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Expert's Angle: Has Quality Management Been Failing the Customer Service Industry?

In Bain & Company’s 2009 survey of U.S. contact centers, 80 percent of companies felt they offered a superior customer experience, but only eight percent of their customers agreed. How could such a gap between providers and consumers develop?

Some insight to this question is gained when one considers the following example of a simple customer service call. The agent properly greets the customer, listens attentively to the problem, empathizes with his or her frustration, but was ultimately unable to solve the issue due to system or authority or process limitations. The agent then asks if they are able to help the customer with anything else, says goodbye and ends the call.

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In this all too common example, the agent can potentially score 100 percent when assessed by their peers. However, the call represents a total failure for the customer, who is now ten times more likely to defect to a new supplier, and pretty much guaranteed to complain about the company to friends and relatives. With this failure, the contact center has succeeded in using its expensive customer service infrastructure to damage its brand.

Of course, contact centers don’t set out to upset callers, and quality management (QM) focuses on serving them well. But the Bain survey result speaks volumes about how quality has been mismanaged in the customer service industry.

Why This Matters

The impact of poor quality work on a contact center is severe but often hidden. Severe because - by some estimates - up to 66 percent of a contact center’s budget gets spent repeating shoddy work. Hidden because repeat calls get mixed in with all other call traffic and can be tricky to identify.

So, poorly informed contact center directors will ramp up their infrastructure to cope with high volumes of incoming calls, when in fact, identifying and eliminating repeat - or avoidable - calls would pay far greater dividends.

The Solution

When customers are not properly served, the cause can usually be traced to specific reasons such as agent skills and/or faulty processes. These obstacles can be overcome if managers and directors are informed, understand their impact on the company's bottom line, and are presented with viable solutions at an acceptable cost.

Providing directors with this crucial business intelligence should be the number one priority of any contact center QM program. Unfortunately, contact centers often organize the QM function exclusively on staff performance and customer satisfaction without first asking, "Should we even be doing this work in the first place?" In other words, contact center QM should first and foremost focus on the elimination of avoidable calls.

Contact centers should serve customers: 1. Efficiently 2. The first time and 3. Every time. Contact center workforce management (WFM) is concerned with efficiency: getting calls answered promptly without wasting staff time. Contact center QM must focus on the "First time, every time" part of the job description.

Of course, agent skills, training and performance must also be evaluated. However, customers want their problems solved first and foremost, and measuring that achievement, or identifying the reasons for a failure to do so, must be the primary objective of QM.

Good things happen when QM helps contact centers achieve this goal. Customers become more loyal, spend more money on company goods and services, trust the company more, and recommend the company to their friends and relatives more often. Call volume per customer is reduced, the staff is happier and complaints fade away.

Practical Steps

To help a contact center approach the "one and done" ideal, the contact center QM team must focus on the reason for calls and their outcome instead of just measuring customers’ experience and the agents’ performance.

The QM team must gather and analyze the right kind of information to do so, often by using modern quality management suites to automate these tasks and empower themselves to proceed quickly and efficiently.

"The right kind of information" will vary with individual contact centers, but a detailed analysis starts with the top ten reasons for customer care calls, including both voice and screen recordings, to determine how well customers were served and whether they might be served better. Finally, one should also incorporate agent and customer feedback. Agents operate on the frontline and can assist management greatly with insight into their jobs. Customers must be surveyed, often and quickly, to confirm the service level and cost.

Finally, the intelligence gathered by this QM effort must be distilled to create a continuous improvement hit list. At least once a month, senior management should review the top reasons why customers are calling and why they may call back for the same problem. Then, the steps to reduce the avoidable workload must be determined and acted upon.

A Virtuous Circle

The Bain survey served as a wake-up call for many in the contact center industry. QM teams must be treated as vital leaders instead of necessary overhead in the effort to serve customers well and cost effectively.

Many companies have already invested heavily in a QM team. But, getting more bang for the QM buck requires clarifying the team’s focus and making effective use of the intelligence generated.

Although the cost savings realized by a really effective quality management program will deliver a return of investment in the hundreds of percent, getting all this right transcends a cost-savings perspective.

Every time a customer is served professionally and effectively, the value of the company's product and/or service is positively reinforced. While profitable in themselves, loyal customers serve as the best kind of sales people: advocates.

Patrick Coleman is Managing Director at ASC telecom UK.