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The One Trend that Will Reshape Customer Service in 2014

Managing customer service used to be a lot easier than it is today. 

Think about what the service organization was like before the advent of self-service.  Customers had only one option to contact the companies they did business with—the phone.   What’s more, most of the issues customers called in about were predictable and routine (e.g., “what’s my balance?”) and those customers were wholly reliant on the company to provide them with information.  And, if anything went wrong, the worst that would happen is that the customer might send a complain letter to the company.  It was a pretty contained operating environment.

As a result, companies managed customer service like a factory floor.  There was little emphasis on quality of hire.  Instead, companies trained reps to follow a prescribed script and checklist for handling customer issues.  Reps were herded into cubicles, discouraged from talking with one another, and measured by a combination of strict throughput (Average Handle Time) and compliance (internal QA) metrics.  Accordingly, high levels of turnover were seen as little more than a nuisance—since staff were little more than cogs in the machine, they could be easily replaced. 

Today, all of this has changed—and there’s no going back.

First, customers today have a multitude of options for obtaining support.  Anything simple and routine is more likely to be handled through self-service than live and, as a result, the calls that end up coming into the contact center are more complex on average. 

Second, customers who do call in are far more empowered with information and knowledge.  As a rule, they first go to the company’s website to see if they can solve the issue on their own.  Then, if they can’t, they search the internet for insight into the issue—often consulting peer networks not controlled by the company.  When they finally pick up the phone to speak to the representative, they are armed to the teeth with information—often times more knowledgeable about the issue and how it should be resolved than the representative on the other end of the phone. 

And, of course, we all know that the consequences for bad service are far more severe today—when things go bad, customers use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp, and numerous other social channels to tell the world about their bad experiences.

These changes have rendered obsolete the “factory floor” approach to managing talent in the contact center—something leading companies have already recognized and acted on.  The best contact centers:

  1. Bring science and analytics to bear in the hiring process, screening for key competencies necessary to solve complex issues for information-empowered customers.
  2. Re-think their development approaches, understanding that training, while good for rote information transfer, fails to equip representatives to deliver the kind of tailored, quality service experience that customers expect (and the kind that will keep negative word of mouth out of social networks). 
  3. Put more emphasis on internal collaboration between reps, recognizing that restricting information exchange puts reps at a distinct advantage in a world of complex issue handling (especially since customers willingly and eagerly share information among themselves).
  4. Re-think how staff are managed—shifting from compliance and throughput metrics to measures that better capture the quality of the interaction from the customer’s perspective.
  5. Focus on rep engagement, knowing that replacing large percentages of the frontline staff population every year robs the organization of the competencies and knowledge that have been carefully cultivated since hiring.

To be successful, today’s contact center must operate like a knowledge work environment, not a factory floor.  Companies that don’t act quickly to adapt their hiring, development and performance management approaches will not only lose top talent to those organizations that offer a more compelling employee value proposition, but they’ll find themselves struggling to deliver a quality service experience to increasingly knowledgeable and demanding customers.