Off Center
(This post was written by guest blogger James Lawther, a very cheeky Englishman who knows a thing or two about customer care. WARNING: Extremely dry [yet hilarious] British wit and sarcasm lie ahead…)

You work in a contact center; customer service is your lifeblood, your reason for being. So how do you make it better? What are the top 10 ways to improve the customer care your center provides?

10) Measure everything. It is a truism, but if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.  But what do you measure? Customer Effort, Net Promoter Score or Customer Satisfaction? Should you worry about complaints or abandon rate or service level? The answer is simple, measure them all – create a “balanced scorecard” of at least 10 or 12 customer metrics.  That way you will be able to have multiple meetings to discuss customer strategy, lead and lag indicators, regression techniques and big data.

After all, if you have 12 measures you will manage 12 times better.

9) Make agents stand up and smile. It is all about the interaction. That’s what the customer remembers – tone of voice, empathy, understanding. The easiest way to create a great first impression is to get your agents to stand and smile as they answer each call. It loosens the vocal chords and opens the lungs. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Another truism.

8) Make customers wait. It’s a little known fact that if you visit Disney World on a slow day they make you wait. They reduce capacity on the rides to artificially create a queue. Making customers wait makes them think the ride is popular and creates a sense of anticipation. (Remember how exciting the run up to Christmas was when you were four?) You can create exactly the same effect with a little judicious staff scheduling.  The sense of excitement when a customer finally reaches an agent will be palpable.

7) Use motivational posters. Of course you need posters. Big posters with inspiring slogans. Pictures of happy customers having a good time on tropical beaches work best of all. Such images send subliminal messages to your agents – how great your service must be that your customers dial in from Hawaii to discuss their latest statement. A few inspirational posters and a good motto will solve 80% of your issues.

6) Add some flash. Face it, your Internet site is a bit tired. It looks middle-aged. It needs more pizazz, more flash. Add a video that shows how great a company you are to do business with. Think Hollywood, not home movie. The longer and larger the file, the more it will impress your customers; they might even get some popcorn and watch it again. Remember, a huge part of good customer service is distraction. 

5) Spice up your IVR. What works on the web works on the phone. Invest in some theme music that bursts into life the minute your customers hit your switch. Get a voiceover artist with an unfeasibly cheerful attitude to re-record your menus. Above all, make sure that her tone of voice is “on brand”.

4) Customize your products. It doesn’t matter if you are selling insurance, credit cards, mobile phones or electricity. The number-one way to make customers feel special is to create a product just for them. Mass customization is the future.  Mix up your rates, tariffs, deals and contracts so that your customer gets the product that is absolutely right for them.  After all nobody wants just electricity, right? Then wow them with your ability to deal with their individually created problems.

3) Specialize. Create pools of specialist resources that can deal with your highly customized products. Your customers will love the warm feeling they get when they realize their call is so important to you that they are queuing for an agent who has been trained specifically to deal with their unique issue. If you excel here, customers and agents will be on first-name terms. How’s that for service?

2) Ring-fence your agents. There is no benefit to be had from specialization if your “special” agents are always taking the wrong call type. Ring fence them and make sure that there is only one number that will get through to them.  And please remember you don’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry dialing it, so keep it a secret.

1) Reduce handle time. An oldy but a goldy. You’ve heard it before, but it’s so good it needs to be repeated. Your customers don’t want to spend hours on the phone talking to your agents; they have other things to do with their time. Encourage agents to reduce handle time and get off the phone quickly. At the very least train them to talk fast. You know it makes sense.

If you dare to obtain more “thought leadership” on contact centers and customer service from James Lawther, you can do so here.

Few people understand as well as I do the challenges contact center agents face. I was not only once an agent, I was one of the worst agents in the history of customer care. Fortunately for me and everybody else, my career on the frontline was brief.

It’s not that I didn’t care about doing a good job on the phones; rather, I simply felt they rang too often. I would go to great measures to avoid answering calls. When I wasn’t pressing the “release” button to drop callers, I was faking severe gastroenteritis and hiding in the restroom.

I felt that the other agents were far too serious. They were always adhering to scripts and schedules, and worrying too much about whether or not they resolved customers’ issues. I, on the other hand, endeavored to make the few calls I actually answered fun and interesting without stressing out so much about the overall outcome. My supervisor, while sometimes entertained by my antics, was often enraged by my abandonment rate and freewheeling approach to customer service.

I remember one time she called me into her cubicle:

“Greg, we have a problem here,” she said sternly.

“I’ll say we do,” I responded. “I mean, who chose the carpeting and lighting in this joint?”

“Forget that, Greg. Here’s a copy of yesterday’s performance stats. As you can see, the other agents handled an average of 103 calls each. You handled 12.”

“Well, if you’re going to look just at the numbers, then yeah, it looks bad,” I replied. “But some things are more important than the bottom line – like how much I make customers laugh.”

“That’s the other problem we have,” she said. “We didn’t hire you so you could use your talk time to sharpen your stand-up comedy routine.”

“But humor is very useful for building customer rapport and relationships.”

“Yes, but sometimes you offend customers.”

“What? Give me one example,” I demanded.

“Okay. This morning you told that one customer they sounded like James Earl Jones.”

“Yeah? So? How is that offensive? Mr. Jones has one of the most captivating voices in the world. Most people would consider it an honor to be compared to him.”

“Well, that customer called back to speak to me afterward, and let’s just say that SHE was not pleased.”

I continued to butt heads with management for the remainder of my time working in the contact center. I’m not saying that I was always right or that they were always wrong; I’m just saying I would be thrilled to have a voice like James Earl Jones.

I admit, I had a problem with authority. I didn’t even like it when my supervisor told me to "Have a nice evening" at the end of my shift. I’d say to myself, “I just spent the last 10 hours answering calls from irate people – I should have the freedom to have a perfectly miserable evening.”

I became very spiteful. Anything my supervisor said to do, I’d either ignore her or break into tears so she’d ignore me. If she told me to go available for calls, I’d stay unavailable. If she told me to stop pressing the “mute” button during calls so I could swear at customers, I’d continue pressing it and using even more obscene language. If she yelled at me to come into her cubicle for a discussion, I’d… well, that I’d actually do because it got me off the phones.

Then, for reasons I’ll probably never fully understand, I got fired. Or maybe I quit.

As you can see, I had a tough first day on the phones.

I never could have imagined how difficult it was being a contact center agent. I was forced into stressful conversations with strangers, many of whom already decided they didn’t like me or anything I stood for… and those were just my co-workers. I had to spend the entire day sitting in a chair in a cramped space – except for during slow periods, when I’d nap under my workstation. And worst of all, I was expected to handle call after difficult call without making fun of customers or their families.

My hat goes off to contact center agents everywhere. If you are a manager or a supervisor, please let your agents read this post so they can see how all that they do, all that they’re up against, does not go unnoticed and is very much appreciated. Then tell them to get back to work immediately so that they don’t screw up the center’s service level results.

And finally, let them know that if they ever decide to ask a customer out on a date, they should make absolutely sure the call isn’t being monitored.