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The Customer Talks Back: Musings on Call Center Efficiency

Running a call center is like handling a job interview: First impressions are critical. Good intentions do not make up for tardiness, ill-fitting clothing, dirty shoes, the inability to reasonably pronounce the interviewer’s name or ignorance about what the company does.

The primary purpose of a call center is to increase the profitability of the parent organization through increased sales. Part of achieving this goal is a strategic utilization of resources in order to reduce any delays or defects the customer might experience. The whole idea is to make customer service a value-added step in the value chain. The performance of the call center is thus critical to attracting new customers as well as retaining existing ones.

Being a Lean Six Sigma professional with expertise oriented towards manufacturing, it is often frustrating to contact call centers and get into a “Murphy’s law” kind of situation where everything possible that could go wrong does go wrong. It makes me wonder whether the companies laying out the call center budget have done even a cursory study on client requirements or, more importantly, on the return on investment generated for the corporation.

Viewing strictly from a customer’s perspective, I see many similarities between poorly run call centers and manufacturing operations that emphasize a rigorous “catch the errors” quality control system instead of error-proofing the process with quality-assurance protocols. The common denominator is that both scenarios inevitably lead to resource depletion – and that both can be improved by managing from a zero-defects perspective.

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Learning from Manufacturing

A few years ago I visited a major kitchen stove-range manufacturer in Nagoya, Japan. I was amazed that they had systems that checked 100 percent of all components being assembled multiple times. I would call it the Rolls-Royce of kitchen stoves; a great product, with practical bells and whistles that, ten years later, I have still yet to see in North America. However, this fantastic appliance was highly priced, partially because of the laborious process of finding and fixing errors during production.

The sad part, however, was that the stove company already had data collection protocols in place, but did not perform the necessary analysis to implement a quality assurance system. This simple Six Sigma procedure could have dropped their manufacturing costs drastically. Had they instituted a proper error-proofing system, the company could have scaled up to a much larger mass-manufacturing operation that might have outgunned their Chinese competition – and then some. The stove maker failed to realize that increasing performance of materials or equipment (without sacrificing safety) should always be correlated to an increase in profitability of the process.

So how does this relate to call centers? My point is that strategic monitoring (traceability) of any function – whether it is answering calls or making widgets – is imperative to increasing not only that function’s performance quality but also, more importantly, enhancing the profitability of the corporation through the selling of its product or service. Any process upgrades that are made without the implementation of transparent and accountable system performance protocols will add no value and, eventually, will become a financial drain.

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Call Center CTQs

From a manufacturer’s viewpoint, here are some critical-to-quality (CTQ) characteristics that all call centers should strive for:

Calls should be answered in three rings or fewer – In one of my worst call-center experiences, I once tried to call a major financial services company and waited for at least a dozen rings before an automated message announced “higher than normal call volumes” and requested that I hold – for the next 20 minutes. After several attempts, I would hear this same message repeating permanently at various times of the week, and even during weekends.

Were they serious? Did the firm really think that their customers had nothing better to do than hang on to the line lest they lose their place in the call queue? From a quality perspective, asking customers to wait for more than 20 minutes with no other options is like telling them that they are of no consequence. Even worse, the long wait times imply that the call center is somehow doing the customer a “favor” by providing them with the service. Over time, such treatment will prompt customers to vote with their feet and just walk away.

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The menu of options should connect clients to operators in no more than three steps – Typical customers will make calls during normal working hours – usually within a short window of time when their work schedules allow for a breather. In my experience with a major cellular service operator, I recall spending more than 10 minutes jumping through a maze of choices until I could reach a live operator, only to be transferred twice (adding another 10 minutes to my wait time) before I could talk to a “specialist” for my area of concern. Throughout the ordeal, I kept on thinking about the waste of company resources (man-hours expended) due to poor planning – not to mention how the customer is fuming.

Well-trained live help should always be available – Nothing frustrates a caller more than live help that is totally inept. I once spoke with a live agent at a major computer printer manufacturer who was totally at sea regarding my problem. Even after much discussion about how my operating system appeared to be the root of the problem, the agent went so far as suggesting that I was unaware that my own computer did not have an internet connection. As any sales associate can tell you, passing the buck without offering a solution, or insinuating that the client is not intelligent enough to assess the problem, is the kiss of death.

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Ensuring Call Center Quality

My manufacturing-based solutions to achieving the above call-center CTQs are simple:

1. Monitor your processes. Consider not just the time the call takes to complete, but whether it resulted in a sale, solved a problem or, at least, left the customer very satisfied.

2. Upgrade your employees’ knowledge base. Engage your call center staff in “lunch and learn” or other structured courses. Nothing ticks off a customer more than live “help” that is of no help at all.

3. Implement a voice-of-the-customer (VOC) strategy. Ask for customer feedback either by phone or email. Most customers will be willing to take part, unless the survey is a staggered response system that takes more than five minutes to complete or starts collecting personal information. Anything that takes longer that five minutes will usually be deleted or result in hang-ups halfway through. Also, remove messages such as “your call is being recorded for quality purposes.” This only irritates the customers who have already made a personal assessment of the quality systems available at that call center.

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4. Benchmark against other providers. It is possible for managers to learn from experiences they have as customers. For instance, I had the pleasant experience of having a major telephone provider give me the option of a call-back service; instead of requiring me to wait on the phone, they called me back within an hour with a solution to my problem. By applying the customer “wants and needs” protocol, the company gave me a free six-month upgrade of home services – services that I continued to use as a paying customer because of the satisfaction of receiving prompt service and appreciation for perks that I did not have to ask for. I have had similar good experiences with a major credit card company, an airline and a refrigerator manufacturer.

So, what’s stopping the rest of the call centers from following these steps? I’ve heard plenty of outsourcing gripes, but a well-designed process trumps cheap man-hours in overall corporate profitability each and every time.

The old adage, “You never get what you deserve, but what you negotiate,” holds very true for call centers. Regardless of the quality of the product or service being provided, if your call-center response is lacking, your sales and bottom line will be affected accordingly.

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