Contact Centers Must Morph into Relationship Hubs

I originally published this content in an article on CMSWire

CallCenterToRelationshipHub2For years, companies have relied on their contact centers to deal with customer interactions—from technical support to requesting medical coverage—but contact centers are on the verge of a major change. Driven by a shift in technology capabilities and consumer behavior, leading companies are refocusing contact centers from handling individual calls to building customer loyalty. These changes will morph contact centers into Relationship Hubs. How will Relationship Hubs be different? They will:

  • Enable journeys, not just handle interactions. Relationship Hubs will assist customers in achieving their goals. If a USAA member calls in to change his address, the reps are trained to understand why and deal with bigger issues. For example, if the call is from a soldier who is about to be deployed, then the rep might check to see if the member has thought about items such as a will, power of attorney and life insurance. The USAA employee might even put a hold on the member’s car insurance, so the soldier doesn’t have to pay for an unused car while he’s deployed.
  • Focus on customer success, not just cut costs. The success metrics for Relationship Hubs will be tied to long-term customer loyalty. Belgacom, a Belgium telecom provider, changed its key call center metric from average handle time to a combination of two metrics—one on first call resolution and the other on likelihood of customers to recommend the company. The new approach reduced the overall volume of calls by 20 percent and also drove higher customer and employee ratings.
  • Have multichannel conversations, not just answer phone calls. Rather than just answering phone calls, Relationship Hubs will handle conversations that cut across all remote channels, including chat, email, Twitter, etc. They will integrate customer management systems to recognize customers across different interactions in different channels over an extended time period. Relationship Hubs will treat customers as if they know them.
  • Blend with self-service, not just deflect calls. Relationship Hubs will offer a seamless connection between self-service and assisted service. Customers can ask questions to virtual agent “Jenn” on Alaska Airline’s website, but even this type of natural language processing powered self-service application can’t deal with every customer situation. When customers get stuck along a self-service path, they will be able to continue with an agent (via chat, call, etc.) who knows exactly what they’ve already tried to do.
  • Route to best agents, not just to available ones. Companies will use analytics to select agents who are most likely to be successful with specific interactions. When a call comes into TriCare Management, its routing system predicts which of its available agents is best suited to meet the needs of that caller. The predictive engine can make decisions to optimize metrics such as customer satisfaction or first call resolution.
  • Predict needs, not just respond to requests. Relationship Hubs will use analytics to better understand customers. Sprint uses a technique called Next Call Prevention. Customer service agents can proactively offer to help with something that customers are likely to contact Sprint about in the near future. The conversation is guided by prompts queued from predictive analytics. If, for instance, someone with an expiring contract calls about a billing, prompts encourage the agent to arrange an upgrade to a new handset.
  • Gain business insight, not just analyze interaction quality. Relationship Hubs will tap into rich customer conversations to identify opportunities to make improvements across the company. For example, Symantec examined issues with the download insurance it sold for Norton Antivirus products that allowed customers to reinstall a purchased product. The analysis showed that the offering generated hundreds of thousands of support calls so the software maker decided to offer re-downloading for free. This change reduced contact rates and improved customer service ratings.
  • Evolve based on feedback, not just survey customers. Relationship Hubs will continuously improve based on customer feedback. Nicor National’s CX team reaches out to customers of its call center within 48 hours of their interaction. The call between the customer and CX team is recorded and can be shared back to employees for coaching/feedback. Listening to the call with the rep provides an opportunity for the CX team to coach account reps based on customer feedback. Members of the CX team initiate “you need to hear this” messages for both positive customer feedback and improvement opportunities.
  • Engage agents, not just hire people. Relationship Hubs will treat agents as assets and will only succeed with highly engaged employees. Contact center supervisors at Hershey Entertainment invest time to sit one-on-one with agents and talk on a weekly basis. The discussion includes some performance review, but most of the dialogue focuses on what’s going on in the employee’s world and what Hershey or the supervisor can do to make the agent’s life any easier. The company’s leadership team recognized the need to rebalance work tasks to ensure that supervisors have time for these discussions.

The bottom line: Morph your contact center into a Relationship Hub.

Contact Centers Enter The Loyalty Mix

Over the previous decade, companies have squeezed costs out of their contact centers through automation, offshore labor, and self-service alternatives. But no matter how hard they try, most companies can’t take human contact out of the service mix.

Many companies are realizing that some of their contact center interactions represent more than just costs; they’re moments of truth for customers, points in time that significantly impact customer loyalty.

I’ve been doing a lot of work around contact centers lately. It’s clear that companies are beginning to reinvest in these important customer contact points. So I’ll be writing more about contact centers in the near future. But for now, I just want to introduce the idea of viewing contact centers as loyalty drivers, as opposed to the historical view that they are cost centers.

Here’s how I’d compare the two approaches.

Loyalty Drivers also tap into the deep customer insight from their contact centers within their voice of the customer (VoC) programs. This goldmine has been completely untapped in most contact centers, but the rise of voice and data analytics is helping to unlock this valuable asset.

The bottom line: Contact centers affect loyalty whether you take advantage of it or not.

A Good Week For Customer Service

Customer service is underapreciated in many companies. So it’s great that we are celebrating Customer Service Week. In honor of the occasion, I’ve collected some of my thoughts (and posts) about customer service:

The bottom line: Customer service deserves more than a week of focus.

Phone Satisfaction Snapshot- USAA, Credit Unions, and Amazon.com Top The List

We asked more than 4,500 US consumers about their satisfaction with experiences across 12 different industries: airlines, banks, cell phone service providers, credit card providers, hotels, insurance firms, Internet service providers, investment firms, medical insurance companies, PC manufacturers, retailers, and TV service providers. Our analysis looked at phone, store/branch, and Web interactions.

Satisfaction With Phone Interactions

I’ll start with some highlights of consumer feedback on phone interactions. The analysis looked at satisfaction rates at an industry level and changes from last year’s results, examined satisfaction for individual companies, and compared responses across generations of consumers.

  • Highest industry satisfaction: Insurance providers (84%)
  • Lowest industry satisfaction: TV service providers (60%)
  • Most improved industry: Retailers (improved 3%)
  • Least improved industry: TV service providers (declined 6%)
  • Highest company satisfaction: USAA (93%), credit unions (92%), and Amazon.com (91%) 
  • Lowest company satisfaction: Charter Communications- TV (47%), Comcast- TV (54%), Time Warner Cable (54%), Aetna (54%), Comcast- ISP (55%), HSBC (55%), Sprint (58%), and Dish Network (59%)
  • Most satisfied generation: Seniors were most satisfied for nine of the industries
  • Least satisfied generation: Gen Yers were least satisfied for eight of the industries
  • Largest generation gap: Airlines (Older Boomers at 81% versus Gen Y at 62%)

The bottom line: What’s it like when customers call you?

Experiences That Satisfy Consumers, 2009

I just published a report called The Experiences That Satisfy Consumers, 2009 that examines consumer satisfaction with Web, phone, and in-person experiences. My analysis looked at more than 100 companies across 12 industries. Here’s an overview of the results:

interactionsatisfaction_small

Only hotels and investment firms cross over the 80% satisfaction mark in every channel, while health insurance plans and TV service providers don’t even make it to 70% in any channel.

The report also analyzed changes from last year, differences across generations of consumers, and satisfaction levels for individual companies. As I did with last year’s report, I’ll create separate posts to examine satisfaction with Web interactions, phone interactions, and in-person interactions.

The bottom line: Consumers aren’t as satisfied as they should/could be.

The “Problem” Of Call Waiting Times

A McKinsey Quarterly article called Maintaining the customer experience caught my eye. It discusses scenarios where companies were trying to figure out the design point for a couple of customer experiences, one of which was the call waiting time for a call center. Here’s how the article sets up the problem:

Consider service levels, specifically average time-to-answer, which is one of the most common metrics used in call centers. Service levels-often based on regulation or historical precedent-are set by call-center managers and then used to calculate staffing requirements. But service levels are challenging to maintain and costly to improve: raising them by 10 percent requires much more than a 10 percent increase in staff

My take: This is an area where companies can make a lot of costly mistakes if they don’t understand what drives customer satisfaction. So I sent the following comment to the McKinsey Quarterly editors…

Conceptually, the Kano Model does a good job of helping dissect thinking in this area. In particular the model’s focus on three types of attributes: Must-be, One-dimensional, and Attractive.

Must-be attributes need to deliver a minimum threshold of value or the customer will be extremely dissatisfied. But the customer does not notice if that threshold is exceeded. Think about the brakes on a car; you expect them to work, but don’t notice much more than that.

One-dimensional attributes are those that continue to increase the value to customers. Think about price; the lower the better.

Attractive attributes are unexpected aspects of the experience that dramatically increase the value perceived by a customer. Since they don’t expect them, there aren’t any negative consequences if they are not there. Think about a call from the CEO of an airline after you’ve had a service problem; wow, that could make a significantly positive impression.

Using this model, we can better understand the mistake that companies often make about attributes like call waiting times. In most cases, I’d classify call waiting times as a must-be attribute. It’s a problem if the waits are too long, but there’s no lasting perceived value by customers if you shorten them under that threshold. So companies shouldn’t invest in dramatically shortening waiting times, but should figure out how to minimize the number (or impact) of people that experience a wait that goes beyond the threshold.

You may have noticed that offered up the option of either solving the problem (customer who have a wait time above the threshold) or lessening the impact. It may be very expensive to eliminate all customer waiting times that go beyond their must-be threshold. So companies may be better served to try another approach: like an apology from the call center rep or some more substantial service recovery option (maybe even some “attractive” options).

By understanding these differences, companies can focus their energy and investments in the right areas to drive up customer satisfaction. This is particularly important in these times when companies are cutting back; they need to make every investment count.

The bottom line: Figure out what’s must-have, attractive, and one-dimensional.

Phone Satisfaction Snapshot: USAA And The Hartford Top The List

We asked nearly 5,000 US consumers about their satisfaction with experiences across nine different industries: banks, credit card providers, health plans, insurance firms, Internet service providers, investment firms, retailers, TV service providers, and wireless carriers. Our analysis looked at phone, store/branch, and Web interactions. I’ll take a look at each channel over the next three days.

Satisfaction With Phone Interactions

I’ll start with some highlights of consumer feedback on phone interactions:

  • Investment firms (84%) and insurers (83%) had the highest satisfaction rates
  • TV service providers (66%), health plans (67%), and Internet service providers (67%) had the lowest satisfaction rates
  • USAA, The Hartford, and Charles Schwab led the pack with satisfaction rates of 90% or more
  • Charter Communications, Medicaid, and Sprint fell to the bottom with satisfaction rates of 60% or less
  • More than one-third of the firms had satisfaction rates less than 70%

The bottom line: What’s it like on the other end of your 1-800 number?

NetFlix Ends Email Support; Tries Another Disruptive Strategy

NetFlix decided to stop its email customer service and, instead, beef-up its phone support. According to an article in the New York Times:

Netflix took an unusual step for a Web-based company: it eliminated e-mail-based customer service inquiries. Now all questions, complaints and suggestions go to the Hillsboro call center, which is open 24 hours a day.  

My take: Wow! Gutsy move. Okay, now for a more analytical discussion…

NetFlix probably recognizes the realities of handling customer service emails — it’s incredibly difficult to do right. Here are some datapoints to think about:

  • Most emails deliver a poor customer experience. In a recent Forrester research report called Best And Worst Of Email Interaction Design, 2007, we evaluated the email service experience delivered by 16 large firms. None of the 16 firms passed our reviews — although Circuit City came closest. The biggest problem: Emails lacked essential content.  
  • Consumers aren’t thrilled with email. We asked about 5,000 consumers how satisfied they were in handling customer service through different channels. Here are the satisfaction numbers for different channels: in-person (44%), phone (29%), Web (15%), and email (13%). (Forrester Research clients can read: Match Channel Capabilities To Customer Goals).

So NetFlix is just focusing on an area that it can deliver better experiences. And the firm isn’t outsourcing its call center overseas to save money, it’s investing in its Hillsboro, Oregon facility. NetFlix thinks that it can staff that location with empathetic phone reps.

In a previous post, I defined Five Disruptive Customer Experience Strategies:

  1. Ultrasimplicity: stripping away features to better meet the needs of customers.
  2. Online infusion: integrating online features into core offerings.
  3. Service infusion: integrating service features into core offerings.
  4. Service amplification: investing in distinctly high levels of service.
  5. Value repositioning: offering a radically different value proposition.

NetFlix has been one of the examples that I use to explain online infusion — it integrates a robust set of online features to deliver value well beyond just DVDs by mail (for another great example of this strategy, check out WebKinz). With this move to enhance its phone support, the company is adopting another one of the disruptive strategies: service amplification. While most companies are looking at phone service as a cost center, NetFlix is investing in it as an experience differentiator.

My advice to NetFlix: Augment this strategy with a strong online chat capability. That will provide a solid option for customers that really want to complete the interaction online.

The bottom line: If customer service drives a key portion of NetFlix customers’ overall experience, then this disruptive strategy could be a great move. If it’s not, then they’re likely to move the call center offshore within 24 months. In any case, there are three disruptive strategies left for them to try!

USAA: A Positive Example Of Customer Experience

I was recently giving a speech to a group of executives at a large financial services firm; talking about my favorite topic: Experience-Based Differentiation. After I was done, one of the attendees came up to me and shared a recent experience that she had with USAA. (Note: USAA was not the organization that I was speaking to at the time).

She told me that she was looking for an auto loan and had called around to get a number of different quotes. Before she picked one, she thought she’d give USAA a call (she’s a member of USAA). While she was on the phone, the USAA phone agent asked her a few questions and then said that she could beat the lowest rate that the woman had received by a point. That’s right – one full percentage point lower than any other provider. The phone agent asked her how much she needed for the loan, but she wasn’t sure. So the phone agent said that they’d send her a blank check and that she could fill in the amount up to a specific amount (well above what she needed for the car). The phone agent told her that all she had to do was to go to the Website and answer 5 questions to finish the process.

Well, the woman went to the Website and answered 5 questions and received a blank check the next day.

Let’s disect what went right.

  1. It was a great sales process. All large financial institutions want to cross-sell products, but not many make it quite as easy as this. The combination of a low rate and a no-nonsense process immediately closed the sale.
  2. USAA acted like it knew her. How was USAA able to offer such a great rate? She was a member of USAA, so they have  a lot of information about her. They used the information to deliver a rate that reflected what they already knew about her.
  3. The phone agent was empowered to solve problems... How many financial institutions allow phone reps to send blank checks to customers overnight? Probably not too many. But that’s part of what was needed to meet the customer’s needs.
  4. … And the agent knew the online process. In many organizations, phone agents aren’t very familiar with what happens when a customer goes online. In this case, the agent clearly understood (and communicated) the process that the customer needed to go through online
  5. The online process was simplified. The only way that USAA can cut the online process down to 5 questions is by limiting their questions to things that they don’t know about the person. Since the loan applicant was a member, USAA didn’t make her input information that it already knew about her.
  6. USAA did what it said that it would do. When a company doesn’t live up to its promises, you can say goodbye to customer goodwill. But that’s wasn’t an issue here. USAA set clear expectations with the customer — and delivered exactly what itpromissed.

This type of experience is not a random occurance for USAA — they have very high levels of member loyalty. As a matter of fact, USAA has been at the top of Forrester’s Customer Advocacy rankings for the last three years. It wouldn’t hurt if other financial institutions (and companies from other industries) learned a thing or two from USAA.

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