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.