The Greatest Contact Center Traits Have Little to Do with Technology

Although there's been a lot of talk about the importance of customer service and the customer experience and plenty of innovation on the technology front, there's often still a significant gap between the realities and the aspirations of the customer service department. The most effective customer service organizations share some common characteristics, including the following:

  • They are viewed as more than a cost center. Although time to resolution and cost per contact are important, they're focused on a bigger prize: providing meaningful feedback back to the company about potential product and service improvements and identifying and acting on potential sales opportunities.
  • They are consistent, not just across channels but across agents. In an ideal world, it doesn't matter what channel customers choose to initiate conversations or if they change channels midstream. They get the same information, the same personalization, and responses that take into account their entire customer interaction histories.
  • They support effective collaboration both within and outside the contact center. Collaboration tools, both real-time and longer term, are adopted and used by agents, teams, and subject matter experts.

You might have noticed that these three characteristics have very little to do with technology, and that's where the biggest challenge for customer service managers lies: in the human barriers to adopting best practices for customer service. For customer service to truly take a place at the table (like sales and marketing do today), managers must focus on humans, culture, and management, not just technology.

Everyone talks about change management, but driving greater customer service maturity takes a skill set that has to be developed. It's helpful to think about breaking down the challenge into manageable chunks: structural factors, cultural factors, hierarchical factors, and individual factors.

If we think about structural factors, they'r'e really about making sure everyone's playing nicely together. Are agents encouraged and incented to share information, and are they empowered to collaborate beyond the contact center walls? Management by example is the best medicine here. Take a coworker to lunch day is one tactic to encourage breaking down structural barriers.

Cultural factors can be both geographic, such as language and culture differences between first- and second-tier support, for example, and demographic, such as age. The cultural challenge is often not addressed because of concerns about discrimination or people taking offense. In an increasingly politically correct world, the best approach is not to ignore or downplay the barrier, but to state it clearly and directly. Recognition that a cultural barrier exists is 90 percent of the battle. New Yorkers have different communication styles than Southerners, and the Germans work differently from the French. Millennials address technology, management, and motivation completely differently from their more mature counterparts. One of the most effective customer service managers I've connected with stated it well: We have to recognize the differences between the gray hairs and the gray matter and use that knowledge to play to their strengths.

Hierarchical factors are some of the toughest to address. Will management feel threatened? Can service agents provide feedback on product or service quality that can be felt and acted on at higher levels? You might remember a few decades ago when the latest tech buzzword—knowledge management—drove significant investment in intranets. I remember companies that spent millions of dollars creating intranets where they expected all of their employees to share their expertise, collaborate with peers they had never met, and rate the expertise of others. Most of these knowledge management initiatives failed miserably because as humans, at the time, we didn't have a context for this sort of virtual cameraderie. The good news is that today we do. Whether you love Facebook or hate it, it gave us all the context for sharing with complete strangers. We can take advantage of this human context in the contact center.

And, finally, there are the individual factors. How can agents be more empowered, and how can they be motivated to be a little better at their jobs every day? This factor is tough as well. If users won't use technology, the ROI is always negative. In selecting, deploying, and managing adoption of the technology, we have to think about what's in it for the user. When agents are given access to modern technology that enables them to be happier in their jobs, everyone benefits.

The good news is that all the aging contact center technology that's out there can be replaced with less disruption and often at a lower ongoing cost than the support costs associated with keeping the old stuff up and running. The answer is cloud, and the benefits that cloud technology offers contact centers, including geographic and device flexibility, rapid evolution of tools to address new customer service challenges, and intuitive usability, make sense for everyone.

There's still a lot to be done to optimize customer service, even in the most effective service operations. However, customer service managers who can look beyond the technology to effectively address the human barriers to change are well on their way to having a seat at the table as effective and valued parts of their organizations.

Rebecca Wettemann is vice president of research at Nucleus Research and covers enterprise applications, CRM, ERP, and cloud systems.