Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Definition of a World Class Call Center? Not as bad.

There was a recent discussion on LinkedIn on what constituted world class customer service.  Was it Apple?  Zappos?  Both have fiercely loyal customers and many do report experiencing a WOW factor when they call in.
While WOW is good, I felt the discussion did not focus enough on accuracy.  In a kind of Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs, I believe a center would be better served getting the basics right (right steps to ID the customer, right diagnostic steps, right disclosures, right offer, right price, right system updates, etc) before worrying about agent warmth and empathy and any kind of WOW factor.

But go into centers and ask to see a chart of error rates on some of those dimensions listed above. They don't exist. (
http://ifyouwanttoscream.blogspot.com/2009/05/benchmark-error-rates-for-contact.html ). A call center leader for a division of a high tech company was lamenting that they could not get their thousands of outsourced agents to 1) consistently diagnose a high volume tech support call correctly, 2) they couldn't get those agents to consistently check the warranty to avoid unauthorized returns, and 3) they could not get the agents to remind the customer to remove software before returning the unit since they would never see it again, which resulted in angry letters about missing software to the Office of the CEO. Did they or their outsourcer track any of these sub-process error rates? They did not. (See Call Center Hidden Factories http://www.nationalcallcenters.org/pubs/In_Queue/vol3no7.html#Call_Center_Hidden_Factories )

Not only aren't error rates tracked, but the very process of making process changes...which happen constantly in call centers...is a complete joke (see Inside Jokes essay
http://www.nationalcallcenters.org/pubs/In_Queue/vol3no15.html ). As an example here, a client of ours went to the Philippines to listen to their outsourcer's agents take calls. In ten out of 10 calls they listened to, the agents gave the wrong price for a service that recently changed. Our client asked the management, how they communicated the change and they said what any call center management team would say: we had team meetings, we sent out emails, we did chair-drops, we monitored some phone calls and did some coaching. We have to stop kidding ourselves about our ability to change agent behavior in any kind of timely fashion (see Wag the Dog: Why are we letting agent traits control call center outputs? http://ifyouwanttoscream.blogspot.com/2009/05/wag-dog-why-are-we-letting-agent-traits.html )

I am not sure what the call center definition of World Class is, but I do know this: whether outsourced or in-house, call centers make too many errors every day (see Do Call Centers Need to Carry Malpractice Insurance
http://www.nationalcallcenters.org/pubs/In_Queue/vol2no24.html ). This is not just a few aberrant centers. The high error rates we observe are actually endemic to the call center service delivery model that most centers follow...unaided humans are not very reliable to begin with (3 Sigma at best), let alone the mostly young, entry level, low-paid employees that we staff our centers with, who (in normal economic times) are turning over at a stratoshperic rate because the jobs, in general, are stressful, who, during their short stays, don't get enough training, only occassional monitoring and even less coaching. (As an aside, coaching is the go-to method for improving call centers, but this go-to method is of questionable ROI given the high turnover (see The Futility of Call Center Coaching http://www.isixsigma.com/library/content/c080331a.asp )). With this as the typical Call Center M.O., is it any wonder we observe the quality problems that we do?

Until centers figure out how to support the intelligence and empathy of humans with the reliability of automation and blend the two together seamlessly, the high error rates in contact centers will continue and world class will only mean "not as bad."  

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