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It’s time we reshaped customer service, starting with the call center

Brian Solis

We are entering an era of customer-centricity, mostly because we have to. But also, because employing a customer focus is the right thing to do. I guess businesses lost their way at some point. Blame quarterly earnings. Blame technology. Blame politics. But over the years, we overlooked the importance of the “C” and “R” and instead scaled the “M” in CRM. It didn’t hurt that we found ways to save time and money in the process of promoting management, cost-control and efficiency over customer experiences.

I don’t believe executives aim to deliver substandard experiences. I really don’t. In fact, 88% of all businesses actually believe that they deliver great customer service. Yet only 8% of their customers agree. Saying that there’s a disconnect is an understatement at best. But it is representative of a significant experience gap that exists between the experience we promise and the experiences people have and share.

A large part of the problem is how we see the role and value of customer engagement in overall business. Anyone working in the game knows all too well that investing in customer retention is a far more cost-effective strategy than that of customer acquisition. Yes both are important. But by reducing anything related to the experience of existing customers, you’re essentially pushing them out and relying on customer growth programs to find people to constantly take the place of deserters. It’s a revolving door where you only win if more people come in than leave. Who wants to do business that way?

Intelligent speech processing technology company Nuance Communications commissioned a survey of 1,000 American consumers to reveal current perceptions about customer service departments. The study found that nine out of ten consumers report that a company’s customer service has a significant impact on their decision to do business with them. More so, the majority of American consumers (74 percent) did not rate the customer service they’ve received in the last twelve months an “A” grade.

On the other hand, many consumers also said that they respond positively if they receive good customer service. In the Nuance study, 80 percent of consumers say they’ve taken action following a good experience. For example, more than one-third said they have recommended the company to friends and family or conducted more business with that company (34 percent).

If excellent customer engagement works, then why is it that I have to take the time to write this article? And, I’m not the only one bringing this up either.

The answer is that customer service and support are functions that are still viewed and run as cost-centers and not as strategic investments in customer experiences. This is a shame because study after study shows that a wonderful customer experience boosts customer loyalty and advocacy and establishes a tremendous competitive advantage.

Speaking of cost centers…

Just look at the call center as one example of just how far we got away from prioritizing meaningful and delightful customer experiences. It should hurt. It should cause duress. It shouldn’t force people away from us.

If you’re like me and if I’m like you, we dread calling any company. We know that we’re going to have to lose our minds pressing buttons until we get a human being on the line. We know going in that we’ll completely suffer from a complete loss of sanity from having to re-explain ourselves over and over as we are transferred between departments.

It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it is unfortunately. In most cases, we have no choice. We need to accomplish things and by calling, we’re committing to getting an answer or mission achieved in the moment.

The problem is that although customer experiences are paramount, investing in and measuring their success is elusive or under appreciated or both. Businesses tend to favor quantity of customer engagements over quality and expediency over experience.

The call center is in need of a renaissance in both purpose and focus. To do so, executive teams also need to undergo a renaissance to move from management to that of leadership. And, that starts with vision and purpose.

With roots traced to the late 1950s to 1960s, call centers were initially designed to scale outbound and inbound calls. As time went on, new technologies and behavioral engagement strategies enabled call centers to handle greater volume and responsibilities. Suddenly call centers were the go to model for facilitating all forms of mass engagement ranging from sales to customer service and support to customer retention. As time went on and capabilities expanded, soaring costs and management challenges ultimately made the case for many businesses to contract outsourced call center solutions. To save money and also to ramp up resources quickly, some of the largest outsourced facilities resided outside of the United State in countries where English was a second language at best.

Why the rapid-fire history lesson on call centers?

For the most part, call centers served their purpose over the decades. Everything was fine until it wasn’t. That time to change is here. Actually, it’s overdue. What the call center was designed to do and how it was both valued and also measured for success are part of an eroding mode of business that has no place in the future of customer experience.

The great irony here however is in the terms 'customer service' or 'customer support.' Clearly, we are missing opportunities to provide service or support in ways people value. Actually contacting customer support almost seems like a last resort. In fact, customers are taking it upon themselves to find answers online with 82% of consumers agreeing that they only contact customer service when they can’t find an answer online according to Nuance. It’s often just easier or more pleasant that having to talk to the a company’s customer support front line.

We hate them. We need them. But with purpose, renovation and some serious unlearning, these existing assets can be rebuilt and retrained to deliver exception customer experiences, cultivate relationships and drive business value.

Customers have repeatedly expressed that they will gladly pay a premium for products if they believed that a premium customer experience was a given. It’s sad but true that customer experience can become a competitive advantage rather than a commodity, but so be it.

Customer support, service, and form of customer engagement really, are clearly ripe for disruption and innovation. Price, process, technology, et al., further distanced us from customers. But the same set of ingredients can bring us closer than ever before.

Call centers are on the front line right now. They can do better. But we need to first accept that the role they play today is not actually shaping customer experiences but hindering or degrading them.

Experience takes vision and it takes architecture.

Imagine if technology, process, systems, metrics, were driven by a higher purpose?

Sales, service, support, loyalty, every facet of the customer journey and lifecycle, could and would be improved. Customer-centricity would truly form the center of our intentions and work. Then and only then, would meaningful relationships become a byproduct of the experiences we set out to create and cultivate.

What a wonderful world it would be…