewed at Monthly Business Review meetings. “We get great feedback from our customers on ways to improve the service, suggested rewordings for knowledgebase articles to provide additional clarity, and keyword suggestions to facilitate an easier search for the right article,” Streeter explains. “We learn a lot from our customers.”

And from the call center’s frontline staff, as well. Constant Contact’s eServices team regularly meets with groups of agents and asks for their input on the most common questions they get from customers. Using such feedback, the eServices team is able to fine-tune keywords and position the ‘Top 5’ FAQs within each product to help optimize the relevancy of the knowledgebase.  

“I think our relentless focus on the relevancy of our self-service channels is why we have such great success,” says Streeter. “Relevancy is a key metric for measuring success with this channel, and our eServices team goes to great length to make that happen.”

Pushing the Self-Service Envelope

As effective as it already is, self-service at Constant Contact is about to get even better. Streeter points out that the company’s “ConnectUp! Community” platform – which enables users to network online and share insight and experiences – is on track for a major facelift in the upcoming months.  “We continue to invest in this specific self-service channel as peer-to-peer support continues to gain popularity with customers looking for ‘support, my way!’”

Constant Contact also maintains a “Support Blog” that serves as an additional resource for tips on using their products. Further, the company pushes helpful FAQs and blog posts to Facebook and Twitter to reach out to “social” customers.

And as if all that weren’t enough, the company is currently working on embedding short, instructional videos into knowledgebase articles and tutorials, as well as adding “Google-type” interface for searching and reviewing resources in the knowledgebase.

Says Streeter, “Our eServices and developer teams continue to find ways of pushing the envelope with self-service.” 

Constant Contact – the Big Picture:
Waltham, Mass.; Loveland, Colo.
Hours of operation: Monday-Thursday 9am-11pm, Friday 9am-9pm (all times EST)
Number of agents: 180
Products/services provided: Customer service/support for the company’s email marketing, online survey, event marketing, and social media marketing offerings.
Channels handled: Phone, email, chat, web self-service, Twitter
What’s so great about them? Their strong web self-service practices and applications drive customer autonomy and satisfaction while lowering the call center’s costs.

After interviewing the good folks of Zappos Customer Loyalty Team (CLT) for this article, I couldn’t decide whether to write about their call center or apply for a job at it.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has considered ditching their current career for a chance to work in such a positive and promising environment.

At first I was a bit skeptical. I thought that all of the praise and attention that Zappos’ company culture has received of late was more a product of Zappos’ own marketing than anything else; however, after learning about the specific employee-centric programs, practices and initiatives their call center has in place, it’s very easy to see why the media – and Zappos’ customers and agents – can’t seem to get enough.  

“More than anything I think the key to retaining team members is the environment you create for them to work in day in and day out,” says Maura Sullivan, senior manager of Zappos’ Customer Loyalty Team. “Answering phones eight hours a day is a tough job, and we want our employees to feel engaged and empowered – and to have fun!”

Top-Notch Training Empowers Agents from the Get-Go

There are companies that say empowerment, and there are companies that do empowerment. Zappos falls squarely into the latter category.

To ensure that agents have the power to deliver stellar service and support, all new hires are immersed in a four-week customer care and culture training program prior to handling any contacts. This is hardly a crash course on taking calls and maneuvering through screens; it’s a highly comprehensive program designed to prepare Zappos staff to “wow every single one of our customers,” says Sullivan. In fact, the training is considered so paramount to delivering positive customer experiences, Zappos requires ALL of its employees – regardless of position or department – to complete the customer service/culture course.

“You may be coming in as a new accountant, a new software developer, buyer, or even as a new COO, and you will be going through call center training.” Sullivan explains. “You must pass that training in order to proceed to your position. This really shows how important our customers are, and how we strive to provide them the best service at all levels.”
Zappos’ agents continue to grow and take on new challenges throughout their tenure in the call center – and are well rewarded for their efforts and progress. The center has a skills-based pay program in place where agents can earn a bump in compensation for attaining critical new skills and for taking part in one or more of the many teams/task forces in place. Says Sullivan, “This helps to give them variety in their day, a sense of progressing and of learning new skills – and it gives us a better skilled work force.”

She adds that Zappos promotes all of its leaders from within; in fact, everyone currently in a leadership position (including Sullivan) started out on the phones. The center recently created a formal leadership training program, which has been a big success. “Our team members can create and see a career path for themselves, and it’s extremely motivating!”

Rewards, Recognition and Fun on the Floor

In addition to formal skill and career paths, Zappos has a variety of rewards and recognition programs in place to fuel agents’ enthusiasm. For example, the center hosts quarterly happy hours during which awards are handed out to agents who have performed at a high level and embraced their role as “culture advocates”. Another popular incentive initiative is the “Zollar (Zappos Dollars) Program”, where agents can earn Zollars for good performance and teamwork, then use their earnings to buy merchandise in the company’s Zollar store.

Not all incentives and recognition in the call center are quite so formal, Sullivan points out. “Recognition and rewards come in structured forms, but we love to do the unstructured or surprise kind, too. These can be little things like telling someone that you heard their call and that they did an awesome job with the customer, or a surprise [job] promotion that is followed with parading the [promoted agent] around the call center floor.”

Often, agents themselves help to foster motivation and engagement throughout the frontline – thanks to the center’s agent-led “Wow Team”. In addition to organizing one fun event each month, the Wow Team hands out COW (Cultivator of Wow) Awards to deserving peers. “We have fun things going on around the office all the time,” says Sullivan. “It’s one of our core values to be fun and a little weird!”

Quality Comes “Full Circle”

Some might even think that the call center’s approach to quality assurance is a little weird. That’s okay with Zappos; since replacing its traditional quality monitoring program with a unique customer- and agent-centric QA initiative in February 2010, the call center has seen notable improvements to quality, customer satisfaction and agent buy-in.

The new QA program is called Full Circle Feedback (FCF) – the focus of which is less on numeric scores and more on customer relationships. The big shift was the direct result of feedback from the frontline staff, explains Sullivan. “In December 2009, our Director sent out an email to the floor asking for feedback specific to QA, and asked them to email him directly.”

The agents responded, and collectively expressed via the survey that they didn’t feel in control of the QA process – and even feared it somewhat.

“They felt that the QA team was too nit-picky, and that there was a distance with the QA team and the floor,” Sullivan explains. “And they were fearful as to what would happen if they received a bad score, regardless of how much we told them it was all about coaching and feedback. We knew we had to make a change for the better that would fall more in line with our core values as well as up the level of service we were providing our customers.”

After several brainstorming sessions – in which agents actively participated – the Full Circle Feedback initiative was born.

The powerful quality program is comprised of the following five components:

1) Self evaluations. Agents choose their own calls to listen to (using the center’s call recording solution) and jot down notes on what they did well and what they could have done better. Afterward, the agent reviews and discusses the call with their team lead.

2) Service observes. Team leads frequently listen to live calls for each agent and provide instant coaching and feedback.

3) Calibration checks. To ensure consistency in the coaching/training provided to agents as well as in the service that customers receive, the center’s team leads and training specialists convene regularly to evaluate agent calls and then meet to calibrate, “ensuring they each pulled out the same strengths and areas of improvement as the other,” says Sullivan. “That feedback is then given to the team member.”

4) Sharing great calls. Whenever an agent completes what they feel was an extraordinary call – one during which they truly connected with the customer and went “above and beyond” – the agent can notify their team lead, who in turn emails the customer to: a) let them know that the agent felt they had a great interaction; and b) ask if the customer would be interested in providing the agent with further feedback and recognition for the great job they did. “We have seen a HUGE response on this,” Sullivan points out, “and it has been great to share these stories with the entire company!”

5) Net Promoter Score (NPS) feedback. The call center sends out an NPS survey to all customers following an interaction with a Zappos agent; any resultant customer feedback that is directly related to the agent is shared with the agent by their team lead.

While FCF is still a relatively new program in the call center, Sullivan says that the impact has been very positive – on customers and agents alike.

“All of the [FCF] components are great indicators of performance. No longer are we focused on a score but more on the relationship and experience that [our team members] build with the customer in providing them great service. And our team members LOVE the new ‘QA’ process. They have more control and say in it, and feel more involved than ever. So far it’s been a huge success and we hope to continue to improve it in the new year.”

Zappos CLT – the Big Picture:

Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Hours of operation: 24/7/365
Number of agents: Roughly 500
Products/services provided: Delivers exceptional service and sales support to customers who contact the company about its line of shoes, clothing, handbags, housewares, beauty, jewelry and more.
Channels handled: Phone, email, live chat, web self-service, Twitter
What’s so great about them? They foster a captivating culture of agent empowerment and engagement, and recently replaced their traditional quality monitoring program with an unconventional and truly holistic QA initiative.