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Service Level Notes: We Must Be Accessible!

Accessibility goes to the heart of what call centers do—or are supposed to do. Call centers can and must meet realtime demands, whatever the channel of contact. Unlike accountants, lawyers or marketers, we can’t come in early in the morning to get a head start, or stay late to make up for the workload that has stacked up—we've got to be there at 10:42 a.m., when the contacts are there to be handled!

If contacts can’t get through, little else can happen. Customers won't get served, customer relationships can’t grow, and the call center cannot capture intelligence that can be shared with other business units. Without basic accessibility, all bets are off.

Unfortunately, too many organizations are falling short when it comes to this basic tenet of good service. Several years ago, the business magazine Forbes ran an insightful front-cover story titled "Wasting Your Time" (October 16, 2000). In the article, author Kelly Barron estimated that, if our time as consumers is worth $20 per hour, we spend around a half-trillion dollars worth of time a year waiting for services (in the United States alone).

That piece, and others like it, precipitated a groundswell of criticism from the business press, consumer groups and government on the poor state of service. In one example, the Oregon Department of Justice passed a ruling requiring AT&T to guarantee its Oregon customers reasonable levels of access to live operators. The subsequent AT&T/Oregon Department of Justice settlement did acknowledge that automated applications are an acceptable method to serve customers, as long as customers are not forced to rely solely on those systems.

While this may be an extreme case, all you have to do is ask your neighbors about their experiences in dealing with various organizations today. Indeed, studies from International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) and others confirm that many centers have struggled to meet basic service level and response time objectives—at least consistently across each day’s increments (sorry, daily and weekly averages don’t count). This is all rather surreal—after 20 years of focus across the business landscape on the benefits of satisfying, delighting and astounding our customers, we’re still missing it on the basics. Think about it. While industry conferences and publications have been focused on customer lifetime value, new contact channels, CRM, VoIP and the like, customers have been asking us all along to just please answer those darn telephone calls (and emails)! So... what do we need to do? I believe there are a number of priorities:

Make Service Level a Priority

In today’s environment, multiple channels of access, 24x7 operations (or, at least, expanded hours of operation) and one-stop shopping have become well-known best practices. Telematics (communications capabilities being built into automobiles), speech recognition applications, Web-based services and other developments are expanding the repertoire of available access channels. But accessibility is, of course, more than just a matter of the channels we open—it takes a real commitment in terms of getting the right number of skilled people and supporting resources in the right places at the right times. Some exemplary organizations have turned to innovative solutions to make high service levels possible without breaking the budget. For example:

  • Jet Blue is an upstart airline that is growing fast in a tough market. All of their reservations staff work from their homes via telecommuting technologies that tie them into the call center.
  • Pleasant Co. and John Deere Credit, both located in Wisconsin, have a seasonal staff-sharing arrangement that helps them handle the workload across the year and provide more stable, year-round employment to their agents. (And talk about different: Pleasant Co. is the maker of the American Girl books, dolls and accessories, while John Deere Credit is a lawn-mowing giant!)
  • The rapid emergence of service bureau call centers in India, the Philippines, South America and elsewhere is a trend that’s real. But rather than all or nothing, we’re seeing more companies outsource certain aspects of their call centers that they need help with, such as email, text chat or off-hours coverage.

    It’s also worth noting that among organizations leading the charge, service level and response time standards are evolving rapidly. For example, a small but growing number of call centers now staff for email like phone calls—they handle them as they arrive.

    Make Access Choices Clear

    Along with a commitment to being accessible, we must make access choices clear to our customers. Comments such as, "I can’t find your customer service number on your Web site," or "I can’t seem to figure out how to reach a real person any more" are symptoms of serious problems.

    As I've often discussed, these types of complaints are indicative of a perversion of the spirit of customer relationship management and often result from an effort to "encourage" customers to use lower cost channels. And yet, playing hard to get is not where customer segmentation should play out, and often backfires—many low-value customers will never become high-value customers if they don’t receive basic levels of good service. Further, the access channels we provide have different purposes at different times (e.g., downloading a printer driver requires a different channel than working through a problem with a technical support agent).

    Our customers will decide what channels they use, and we must make those choices clear to them. Sure, we can reward more involvement on their part. Southwest Airlines plays an announcement at the beginning of every call that "lower fares may be available online at Southwest.com." That’s fine. We just need to be upfront and say, "OK, here’s all the ways you can contact us, and this is the deal with each."

    I admire John Hancock’s approach (note: as of this writing, John Hancock is being purchased by MetLife). John Hancock sells life insurance and has many competitors. A decade ago, the company’s leadership made a commitment to open up all channels—in person sales, call center services, Web services. They essentially said, "Let’s let people do business with us however they want." John Hancock has since enjoyed some five times the profitability of the average company in that sector.

    Establish Parity Across Channels

    An important part of accessibility is that service level must be in "parity" across contact channels. Being in parity in this context doesn’t necessarily mean being equal. Rather, it means you are operating within customer expectations across contact channels. The customer who expects a reply to an email within a few hours but doesn’t get it may pick up the phone. Now you’ve got two contacts going, which degrades both productivity and quality.

    Similarly, if a customer ends up in an endless phone queue, they may send an email, try alternative numbers or work through a different set of VRU options. What are your customers’ expectations? Ask them (through surveys) as well as observe their behavior. Also, tell them what to expect. Email response management systems can automatically send replies acknowledging that messages have been received and providing information on when to expect a response. Your Web site, customer literature and other sources of information can also help establish expectations (as well as provide information or services that may prevent the contact in the first place).

    Ensure that the Call Center Supports Self-Service Systems

    Supporting self-service systems is another important way that call centers can and must open up accessibility. It’s one of the little secrets out there—to have excellent self-service capabilities, you need excellent call center services. We’ve never yet found an exception to this principle. It’s the call center that provides the wealth of information on which contacts can be automated and what can be done to improve customer acceptance. Further—and paradoxically—providing agent assistance when and as needed encourages customer confidence in self-service systems.

    Continue to Improve Quality

    In most cases, improving the quality of how contacts are handled has a measurable, positive impact on accessibility. Some studies estimate that only about half of all e-contacts are resolved with one online contact, and almost half require a phone call to achieve final resolution. While actual results vary widely from one organization to another, it’s safe to say that improving the quality of these contacts would drive workload and costs down while boosting service levels.

    Cultivate a Sound Customer Access Strategy

    A customer access strategy is simply a blueprint, a plan, which answers questions such as:

      A customer access strategy is an organizationwide effort. The call center must be part of an overall approach that outlines the role of each point at which customers interact with the organization. It does wonders for clarifying responsibilities. It encourages rational resource allocation and minimizes budgeting politics.

      Accessibility Is A Prerequisite for Customer Loyalty

      In the end, accessibility must be viewed in the context of a much larger objective: creating value for our customers and our organizations. Accessibility does not guarantee a loyalty-building customer experience, but it must not be minimized either. It is an enabler, a prerequisite. It’s time to get contacts in the door and handled correctly the first time. It’s time to get the basics right, once and for all.

    • Who are our customers?
    • What channels of access will we open up?
    • What are the telephone numbers, URLs, email addresses and other entry points?
    • How should our agent group be structured to serve these customers and these access channels?