There is a new report out almost daily that grabs our attention about a more advanced technological innovation that will make our lives better, easier, and more seamless How can we most effectively use these advancements without a negative impact on customer loyalty? Technology must enhance the customer experience, not devalue it by replacing the human connection.
Call centers are a perfect example. In the early 1970s companies like Gerber Products recognized that new moms needed advice about baby formula around the clock. Taking care of babies could not be restricted to just normal business hours. Other household consumer product companies also extended their hours beyond the typical 9 to 5, knowing that supporting their customers was part of creating a positive experience.
Call centers are not only here to stay but savvy companies understand the call center is the most effective and economical channel to positively impact customer loyalty. Associates in call centers communicate directly with more customers than any other department. I have always said the customer service function is clearly valuable. The call center is the heart and home of a company.
To state the obvious, information can easily be found on the Internet. Customers want to self-serve first, which makes perfect sense because we are busy and answers to questions are readily available, expect when they are not. That is when the customer, who has an issue or questions not addressed on the FAQ page, needs help. The first line of defense is another human being.
Still, many CEOs today still think the budget line item for the call center should be reduced or eliminated. That is penny-wise and pound-foolish thinking. Forcing customers to solve their own problems when an answer can't be found is stressful. Add to that the fact that brick-and-mortar stores are reducing their footprints and associates. E-commerce sites are turning their products into commodities.
Plain and simple, even in our magnified digital age, customers want human contact when self-serve doesn't work. Once again, the call center is the answer and the most sensible, viable solution to provide a company's human touch and build the crucial relationship between the company and the customer.
That being said, the call center must shift gears too. One of our clients has a program where all newly hired MBA graduates spend their first year working in the call center. This serves two purposes: first, it provides the employee with an excellent background to move into other departments; legal, marketing, operations, quality, etc. Secondly, customers gain an advantage. An MBA does not make a good customer service representative; there are thousands of competent, caring, wonderful reps without a graduate degree. However, questions from customers have become more complicated and sophisticated and more is expected from a representative to handle unique and difficult questions. Training reps properly is critical.
When I accidently posted a credit to an American Express account that had a zero balance, the only way I could resolve the issue was to contact the call center. I reached a highly professional associate who immediately understood my need, transferred the funds, thanked me for my business, and told me I was a valued customer to American Express. Quick, easy and seamless.
Recently, I saw a home accessory product at a friend's house and was interested in having one for myself. He told me the manufacturer and where he had purchased it. When I did a search, the price was more than I expected. I wasn't sure if I wanted to put the item in my cart until I saw an easy-to-find link to a telephone number. Not only was the telephone number in plain sight, but there was a photo of a representative. That made life easy and immediately created a connection and motivation for me to get further information. I called and a friendly voice message encouraged me to leave my name and number assuring that I would get a return call within a specific time frame. Two hours later a knowledgeable and professional call center representative contacted me. After our conversation, I was confident the price of the item was fair and reasonable based on its quality. She emphasized that all their brands came with a money-back guarantee if I was not satisfied. Then I went through with the purchase. Without that phone call, I would not have bought the item.
It's my job to visit contact centers and interview representatives. I am always impressed by the reps' enthusiasm and passion for the people they help everyday. By definition, customer service is to help customers find what they want or need. That task can be difficult, as both customers and customer service reps will agree, but it is also rewarding and empowering. The human connection is critical to the health of every company, and the call center provides the link between the customer and the company If your CEO needs reassurance that the call center is one of best investments any company can make, suggest that he listen to 10 calls. I guarantee it will be easy to see the value of the human connection.
Richard Shapiro is founder and president of the Center for Client Retention.