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Compromising Service Level for Quality

Zappos responded to an online hacker by temporarily shutting down all call center phone lines and directing customers to contact them via email. The center’s service level record won't take a hit, but will customers settle for longer response times if the quality is there?

Carefully planning to achieve the most appropriate service level or response time is an important step in contact center management. The most efficient contact centers have managed to successfully plan out their processes and objectives based on typical needs. So, what's a well-balanced contact center to do when something atypical happens?

When the customer databases of online retailer Zappos were recently hacked, the company quickly responded by resetting all customer passwords and notifying all customers of the situation via emailand explaining the next steps to be taken. The email also stated that, due to the anticipated volume of customer inquiries, Zappos had decided to temporarily shut down their call center phone lines and all customer inquires would be handled by email requests only.

In the email, CEO Tony Hseih said, "We've spent over 12 years building our reputation, brand, and trust with our customers. It's painful to see us take so many steps back due to a single incident. I suppose the one saving grace is that the database that stores our customers' critical credit card and other payment data was not affected or accessed."

Zappos' acknowledgement of its limitations and quick action to reroute anticipated volume is evidence that it has a better grasp on its workforce management than it may seem.

Know What Your Call Center Can Do

Did Zappos do the right thing for its customers and its business? The truth is, only Zappos knows the answer. If the company adhered closely to an appropriate staffing and scheduling plan (and it's very likely that it did), it may have been able to be flexible enough to handle the situation without significantly compromising its service level objectives.

ICMI recommends that call centers follow nine basic steps to ensure its people and processes are managed properly. The first of these important steps is: Establish accessibility options. ICMI asserts that accessibility – expressed as service level or response time - is the key to managing any call center. Once your call center nails down these objectives, it will be easier to define other necessary requirements, such as staffing, costs and quality.

When you are planning for your center’s service level objective, it’s helpful to keep in mind that what works for another call center may not necessarily work for yours. In the article, Service Level Targets: One Size Does Not Fit All Call Centers, Mike Cholak emphasizes that there is no industry standard service level. Instead, service levels must be established based on specific business needs and customer requirements. Cholak says, "By deploying service level sensitivity analysis, companies can strike the right balance between loyal customers and optimized costs — and find the right size fit for their customer service operation."

Considering Zappos' history for providing exceptional customer service, it makes sense that the company’s decision to funnel all customer interactions into one channel was a well-thought out decision. In Zappos’ email to its customers, Tony Hseih publicly admitted that the company's phone system simply could handle the millions of calls expected after this incident. Hseih also signs off the message by stating that Zappos will be training all employees over the next few days on how to best help customers through the password change process.

Maintaining Customer Satisfaction

Despite Zappos' excellent reputation and sincere email plea, the question remains: will customers settle for the longer response times? The answer begs to be seen.

Zappos stepped up to take on its customers' frustrations over the incident head-on. It’s customers may balk at the increased email wait times and general inconvenience of having to reset passwords and check information, but if true customer service issues are being handled quickly and efficiently, satisfaction should be expected to rate fairly high.

Though Zappos declined to comment on this to ICMI at this time, it is likely that reports of the outcome will eventually surface.

Has your contact center ever experienced a similar situation? If so, how did your contact center handle it? Share your experience with me at [email protected].

Christina Hammarberg is the former associate editor at ICMI.