Customer Service: The Human Element

Updated: April 30, 2009

Research shows that in times of general crisis, contact-center call volumes can increase by 20 to 50 percent, with no clear business reason. What's more, the average call length can spike from 25 to 100 percent, because many callers will shift the conversation from business issues to personal concerns.

While this kind of customer "counseling" is a drag for contact-center productivity, it makes for an important reminder: Good customer relations is as much about catering to customer emotions as it is about offering product support.

"The name of the game is when the customer thinks you care," said Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting LLC , a New Jersey-based firm specializing in call centers and real-time analytics.

But how can a company ensure that its contact-center agents and sales representatives have what it takes to make customers feel appreciated? After all, as Fluss noted, "Service and sales are some of the most important contact points within an enterprise because these are the people who interact with your customers more than anybody else, in most organizations."

Empathy and Emotion

For starters, it takes more than a dog-eared resume to identify a contact-center agent with an "innate capability" for empathy, Fluss said. "An in-person interview is an essential part of hiring a call-center agent."

One way to help employees tap into customer emotions is to teach empathy in communications training courses through extensive role-playing. Fluss suggested that companies use their most empathetic contact-center agents to assist with the role-play exercises. And once agents complete the training, companies need to measure, evaluate and reward them for demonstrating empathy in customer service.

Another way to ensure customers are being properly cared for is by using emotion-detection software, an offshoot of CRM technology . In fact, Forrester estimates that sales of emotion-detection technology come to about $400 million per year. Autonomy Corp. , a U.K. software company specializing in meaning-based computing, recently released its Intelligent Contact Center , which uses speech analytics to search recorded conversations and provide insight into customer interactions.

Most emotion-detection software solutions track volume and pitch, record conversations and categorize them by words and phrases. Verint Systems Inc.'s ULTRA solution suite categorizes and analyzes call content to reveal the root causes of performance outcomes, as well as identify trends that might not be detected without listening to thousands of calls.

Productive Vs. Proactive

While these types of solutions haven't exactly gained mainstream traction, they're definitely a step up from more traditional metrics such as first-call resolution or average handle time. "Average handle time is nothing more than a productivity measure," said Fluss. "A call-center agent could have a high average handle time and still not be very warm and fuzzy."

In the end though, the ability to satisfy even the most difficult customer may not be found in training courses, CRM solutions and assessment tools. Sometimes an apology is all that's needed. "What's wrong with just saying 'I'm sorry'?" Fluss said. "What's wrong with feeling people's pain and having somebody to talk to who understands?"

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