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  • Writer's pictureNeal Dlin

4 Simple Yet Innovative Tips To Boost Customer Care (without sacrificing your tech budget!)

For over 20 years, I have built, led and helped customer care organizations to evolve themselves by embracing innovation. This has meant visiting well over 100 contact centres in many different countries.

One thing that has been extremely apparent to me over all this time is while service teams are supporting incredibly disruptive or innovative companies and products, very little has actually changed in the contact centre itself. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are constantly emerging new channels to communicate by, such as chat, video chat, social, SMS, in-app messengers, etc (although phone is still the channel customers believe is most likely to end in a resolution). There have also been major innovations in things like biometric authentication, behavioural call routing (matching customers to agents based on personalities), AI bots, speech analytics, big data mining, gamification of training and much more. 

But if you look at the processes and policies of how most contact centres are run…sadly they have not changed very much in decades. 

There are a whole host of reasons why things haven’t changed very much. In some cases it’s because the best practices out there are still just that, the best way to do things. However, when data continues to show an increase in customer experience spend as well as CEO prioritization coinciding with a broad decrease in actual customer satisfaction, there are troubling indicators that best practices simply aren’t cutting it any longer. 

So what can Customer Experience leaders do? Specifically, what can they do that they can actually control (meaning no major dependencies on IT, HR, Procurement or budget approval)? 

Here are 4 simple yet innovative tips that help change the way customer care operations are run and improve the customer experience for the better. Make no mistake though, although these are simple and mostly intuitive, they are by no means easy to implement. Change is hard and changing from the way things have been done for decades can seem almost impossible. You will want to revert back. They all may require some tweaking for your particular environment and culture but if you commit to them in earnest…if you iterate rather than obliterate them at the first sign of struggle, you will find some pretty dramatic results on the other end. 

1.    Stop punishing the many for the crimes of a few.

It is extremely common in contact centres to have prohibitive policies enforced both on employees and customers. Many freedoms most employees think of as common place outside of the contact centre are restricted, and many processes customers need to follow have a high degree of customer effort. 

Some examples for employees are restrictions on internet usage (no surfing), phone usage (some even lock them up), detailed dress codes (even measuring length of clothes with a ruler), rigid attendance policies (despite life happening to an employee beyond their control), breaks that need to start and end exactly as scheduled (despite the fact you may be on the phone with a customer who needs extra help just before your break), limits to what systems you can use or what levels of resolution you can provide (despite the fact that call transferring is one of the heaviest weighted pain points according to customer research), limits on how long calls should be on average (forcing many agents to feel rushed, make errors or provide an incomplete resolution). 

Some example for customer restrictions might be forcing a customer to call in to complete a transaction (despite there being no technical reasons it can’t be made available online or in-app), forcing a customer to go to a different department or in store, making a customer mail in a damaged product (even when the cost of that product is less than the cost to service the customer) and more. 

When one conducts a five why root cause analysis on these processes and policies it most often comes down to risk avoidance and was started by someone, or a small percentage of employees or customers who either intentionally or accidentally abused a freedom. The reaction was to create blanket policies to avoid reoccurrence.

Start with trust in your employees and customers. 

When you start with trust, it’s easy to do away with many restrictive employee policies. The amazing result of trusting people and believing in their better nature is that the belief itself gives everyone a sense of personal responsibility to our success. To quote Uncle Ben Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So too does great trust come with great expectations and people will rise up when you give them the chance. 

For all of you who are reading who are skeptical about the risks that open up, this does not mean have no oversight of risk. It means you manage to outliers through audit versus hold down the majority through rules. When trust is broken, there are still consequences but they are to the individual. In other words, don’t punish the many for the crimes of a few. 

2.    Consistency killed the quality star (subtle 80’s song reference).

I can pull out a quality monitoring form from the beginning of my career and pull one out that is more recent and while some of the language is updated and some weightings have shifted, they have not fundamentally changed.

Yet our customers have most definitely changed. We hear all the time about the differences between generations from the baby boomer to the millennial. And as our customer segments shift along the generational timeline, our indicators of assessing a good interaction have barely budged. As we learn that customers want a more tailored, personal and authentic interaction with someone empowered to fix problems, we still measure contacts the same as we always have. Why is that?

There are a whole host of reasons including the fact that how quality is done is familiar and passed on from tribe to tribe. Do not underestimate the influence of familiarity. However, there is another big reason. The way most centres measure quality is built to simplify the chances for objectivity so as to be fair to those being assessed and those doing the assessments. The forms steer clear of the grey

To measure empathy one only needs to hear the words “I understand how you feel, I am sorry to hear that”. But is a statement alone empathy? To measure rapport one only needs to hear that the customer’s name was used three times. Is that really rapport? To measure accountability one only needs to hear “I can certainly help you with that” but does that really measure if the agent is taking ownership of the customer’s problem?

Live in the grey

During my time helping to launch Sonnet, we lived in the grey. We removed all scripting or hard requirements on how Sonnet's Customer Service Heroes says something. Instead, the H.E.R.O. Meter (what Sonnet calls it's quality form) focuses on the outcomes we want in the form of customer emotions. We asked ourselves, what do we want a customer to feel when we answer the phone? What do we want them to feel when they state a problem? What do we want them to feel when we are working on that problem, when we resolve that problem and when we say goodbye, how will they feel when we hang up the phone? It may seem like a minor shift, but it’s actually a major change. By focusing on how we want a customer to feel we give our agents greater autonomy in how they get there. They can infuse their own personality more and adjust their approach to each customer individually. Making a customer feel heard, understood and cared for when they state a problem such as “I am getting my car in five minutes and need to know I am insured” looks quite different than “how do I login to the website” and it sounds quite different if you are talking to Sonnet's Customer Service Hero, Matt, or their Customer Service Hero, Jessica.  

Living in the grey, can make quality monitoring a heck of a lot more difficult , but in the words of the incredible poet Robert Frost, “I took the one (road) less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” Or as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing worth doing is ever easy.” So, if you embark on this path, it’s not easy nor familiar. This means additional effort is needed to calibrate. At Sonnet, we calibrated weekly and included Heroes periodically. We debated passionately about what "great" sounds like. We sometimes got it wrong but mostly got it right. Our coaching conversations shifted from stating the black and white “you didn’t say the customer’s name three times” to challenging ourselves about our authenticity and care for our customers. 

The results were tremendous. At the time of writing this, Sonnet's Net Promotor Score (NPS) and Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) were at the top of their industry. Their Heroes are engaged, feel empowered and in turn take personal accountability to make sure customers are looked after. This also leads to lower absenteeism and lower attrition, which has a compounding positive impact. 

Best of all, this approach, which removes the often sought after “consistency”, has led to uncovering great new approaches week after week. By removing the restrictions that promote consistency and may even create a robotic like compliance, we opened up a world of possibilities. Sonnet's best Heroes uncover new approaches which everyone then learns from, elevating everyone’s game and the customer experience overall. 

3.    Employees are your customers. Map their journey too! 

As a business consultant, I have created, reviewed or remapped many customer journeys. We have reached an age where almost everyone gets the value in understanding all the steps a customer goes through, identifying pain points and either prioritizing projects against those points OR using learnings from the existing map to create a future state map imagining what the ideal future state can look like. This has been a great evolution. Having this map smartly guides priorities, KPI’s, budgets, approvals and more. The results of having such focus are tremendous both on soft metrics like NPS and CSAT, and hard metrics like conversion, revenue and retention.

Why then, have so few organizations spent that time and rigour on one of the most important customers we have, our employees? If you don’t ascribe great CSAT to great ESAT then you are not reading the reports. In today’s world where employees will change jobs 10-15 times in their career, no one is selling their soul to the company store. Not only is looking at your employees as your customers important to engagement and in turn retention, there is a secondary benefit that should not be hastily overlooked. Serving your employees as customers causes you to be in the constant act of modelling great customer service making every interaction, a coaching interaction.   

So it only makes sense that we create the type of customer journey map for our employees too. You can start either by mapping the existing journey and using surveys and focus groups to identify pain points to work on. Or you can imagine that amazing future state and design a whole new journey that you can work towards transitioning to. Whatever you do, I would suggest you start with no pre-conceived limits as to what’s possible. 

While at Sonnet we mapped out an incredibly detailed journey that starts with the time candidates see a job posting and recycles with their first promotion. It became our leadership playbook and guided what we worked on and how we measured ourselves. When you work on yours, think about it from the emotional as well as the physical journey. How do you want them to feel at each stage from posting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, training, coaching, recognizing etc. 

Remember, while technology can be an enabler, if you start with the concepts, there are many things you can do without major investments in technology. For example, think about a step in the journey such as the first day. First days can be nerve wracking and anxiety ridden days. Often an employee can start a new job first waiting in reception. Then they may be shuffled to an HR rep to complete paperwork, get an ID badge and spend hours before even meeting their leader. If you work in large company this may entail several elevator rides passing dozens of departments. Talk about intimidating and disorienting! 

Now imagine a journey that starts with what emotions you might want a new employee to feel on that first day. This may include feeling welcome and at ease along with feelings of control and excitement. How might you change that day one process? Would they get a phone call from their leader or trainer before they start? Might they get a letter with what to expect on their first day so they have some sense of control and orientation? Might some leaders and peers greet them at the front door when they arrive? Might they get a tour of the building ending with their office or desk decorated with welcome messages from their team? Might the paperwork and ID badges come at the back half of the day or at home rather than the first thing they do? Perhaps they get a piece of swag that day as a nice way of saying welcome? 

These are some examples that don’t require any technology at all and will make a major impact to your new team member. The thing to remember is start with what you want people to feel rather than starting with what has to be completed that day. 

4.    Handle times, adherence, call targets be damned. Focus on 1-3 metrics that matter most.

It’s exciting to see more and more centres shifting their views on where these metrics should live, if they belong at all. In all the contact centre audits I performed as a consultant, I have seen Average Handle Time (AHT) or Average Talk Time (ATT) be reduced to a lower weighting on the agent scorecard. Very few have gone as far as to remove it altogether and I strongly applaud those who have. 

The truth is, it can do no good to have it on the agent scorecard. While it can seem like a cost control measure (want to save money in the contact centre? Shave a minute off your handle time), when it’s a metric at the agent level, it will end up costing the business dramatically more than it can save due to poor service, error rates, customer complaint handling, customer and employee attrition, poor NPS and more. This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways to cut AHT down, save money and not raise costs due to these issues. System enhancements (speed of systems, number of systems used, system integrations, real time data updates etc), training enhancements (for example: focusing on areas agents are most likely to need to look up in a knowledge base or systems training to be able to navigate more quickly, etc.), product enhancements (reducing long calls), and more.  

What’s more, most centres who have experimented with cutting AHT from the agent scorecard actually experienced a reduction in the AHT. The reasons cited by agents in focus groups was that the very act of watching the clock was distracting and lead to inefficient calls and errors requiring work in post call wrap up. And expectedly, these centres also experienced an increase in CSAT and First Call Resolution (FCR). 

At Sonnet, we simplified how we measured our Customer Service Heroes to focus on 2 key metrics. The first is the H.E.R.O. Meter and the second is CSAT. That’s it. That’s all. This doesn’t mean we didn't look at some of the other metrics but in the vein of not punishing the many for the crimes of a few, we only focused on the other metrics in outliers. We didn't want our Heroes thinking about any metrics when they are talking to our customers. The only thing we wanted on their minds is how to solve "this" customer's problem and really let "this" customer know how important they are to us. 

We also didn't set targets for them on adherence or calls per hour that could limit their ability to chase something down. If a customer issue required them to go talk to another department, or call the customer back, they could do it. Not only did they not get "dinged" on these other metrics, it improved their H.E.R.O. Meter and CSAT scores. Again, you still need to manage outliers for those reading this and losing hair imagining the possible abuse.

What I can tell you is that, compared to doing things the traditional way, making simple, innovative changes to call centre operations shifts your leader’s focus from policing to leading. Let alone greatly improving employee and customer satisfaction.

I hope you enjoyed this list of tips and I hope you have some passionate and reasoned disagreements. It’s time contact centres stopped perpetuating best practices when they mostly don’t deliver the results expected by todays employees or customers. Share your thoughts, your own tips and innovations or your disagreements. Let’s keep talking. 

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