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Expert's Angle: Rethinking Repeat Callers

This Dilbert comic strip speaks volumes. It’s nice to know that fictional characters go through the same maddening treatment that we endure every day. As usual, the Dilbert comic’s creator, Scott Adams, is a modern-day prophet. He illustrates a problem that many people instinctively know about contact centers.

As customers, we only reach out to companies when we need help. We consider it a victory when we navigate through the automated phone prompts to finally connect with a human voice. It adds insult to injury when our issue is not resolved on the initial call – forcing us to traverse arcane menu mazes and re-explain our issue to another potentially uninterested customer service representative (CSR).

Contact center agents and management are generally held accountable to a wide variety of metrics. In addition, the technology setup for most customer service environments makes it easy for a CSR to create a "new" ticket or event. It is even simpler to close a ticket, contributing to the first call resolution metric.

On the other hand, it is more difficult to reopen an event that was previously closed. A closed ticket may signal completion for a contact center agent but it can also translate to an unresolved problem for the agitated caller.

Call resolution data, while often computationally correct, is frequently methodologically flawed. The resulting figures are likely to give managers an inflated sense of customer issue remediation.

The consequences can be grave. Not only are certain ongoing customer issues unaddressed, but management collects reports stating the complete opposite. Common first call resolution (FCR) mistakes include:

1. No FCR tracking – Many contact centers do not track first call resolution. According to ICMI (International Customer Management Institute) only 58 percent of call centers track this metric.

2. Evaluating a case but ignoring an account – FCR metrics are often tied to a specific case. However, it is also necessary to consider the activity impacting a specific account.

3. Inflated case tracking – The erroneous assumption is that case activity will be tracked diligently. In actuality, multiple cases can be opened regarding the same issue.

The next section will explore the consequences, from both a financial and customer experience perspective, when FCR reporting is inaccurate.

Why Repeat Calls Matter

To use an analogy, repeat callers are similar to a leaky faucet. If not fixed, the faulty mechanism and excess water can be extremely expensive as well as damaging to the foundation. To avoid the trend of repeat callers, the following adverse effects are highlighted:

1. Repeat callers are expensive. A customer call costs an average organization between four and eight dollars. In an effort to keep costs low, first call resolution should be achieved whenever possible.

2. Problems compound over time. What was easy to fix today might be more difficult to fix tomorrow. For example, take a late fee or payment on a mortgage. If avoided for a long enough period, these simple fixes can result in an impending foreclosure or even repossession.

3. Repeat callers become former customers. According to a Harris Interactive poll, as much as 86 percent of customers leave a company or product due to customer service frustrations. Rob McDougall of Upstream Works states a third of all calls into a contact center are of a repeat nature. That means that 30 cents of every dollar the company spends on the call center is on re-work. In a piece by Peggy Carlaw on the Impact Blog, having an issue resolved on the first call has been cited in numerous studies as being the number one driver of customer satisfaction.

4. Bad customer service makes for even worse PR. There are longstanding avenues for customers to voice their dissatisfaction, including state commissions and other regulatory agencies. A look at the Better Business Bureau or other consumer affairs websites shows how incensed customers can become. Social media has accelerated and amplified the effect of the customer’s voice with tools like Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs. These sites also demonstrate the lengths that a disgruntled consumer will go to broadcast their malcontent. The website untied.com (a spoof of the united.com domain) is devoted entirely to negative reviews of United Airlines. Other sites like ConsumerRevenge.com and CustomerServiceScoreboard.com magnify shopper frustration. In short, everyone has a voice, and in today’s society, it’s louder than ever.

What to Do About Repeat Callers

What can be done to achieve better information, avoid the wrath of the most proactive callers and resolve lingering customer issues? Below are five practical next steps to consider:

1. Improve repeat caller metrics. Don’t assume that default reports provided by the customer relationship management (CRM) software or automatic call distribution (ACD) technology are accurate without understanding the underlying methodology. This information is essential to comprehending both the numerator and denominator in a repeat caller metric.

It is essential to understand the length of time required to resolve an issue within a particular customer service environment. For example, if a customer calls their cable company in regard to a late fee, a repeat call concerning this same issue may not appear for 45 days.

Conversely, in a roadside assistance context, a repeat call into the hotline probably occurs within a few hours of the original incident.

2. Identify those customers that incessantly call into the contact center. CRM or automatic number identification (ANI) data can identify the top five percent of a company’s callers. These callers exact a financial and systematic toll upon the organization and usurp precious focus from the remaining 95 percent.

By conducting this analysis, the organization can identify which customers call most often and evaluate the root causes contributing to frequent call activity.

Consideration should be given to customers that have a legitimate, unaddressed concern. But it’s equally important to note that there may be customers who are intentionally badgering the organization without an underlying issue to remediate. These situations may need to be addressed in a more direct manner.

In June of 2007, Sprint identified customers that excessively called into their contact centers. As a result, Sprint cancelled their accounts. This provocative decision was made in the broader interest of improved customer service.

3. Identify the issues that force recurring calls into the contact center. By taking the extra step of examining which types of issues are most likely to result in a repeat call, an organization can better prioritize technology involvement and training efforts.

4. Give agents greater situational awareness. An alert indicating how many times an account holder has called in the last 30 days could be a helpful metric in some contexts. This would enable agents to identify and escalate callers with unresolved or lingering issues.

From a training standpoint, agents should be taught to think differently when a customer mentions that they’ve called before. Many contact centers ignore these signals and incur significant costs.

5. Create a proactive escalation team. Using the data gathered above, identify the callers with valid concerns that are most in need of attention. Reach out to them directly.

Not only does this approach elevate customer experience, it also serves as a cost reduction exercise. One call from a specially trained agent may help to eliminate dozens of future inbound calls.

Pursuing the initiatives listed above will endear customers while decreasing costs in the contact center. Creating meaningful progress toward better first call resolution is a key ingredient toward continuous improvement.

Andrew C. Studee is the Managing Director of Crescendio, LLC, a management consulting firm that partners with clients to provide superior customer experience and improve business operations. Additional information is available at www.crescendio.com. Contact him at [email protected].

Andrew Studee is the Managing Director of Crescendio, LLC, a management consulting firm that partners with clients to provide superior customer experience and streamline business operations.