Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Truth About Customer Service.

Everyone has at least one horror story about dealing with a call centre. I'm no exception. There's the time I was on hold for 45 minutes. Oh, and that other time when I kept getting transferred from person to person to person because no-one could help me. And if you actually get a phone jockey who can speak English it's a miracle!

There's a bizarre perception that customer service centre staff are paid near minimum wages to answer the phone because they're not smart enough to do anything else. "Any moron can answer a phone." "The sooner they replace all those idiot phone jockeys with computers, the better! Useless!" 

I've heard it all before, some of it directed at me. I've worked in call centres and customer service departments, as a phone jockey, as a telesales "consultant",  order entry monkey, trainer, administrator, project manager and change management specialist. I know what a demanding, thankless job it is, so if you're going to badmouth call centres and customer service to me, expect to get smacked.

Firstly, let's get some terminology in place. There are Call Centres, Telesales Centres, Customer Contact Centres, and Customer Service Centres. People use these terms interchangeably, and the boundaries are blurry. Every company defines the role of its customer service department differently, yet there's one thing they have in common, Telesales excepted:  they exist as a centralised point to receive and process customer enquiries, orders, and complaints. What happens next is up for grabs.

Some operate as a phone clearing house for incoming calls: answer and refer calls elsewhere. These are the genuine "call centres", and they're often combined with a data input/order entry function, and called the Orders Department.  Others are full service centres, where the customer service representatives are expected to deal with almost every call themselves.  Most are in between, it helps to know what style you're dealing with.

The Customer Service Centre where I worked is the full service version. In any given day, the team members will need to be competent with the following systems:

SAP (ERP system)
CRM (Customer Relationship Management System)
Custom-built Online portal / B2B System
In-house customer claims & Complaints systems
Lotus Notes Email & Databases
Microsoft Office suite
Company Intranet
Various internal databases
Integrated VOIP phone system

Each time a Customer Service Representative answers a call by pressing a button on their natty little Bluetooth headsets, she might require expert knowledge about any of the following:

Order Entry & Order Management
Basic Help Desk duties for an Online ordering portal
Investigation & Processing of Credit Claims
Database contact maintenance and administration
Enquiries - Pricing, order status, distribution
Liaison with Credit, Production, Despatch
Sales & Marketing Support

The Customer Service Representatives we employ are expected to have that innate 'extra mile' customer service approach, great communication and relationship building skills, solid maths skills, analytical problem solving skills, excellent computer skills, fast, accurate data entry, discipline, flexibility and resilience...and all this for a salary that is slightly above half the average Australian wage.

Could you handle 200 incoming calls a day, with customers ranging from pleasant to hostile, yet all expecting you to have a great attitude, an indepth knowledge of your business and your customer's business, and the answer the customer wants to hear. Could you do it? Would you even try?

The company I work for places customers high on the priority list...and customer service high on our list of values...but like every customer service centre I been involved with, our department is permanently and critically under-resourced. Customer Service is under constant pressure to reduce the 'Cost to Serve' even while functioning with too few people and outdated systems. Don't expect the situation to improve until it has already failed.

There was a conversation this week on Twitter, about call centre on-hold times, and how this reflected the low value that the company places on customers.  Those Tweeps were wrong. Companies invariably value their clients. What they don't value is the critical role that a customer service group has in servicing the clients and building brand loyalty. 

Customer Service staff deserve your respect. If you get great customer service, write a letter, send an email, tweet about it, note it on the company's website or Facebook page. Sometimes "thank you for listening" is the best feedback a phone jockey or CSR will get all week.

If you get stuck on hold for forty-five interminable minutes, don't take it out on the phone jockey who has probably taken a hundred calls already today, and scoffed lunch at his desk while trying to catch up on admin, and is busting for a loo break but his phone keeps ringing. Your poor phone jockey is doing the best he can to provide great customer service during every phone call.

If you want a better experience from your customer service team or call centre, you have to make it important to the company. Don't ask to speak to the Call Centre Supervisor or  Manager. They're already fighting the good fight. Go around them, make some noise at a senior level.

Customer Service staff are front line, customer-facing business relationship experts who usually know more about the vital order-to-cash cycle of the business than anyone else. It's way past time that they were paid what they deserve, and provided with the tools they need to do their jobs properly.

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