Modernizing the Call Center—Back to the Future

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There is a lot of talk about modernizing the call center. But when you talk to your customers, the people who actually need to contact you for help or support of some sort you get a different answer, more like back to the future.

There is a lot of talk about modernizing the call center.  Updating the call agent’s tools to meet the demands and needs of customers whose mobile and social empowerment has put companies in the virtual hot seat.  And the tools? Start with a knowledge man­agement system, voice and predictive analysis software, maybe even some big data analytics.

But when you talk to your customers, the people who actually need to contact you for help or support of some sort you get a different answer, more like back to the future.  Zendesk reports 79% of customers still prefer to use the telephone to interact with a customer service center, 33% prefer email, and 12% prefer to use web chat (though that number continues to climb). Only 4% prefer letters sent via USPS (wonder why the Post Office is in trouble) and 2% prefer social media.

Looking ahead two years, Zendesk’s results are a little different: 69% still prefer phone calls, 43% prefer email, and 31% want web self-service.  Social media along with text messaging, fax, and video conferencing come it at 3%.  But letters via USPS do better at 6%. So what gives? <more>

For all the excitement about social media new communication formats it is clear that people still prefer to get their support from a live person over the phone. For most companies that means a call center, either their own or an outsourced one. This puts management in a costly bind.

Call centers are not cheap, whether in-house or outsourced.  You have to allocate sufficient space and phone lines (usually toll-free lines);  hire, train, and retain people; provide them with the proper telephony tools;  deliver the necessary data in the right format and make sure it is current and accurate;  and integrate it with your back office (production) and front office (sales) systems. But for the next few years at least, there is no way around the staffed telephone call center.  Sure, you can apply automation to many of the calls but God help the organization that does not offer a way for customers to click out of the automated system to a live person. How fast and how far do you want to see your customer satisfaction ratings plummet?

Zendesk offers some stats on today’s call centers. How to you stack up?  In terms of coverage, 86% server local, regional, or national markets while 14% serve international markets.  Inbound calls are received by 79% while 21% make outbound calls.  In terms of markets, 75% serve mass market customers and 25% serve business customers.  Almost half provide customer service only while 21% provide sales only and 30% handle both.

In today’s highly competitive markets, superior customer service may be the only way a company can achieve and sustain a competitive advantage.  Low prices can be matched or beaten. Innovations can be copied. To deliver quality customer service you will need not only a call center but also to take advantage of social media. Its impact may be small now in terms of the Zendesk survey and it is unlikely to become a replacement for the call center anytime soon but social business is a rapidly gaining traction as a differentiator in a number of ways. If you want customer service to deliver a competitive advantage, be prepared to provide it through phone, social, cloud, mobile, and even video (e.g. product support tutorials on YouTube).  Customer service that provides a sustainable competitive advantage will have to be a multi-format strategic weapon.

 

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