Contact Center 2011 - Back to the Future

Updated: October 31, 2010

How Does a Company Keep the Ordinary, Ordinary?

This one is far more difficult than it seems. But before we look at the "how", I want you to imagine something. If you are calling up a company and all you want is an address to send something to - or an RMA number - do you:

  1. Really care whether or not the experience is delightful or exceeds your expectations?
  2. Imagine how mad you'd be if they mess up this simple, utilitarian question you need a simple response to?
  3. As to your level of anger, that will definitely be hefty depending on your emotional state that day.

Keeping the ordinary, ordinary means being able to answer simple queries with the right answer quickly. It's a measure of effectiveness and efficiency, not delight. But what it needs to do it is substantial. First, the technology involved means an extensive knowledgebase that houses the answers to many of the questions that you're being asked. It means access to that knowledgebase in multiple ways - via the contact center in a structured database, with a good search engine to get the answer, and perhaps, with a way for the customer to access the database to get their answer without a CSR in the middle a.k.a. web self service. But how you accumulate the knowledge matters too. One new option is the ability to capture the answers from the web which are being answered outside your firewall and then incorporating them into the knowledgebase AFTER you've been able to validate them.

The second facet of keeping the ordinary, ordinary is having a strong set of processes in place to handle escalation and to head off issues that may come into play during the hunt for the ordinary answer. That means a set of embedded best practices that can be utilized in the moments needed and the triggers and alerts that can automatically escalate something to the right person with the right answers. We've seen that manually when we deal with technical support on a problem and the level l CSR can't solve it so they send it to level 2. But in this case the processes are designed to prevent the ordinary from getting extraordinarily bad.

If you don't think this is important, take heed of a study done by Forrester in 2008 which found that the biggest reason that customers didn't like talking to customer service at companies was poor knowledge management (62%)

How Does a Company Find Out What Customers are Saying Outside the Firewall - and then Level the Playing Field?

Customers are complaining about your brand - or issues they are having with it - and they are doing it well beyond any channels that you provide for them. They don't like dealing with CSRs due to a myriad of reasons ranging from poor training to poor knowledge management (see above) to bad data on them - the customers. So they go to their comfort zone - their peers to complain. For the younger of them in particular but to all of the customers in general, the channels that they would complain on are typically social networks like Twitter, Facebook or other external user community or threaded forum. Keep in mind 74% of all folks who are internet users are on a social networks, and, according to the Nielsen Research "Global Flaces on Networked Places" study of 2009, for the first time, more people communicate via those social networks than email.

Uh oh.

  1. Not the norm for a classic CSR position, but becoming a norm.

How do you find out what the customers are saying? The tools are easily available. For example, Radian6, Attensity, the newly renamed Lithium Social Media Monitoring (formerly known as ScoutLabs) and dozens of others are out there to scour the social web and pull down information on what customers are talking about. Depending on which platform you choose, these are organized into reports that are either time agnostic or immediate. How you choose to respond to the information in the reports e.g a service problem is up to how you've decided to handle these kinds of problems - meaning a protocol in place.

I can't tell you enough about the importance of having an approach with specific details such as:

  1. If problem x comes up, how should you respond? If y comes up, how then?
  2. Who should respond to the problem?
  3. What kind of escalation hierarchy exists?
  4. What kinds of tools help you spot the problem, report on it, send out the right alerts and then route it to the chosen CSRs to deal with it?
  5. How are you empowering the CSRs to respond? What can they do at their level? What can't they do?

How you deal with things varies from channel to channel. So how you would respond to a bad blog post would vary from how you respond to an issue found on Twitter. But having a methodology and set of guidelines in place for each channel and the level of problem encountered including who responds is not just important but invaluable.

There is one other bit of outreach to consider. As you probably have noticed, a lot of problems and their solutions are actually being proposed by your customers (if your company rolls that way) on user forums that are out there. There's a big upside to that with a little work and a huge downside to it without that work.

Kind of fun actually.

But there is a problem inherent in that. What if I had something told to me wrongly. There was no one to validate the correctness of the procedure so the only way I could validate it was by assuming that if three videos showed me approximately the same thing they were probably right.

Well, Microsoft sort of gets how to deal with this and they have what, if they are conscious of it, is a model deployment. Their MVPs - their top certified technology guys from outside the company - are active on the user forums - validating the approaches, suggesting others in lieu of incorrect processes. In other words, they are engaged with their customers at the places their customers are interacting providing them with service information that is valuable and valid. A win-win-win for Microsoft, the MVPs and the social customers.

What can a Company do Inside the Firewall?

Okay, we've seen what you can do with outreach. Now its time for behind the firewall.

What you might be thinking is "well that means customer service communities" and if that's what you're thinking, you'd be right. If you take a look at some of the best, for example, ACT! or Best Buy or even some B2B communities, what you find is a common thread. Customers are rewarded for their participation in the community. Not for their purchase of goods and services, but instead for their help in solving customer service problems and their addition of knowledge to the knowledgebase of the company. This are the primary reasons for the success of customer service communities that are supported by the company and get the customers involved. There are rewards for doing so. Customers are happy to present their problems there before they get to an angry phone call. It's why first contact resolution becomes a more important metric than first call resolution. With the customer service communities, controlled by the company, behind their firewall, the problem often doesn't get to a call (emphasis mine).

How does the role of the Customer Service Rep change?

What does this mean for customer service representatives? Possibly a lot. Possibly not much at all. It pretty much depends on how much you want to invest in these new approaches and how much you are willing to change your culture to accommodate them.

Just to level set about the CSRs. We're talking about CSRs who are presumably adequately trained in handling service queries, good, bad or neutral for you already. To give you an idea of how to do this, let me tell you a story - in the form of a short, sweet case study.

Intuit - The 2011 Contact Center for Real

This is kind of a segue case study because it actually encompasses not only the changing role of the CSR, should you accept this mission, but supports much of what was said in the prior paragraphs. The segue is to the conclusion. So look back to the prior sections in addition to the current one to get a feel for how Intuit does it, because they do it right - with a clear understanding of how the customer has changed.

I want to start the short study with a quote from an Intuit guy who brought what they were doing to the attention of those on the Social CRM Pioneers site - a site that you would be wise to join on Google Groups.


Scott Wilder of Intuit: "It is easier to teach a call center person how to moderate versus teaching a moderator how to learn about a certain product."

Mr. Wilder is a very wise person.

What Intuit does with that in mind is the following:

  1. They have a specialized call center group that does the outreach to the different external social networks such as Facebook or LinkedIn to answer questions.
  2. They have their own communities and they teach some of the CSRs to be moderators and facilitators in the communities.
  3. They have protocols for how to handle specific topics and issues.
  4. They have roles and responsibilities clearly defined so that who handles a specific post on Twitter etc. is covered.

Note something here about the CSR. They have in some cases very different responsibilities than they traditionally had, but most of them still carry on with their traditional functions. These new roles are at this time for a select group. But there are new roles, and that's something you wouldn't have said 5 years ago.

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