Six Things Not To Do When You Run A Call Centre

Six Things Not To Do When You Run A Call Centre

Call centres are a major employer and a major user of IT. If you’re tasked with running one, or with helping to provide the technology systems used by one, here are six simple “don’ts” to bear in mind.

I’ve been attending the G-Force conference run by call centre software giant Genesys in Melbourne this week, where the topic of running a call centre effectively is on everybody’s mind. While the scale and purpose of those centres can vary widely, there’s no doubt running customer support well leaves both managers and customers happy.

The themes discussed below kept emerging over and over in presentations and discussions at the conference. I wouldn’t call most of them rocket science, which is a salient reminder that getting the basics right is much more important than implementing fancy new technology for its own sake. But here are the things you shouldn’t be doing:

1. Implement an IVR

IVR (interactive voice response) is the familiar ‘Press 1 for sales, press 2 for support’ message you encounter all the time. Research and experience shows customers hate them. Offering the ability to use your phone to enter unique identifiers (such as a customer number) can be useful if it saves time, but otherwise the touch-tone option often feels painful. That said, a bad voice recognition system is just about as annoying.

2. Lack clarity about the purpose of your call centre

Call centres with a support orientation generally measure their success by how quickly their calls are processed and by how many can be dealt with through other means, but this isn’t inevitable: I was chatting to a manager for a superannuation call centre which wants customers to contact them frequently since that ultimately leads to better retention. Sales-oriented centres obviously track sales per employee, though this can be a complex calculation for products which involve a long-term contract or lots of other variables. Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise global sales leader Tom Eggemeir predicts that the roles may blur in the future: “It’s not about getting the person off the phone as quick as possible, but upselling them and making them a brand advocate for you. “

The key point, though, is to have a clearly-defined function and measure for success. If you define success as ‘length of call’ rather than ‘time to resolution’, you might end up like the unnamed centre cited at the conference where the workers would simply hang up shortly after ending the call. Their ‘length of call’ measures looked good, but customer satisfaction was non-existent.

3. Fail to transfer customer data accurately between agents

There is almost nothing more annoying than going through a complex customer identification process and then being forced to provide those details again if the call has to be escalated to a more senior person to resolve it. If your call centre can’t handle effectively transferring customer information at the same time the actual call is transferred, make that the top priority. The technology exists; use it.

4. Fail to notice when the product is the problem

The best-trained staff in the world will be overwhelmed if the product they are supporting is too complex. Telstra’s Michael Ossipoff provided a highly relevant example: “We have over 1,000 different phone plans How can you possibly navigate through that? How can you expect your staff to understand that?” The answer isn’t fixing the call centre, but recognising that it points to a bigger problem, as Ossipoff noted: “We are using this logic to reduce the number of plans.”

5. Not provide estimated wait times and callback options

It’s an obvious but recurring theme: staying on hold makes people angry and irritable. If you offer the option to call people back at a set time, they’ll generally be in a much better mood. If you offer an estimated time before the call will be answered, you’ll also reduce customer blood pressure. If you can’t do that, it’s hard to convince callers that the “call really is important to us”.

6. Not recognise when surges will occur (or staff for them)

Many businesses have predictable surges in call centre activity; for instance, electricity companies generally get more billing complaints in winter, when people notice their power bills rising because of heating needs. Others can be unexpected.

Greg Flint, acting superintendent for Queensland Police’s Policelink call centre, noted that during this year’s Queensland floods, surges in calls were tied to updates from the Premier: “”Every time the media had a press announcement, our surge was about 300 calls into the queue.” Once that had been deduced, Flint made sure that the team were given advance warning of when the next briefing was due. Following that kind of planning approach makes life easier for staff, and ultimately for customers.

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers. Angus Kidman attended G-Force as a guest of Genesys, and can’t deny dancing in an embarrassing fashion at the gala dinner.


    • ‘Recognise the surge’ works.

      As someone who does call centre analysis i agree with all of these points with the exception of the IVR one. No one enjoys them, but the increase in misdirected and double handling of calls increases dramatically without one (which is the greater negative).

      That’s just my own opinion though.

  • As a former call centre worker of 3 years for an extremely fast paced big bank… I can honestly say that my 2 biggest hates are not listed on here.
    5 was close but left out the most important part, incorrectly given wait times. If you tell me 5 minutes then i have to wait 30, I will blow up the ears of whoever answers.
    But the most important thing of all not to do in a call centre is to play repetitive hold music… Either tune it to a radio station or set up a simple cycling track list so you don’t spend 30 minutes listening to annoying musak playing in loops.

  • Callbacks are the best thing ever. I admit that I’m never really on hold for THAT long (longest was an hour, but that was at 6pm) but when the voice tells me that I can press # and enter in my phone number so they can call me back, I feel much happier.

    Also, I don’t mind the menu system. It takes me 30 seconds to listen to the options compared to a minute to speak to someone and get redirected to the right department. I call Microsoft all the time (phone activation for Windows 7) and their menu system is really quick, but they could reorganise the menus a little to get things done quicker.

    But that’s just me..

  • I still think the biggest “DON’T” in call centres is hiring people with poor english/communication skills.

    Asking the call centre worker to repeat things three times because you can’t understand them quickly leads to massive frustration (for both parties).

    • This works both ways though. Working in a call centre and trying to get info from someone with a poor grasp of English and/or a thick accent is really frustrating.

      • Agree with that. The amount of times I’ve spoken to John Smiths and Jane Browns, who mumble their way through a sentence or tie three words together and assume its coherent.

        Pro-nun-ci-ation. Pleeease.

    • Understand cultural prejudices and the value of your product. If I have to call to dispute my $2000 phone bill, that should be $1600 – the $400 difference is important to me.

      If you have a phone monkey in the third world who makes less in a year than I think I should have saved on my last monthly phone bill – how much of a damn do you think they give about my problems? Their customer service will be terrible. They might as well be supporting celebrities who are upset that had to deal with blue M&M’s in their hotel room, all day, every day. Nobody can give good customer service in a situation like that.

  • One I would add, is never have nested waiting times. Yesterday I waited 30 minutes on hold to VicRoads regarding a letter they’d sent me. Within 1 minute of conversation the staffer put me through to their “specialist team”, without warning me I would then wait another 20 minutes before they answered…

  • I don’t get why call centres are the first place people go for customer service.

    My first approach is always email – less stressful, and if it’s not followed up, you have the whole complaint in writing, ready to forward to anyone else you can get to – that way you don’t have to repeat yourself over and over.

  • Can we also stop adding those little advertising messages that drop into the hold music. Every time I hear one I think my call is being answered and every time I realise it’s just another recorded message I remember how long i’ve been waiting on hold for and am enraged just that little bit more.

    Transferring customer data is a massive one for me too. I am dealing with a company at the moment which I need to call roughly once every two weeks. Every time I call the CSR will cold transfer me to the next person without transferring my file, often I will go through 4 people before I speak to someone who can actually process what I need. Add to this the fact that their customer search system is so poor it takes them up to 5 minutes to find my file each time and what should be a 2 minute call to make a payment on my account often takes upwards of 20 minutes. If it weren’t for the fact that they’re a debt collection company I would have changed providers by now.

  • The current approach seems to be going back to basics – based in the UK, less IVR and a one-call resolution, so it’s refreshing to be able to speak to somebody about my cable or insurance and have it all done in one call. An approach like this could change the business in so many ways and be cost effective enough to get rid of so much of the back-office functions.

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