| Feature Article|
Beware: Your Contact Center Just Got Promoted
By Mariann McDonough
A seismic shift occurring in the world of customer service is about to shake the contact center community like a 9.9 Richter scale earthquake. In a movement that the Wall Street Journal has called ‘customer service as a growth engine,’ corporate executives today are elevating customer care from a necessary cost of doing business to a competitive differentiator that can help grow the bottom line. For contact center managers, that means the pressure is on like never before.
As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, for example, cable provider Comcast has ratcheted up training and coaching efforts for its 24,000 call center agents in an effort to improve customer retention and upsell rates. Similarly, American Express has trained call center agents in more than 20 countries to focus less on rapid call resolution and more on building customer loyalty in a bid to drive additional sales. Inevitably, other companies will be jumping on the bandwagon.
The new role of the contact center in the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers is a byproduct of broad market and technology developments that have created a need for fresh methods of customer acquisition and retention. Among the challenges: redefining customer care in an environment where the three S’s of self-service, smartphones and social media have put unprecedented power in the hands of customers themselves.
From a business perspective, the transformation in customer service is being sparked by a convergence of reduced consumer tolerance for inadequate problem handling and an increasingly competitive marketplace. Consider that:
Perhaps even more telling, Gartner has forecast that fewer than 10% of brands will be able to provide meaningful product or service differentiation by 2020. Given that scenario, customer service may be the only differentiator left that can help keep customers in the fold.
- 69% of consumers responding to an Accenture poll said they had switched at least one provider because of poor customer service in 2009. That’s two percentage points higher than in 2008 and 10 points higher than 2007.
- 91% of Americans in a recent American Express survey consider the level of customer service important when deciding to do business with a company; 81% are likely to give a company repeat business after a good service experience; and 51% are likely never to do business with a company again after a poor experience.
- 89% of consumers in a Purdue University study said they would probably repurchase from a company that effectively resolved a problem with a product. Surprisingly, that’s 11 points higher than those who purchased a product with NO problems.
- 80% of business executives questioned by Strativity Group think that customer service strategy is more important than it was three years ago; 95% see it as the next competitive battleground; and 57% believe it is a way to differentiate the business.
Also fueling the need for change in customer service strategies are trends and technologies that have not only opened new company/customer communication channels but also given consumers the ability to broadcast grievances to millions of people in a nanosecond via tweet or blog post. For contact centers, this means more balls to juggle as well as more fires to put out.
Indeed, as we all know, clever consumer use of social media can damage a company’s reputation in a heartbeat. Look no further than the egg that landed on United Airlines’ face when musician Dave Carroll told the tale of the airline’s refusal to compensate him or even apologize for breaking his $3,500 guitar. Carroll ‘outed’ United by writing a song about the incident and posting it on YouTube. The video racked up more than 3 million views in 10 days, and damage to the United brand that analysts estimate at almost $100 million.
- With the rising acceptance of self-service, consumers have told Gartner that they will be willing to do all possible customer service functions themselves by 2012. The trend – being driven in part by younger consumers who are less inclined to use live assistance for routine queries – will require contact centers to enhance both their IVR and web self-service capabilities as well as to continually measure results and refine their options.
- With the explosion of smartphones, analysts predict there will be more Internet access by phone than computer by 2014. As more customers gain the ability to call, text, chat or visit a company website, Facebook page or Twitter account directly from the handset, contact centers will need to step up to the multichannel challenge – including blending channels on the inbound and knowing customers’ channel preferences on the outbound.
- And with the ubiquity of social media, contact centers will not only need to integrate social capabilities into their workflow but also take steps – in some cases changing the entire customer service culture – to avoid becoming a victim of an online smear campaign. Managers must also be prepared to initiate damage control in the event of negative reviews or an attack that goes viral.
If you need yet another reason to worry about social media, consider this, too. According to the same American Express survey cited above, 48% of consumers report that they “always” or “often” use an online posting or blog to get others’ opinions about a company’s customer service reputation. Consumers also tend to put more weight on negative reviews than positive ones, making it particularly difficult to recover from online criticism.
Tools to Respond
For contact centers, the ability to turn up the heat on customer service rests in part on the underlying telephony and call handling infrastructure. Managers need to be able to adjust self-service programs, add agents as demands change, seamlessly handle multiple channels, conduct customer satisfaction surveys and otherwise fine-tune operations quickly and cost-effectively in order to optimize customer interactions.
Increasingly, companies are meeting these challenges by moving to a hosted contact center infrastructure in which core back-end hardware and software is housed, updated and monitored at the vendor’s data center. Benefits range from easy home agent setup and multi-site support, to the ability to instantly add seats without being constrained by the size of the phone switch, to do-it-yourself IVR changes without the time and expense of using a programmer.
In addition, moving to the cloud virtually eliminates upfront capital outlays as well as in-house maintenance, software upgrade and equipment replacement costs. Day-to-day management of the technology infrastructure is completely outsourced, making it possible to focus 100% of one’s time and energy on strategies for increasing customer retention, brand loyalty and bottom-line revenues.
Regardless of where the ACD and related systems are physically located, however, contact centers today are quickly moving from a supporting role in customer service to center stage. Delivering a better customer experience is no longer a goal; it’s a mandate. Success will be measured in hard dollar figures rather than traditional contact center performance metrics. Congratulations: the top brass is recognizing the value of service, and you’ve just been handed a whole new level of stress.
Mariann McDonagh is Chief Marketing Officer for inContact (www.inContact.com),
a provider of cloud-based contact center software and agent optimization solutions. She can be reached at mariann.mcdonagh@inContact.com