The Worst (but Common) Call-Center Practices

Updated: April 30, 2009

Few people can honestly admit to ever having gotten off the phone with a call-center agent and thinking, "I really enjoyed that." That's probably because every call that is made to a call center occurs because of a problem — or because the call center is trying to sell a product or service that the consumer doesn't want. But some call-center experiences are worse than others, and most of those calls boil down to poor processes. Here are four common, unnecessary mistakes that call centers often make.

1. Outsourcing Problems

So many companies send their call-center operations overseas that most people no longer expect to talk to a native English speaker when they place a call to a customer-service hotline. But that's not the problem. The problem is that so many companies decide to export flawed call-center practices along with the jobs. Outsourcing isn't going to solve a company's problems if it has inadequate analysis procedures, agents who don't know products or poorly configured automated software solutions.

As Colin Taylor, CEO of The Taylor Reach Group, once said, some companies "don't establish why outsourcing is being done or considered in the first place," and "don't bother to customize staff training materials."

2. "Listen Closely, As Our Options Have Changed"

Why should a company use live agents? Intelligent self-service applications mean that customers can take care of themselves, navigate to exactly the information or department that they need, and voilà — problem solved. However, research has shown that self-service applications don't always result in a decline in agent-fielded calls.

In fact, IVR (Interactive Voice Response) technology can often cause massive headaches. Customer options can be far too numerous and vague, and voice and sound quality is often poor. And after navigating through the options, callers often find that they still need human help and end up waiting 20 minutes before a live agent picks up.

3. Live Agents, Dead Space

Once a caller is speaking to a human, the last thing that he or she wants to hear is some hackneyed prepared script delivered by someone who can't answer the simplest of questions about the company that they represent. Yet it happens all the time.

Scripts can be helpful, but they often stifle conversation and prevent the agent from actually listening to the customer, since the representative is too worried about the next question on the list. And if management doesn't take the time to recruit only people who speak well on the phone, then train said people on every nuance of the product or service that they represent, companies end up with agents who invent things.

Even if a company is in the midst of a peak time of the year while in a growth period, agent training will make or break a call center. Agents need sound company processes to ensure quality service, and they need management to consistently revisit the process to ensure improvement.

"An improvement strategy built around inspecting quality (call recording/call monitoring) is too expensive," said Dennis Adsit, an expert in contact-center operations and process excellence. "Further, it is not nearly as effective and sustainable as the techniques that have proved so successful in manufacturing — process standardization, error proofing and complete transparency into performance."

4. The Call-Center Disconnect

Perhaps it is due to a geographic separation from corporate headquarters, but many call centers become cut off from the shared goals of the organization. Oftentimes, metrics are used only to determine if call centers are cutting costs and reducing call times instead of to gauge the call center's effectiveness in terms of revenue generation, customer satisfaction and product improvement.

Conflicted or ambiguous objectives prevent call centers from truly delivering for customers across the board. An efficient call center should be able to cut costs, as well as generate revenue and customer satisfaction. Too often, management fails to measure and support both ends of the spectrum.

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