Is Your Call Important?

We have heard the phrase a thousand times…”your call is important to us please hold”. This is the standard message we hear when we call a company’s call center. Interspersed we may hear about “an unexpectedly high call volume” and other variations on the theme. All of these messages serve to keep us informed of the call volumes impacting on the call center and thus are intended to mitigate our frustration with the call not being answered immediately. But what is a reasonable delay in answering our call… 20 seconds, one minute, twenty minutes? What event had impacted on the center and caused them to be unable to answer our call?

The general public can only guess about the underlying causes while we, in the call and contact center industry, know the truth about this guilty little secret. There was no unexpected run on the call center, no surge that caught the center blind. The reality is that there are only two likely reasons why the call wasn’t answered promptly; either the management of the company has determined not to or the call center senior management is incompetent. What other reasons can there be?

Ignorance or Neglect, your Choice

Call and contact centers produce a huge amounts of data and the center management can analyze the data and information to determine call volumes and patterns and forecast what volume of calls to expect when. This forecasting process is a basic tenant of call and contact center management.

Senior corporate executives constantly communicate a message that their customers are their number priority, yet these otherwise intelligent, savvy and effective communicators fail to support the customers when they have the opportunity…when the customer contacts the center.

I recently had to tell the CEO of a Fortune 500 company that their Mission Statement was a lie. I told him that the company’s’ commitment to “world class customer service” was incompatible with a wait time of more than 20 minutes to get a phone call answered. Perhaps this wasn’t he best way to begin a consulting engagement and certainly this wasn’t a pleasant conversation of either of us, but it was the start of a process that today has this company answering their calls within their stated service level parameters.

So let’s examine the reasons why companies don’t answer our call in a timely manner. First let’s look at why a company would neglect and alienate their primary asset: their customer.

Familiarity breeds contempt

The nature of contact and call centers provide some insight to this problem. Call centers in particular employ a device that we use and take for granted each and every day…a telephone. We have grown up using the phone, we don’t see this as complicated technology. We view the phone as a basic everyday item. This point of view can lead us to not fully appreciate the challenges and dynamics that come into play when you put 10 or 20 or 300 phones and agents together in a room and ask them to service customers. As I was once told by a senior VP at a packaged goods company, “we don’t need your help to answer the phones, I have one of these at home”, he said while holding up his telephone set, “I use it every day”. This familiarity can breed contempt. If instead of a telephone, we were employing some ‘black box’ technology with a catchy three letter acronym (TLA), then we wouldn’t be so eager to dismiss the complexities and subtle nuances that managing incoming calls can present.

A second root cause for the lack of focus on meeting customers needs when they phone the call center may be traced back to the evolution of the call center itself. In many organizations call centers weren’t planned. They just sort of happened. A ringing phone prompts all of us at home or at the office to ask, often out loud, can somebody get the phone. The same process occurred in offices leading to more people and more resources being deployed to ‘answer the phones’; pretty soon you have a call center.

This background may be interesting, but still doesn’t explain how otherwise savvy and bright executives end up in a situation where they are at best complicit in and at worst intentionally creating an environment certain to alienate their customers. Research shows that customers judge a company based upon their experience with that company’s’ call or contact center. In fact 92% of consumers in a recent Perdue University study said they judge a company based upon their experience in dealing with the call center. A Transversal study provided even more distressing news: 54% of consumers had a higher opinion of a company before they contacted the company call center than they had after their call center experience.

Senior executives in many organizations are forming opinions and making decisions based on faulty information. One of the most common myths we have seen is “It costs too much to provide good service” This is patently incorrect. Consider this not so hypothetical example.

The Death Spiral is not a Strategy

A company is having difficulty answering their phone calls. So the average speed of answer (ASA) increases. With the increases in ASA comes a matching increase in the frequency of customers mentioning and complaining about their wait time. This increase in complaints increases the average handle time (AHT) that a call takes to be completed. This increase in AHT means that an agent handles fewer calls in each period and the ASA for new incoming calls increases again. Also as the AHT increases so does the cost for each call handled and the budget is consumed exponentially. Meaning that fewer resources can be deployed to handle future calls. This cycle as you can see can cycle over and over creating a call center ‘death spiral’.

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