Thus far we have considered strategy from the customer point of view.
Now it is time to incorporate the needs of two other important stakeholders: brand owners and the professional communicators who interact on behalf of the brand. We will deal with the latter’s needs first.
Making A Career Out Of Customer Engagement
One group that a customer service strategy must address is the team that interacts with customers. They are more than 70% of traditional customer service operating costs and therefore represent the greatest opportunity for budget optimisation: by which I only mean “get the best use of”, ” as opposed to “get rid of”. However most call centres are a long way from capitalising on this for a number of understandable reasons:
- The pre-occupying complexities of shift management and scheduling
- The difficulties of providing a meaningful and attractive career path
- The sheer monotony of dealing with the same type of customer calls
All these play a part in contributing to an average UK attrition rate in excess of 30% and an absenteeism rate just under 20% according to ContactBabel research. This makes the pursuit of excellence extremely tough when so much experience is exiting and replacements take time to get up to speed – reckoned to be an average six weeks in UK.
That said there are some encouraging changes to this stereotype. The lack of preferred employment opportunity has driven many graduates to reconsider their options and take a job in customer services. Apparently one in three professional communicators are now graduates. Does that mean they will be any better? Who knows.
But regarding their expectations, this much is certain. They went into considerable debt in the hope of a rewarding career. So when things pick up only those organisations who have delivered on that career path for them will keep the best. I personally hope they find a way to keep this generation in customer facing positions. Maybe some will become CEOs one day. Wouldn’t that be a first worth witnessing!
The other emerging reality is that live assistance for online chat, Twitter/Facebook interactions and responses to questions in customer community forums are not necessarily being housed in the call centre. Check out this new style Social Media Command centre as an example of new tactics and the ongoing debate about who should own it and where it should operate from. Dell has one up and running as well.
My personal take is that it’s a customer service function that needs to be tightly integrated. But it’s worth acknowledging that we are in the early phase of broadening out the interface for customer interaction to a much wider set of people within the organisation. A good thing in my book which should be marked up in your strategy draft as an important transformation tactic. Expect this to continue evolving over the next 36 months.
Mind you, much of this graduate influx is generationally in tune with social media intervention, so they may yet prove to be the vanguard of a whole new culture of customer service engagement. Maybe we are about to witness the first generation that had already ‘got it’ before taking the King’s Shilling.
Anyway they are still an emerging demographic in the customer service market and the core issue of optimising the overall resource pool remains. So what we need are ideas on how to raise the value of this key stakeholder group’s contribution. Here’s a few to chew on.
- What is the ideal profile of person for the job and where can more be found? Behavioural analysis of top performers can help piece together the competencies and attitudes required for success
- Once found, how to retain talent? Maybe your strategy recognises in the medium term that smaller centres which blend on site and at home workforces provide a broader catchment area and more attractive career prospects
- Can the job be made more challenging and attractive by fully or partially automating those tasks that, in truth, a live interaction can add little to? For instance, a change of address or identification and verification. Can you remove the tedium and stress that communicators have to endure and transform the job by operating smarter?
- Does the strategy need to recognise that these professional communicators remain an untapped source of innovation? The normal response to any suggestion that ‘off phone’ activities can be afforded is negative. But think how the Manufacturing sector has had to transform its quality standards to survive in a global market. Everyone needs to be involved. In fact those closest to the act of production are the most important link in raising quality. The service industry should learn this lesson as well. A progressive customer service strategy would lay the foundation for such an approach
The end goals for the HR strand of a customer service strategy is increased productivity of the right type, resulting in more fulfilled people, who stay longer and therefore pay back the investment in them. This then provides the necessary continuity for a culture of service excellence to emerge and become grounded. No pressure then to get it right!
The Brand’s Perspective
Moving on from those within customer services, the other stakeholder group is the business itself. Who am I referring to in this instance? Any peer of the customer service director who influences customer service direction and priorities.
Now a typical customer service strategy is shaped by the mandate that this group imposes on their customer service function: namely to be as cost effective as possible. And as has been pointed many times before, this comes from a narrow view of the implicit value that customer service has to offer.
Unfortunately, this has remained the prevailing view although I am very much aware that Social Media is challenging this leadership group to rethink their assumptions. Nonetheless embedded thinking takes time to move on and so it is still important to explain to them why they should shift their thinking.
I would begin by challenging the assumptions around the importance of being cost effective as the primary driver in customer service. In its stead I would argue for a mandate that demands effectiveness. The difference in emphasis is important. The legacy view is cost driven and primarily sees the call centre in isolation and accountable for the cost of customer service. However the ‘enlightened’ view does not confuse the bearer of news with its content.
What do I mean by that?
In days long past, Persian messengers on horseback were warned to keep one foot in the stirrup for a fast exit. Experience taught them that messengers often received the blame for the message they carried!
So a customer service strategy that puts the emphasis on effectiveness has the call centre as the first link in a business wide effort to recognise and cure wasted effort. I am talking here of everything that six sigma can bring to the party right up to a radical redefinition of how service failure is accounted for.
Maybe in the most enlightened strategy, problems that are caused outside the call centre are subsequently cross charged to those that cause it! I fantasise of course, but maybe one day when that graduate has become CEO, who knows? Nonetheless the relationship between the call centre and the rest of the business is crucial and must be a key intent of your customer service strategy. Let me recap on the reasons.
- At best, the call centre is a bell weather service to the rest of the business, picking up early warnings of the customer mood and needs
- It has the potential to be developed into a prime source of live R&D for the rest of the business
- Customer Service should aim to be the best friend of the CEO who will find an untarnished view onto what is and is not working in their organisation
- It should internally promote itself to be one of the most exciting places to work in the whole organisation
All of this might sound crazy to a seasoned call centre veteran. To which I say yes if you live without strategy then Business As Usual can be a locked in, repeating pattern if left to its own momentum. But a strategy allows a way of thinking to unfold, in a timeframe, that makes ambitions possible through step change and damned hard work and belief.
To repeat an earlier point, the function of strategy is to pull a team into a better future. Think of anything that is great in the world today and it exists because someone thought beyond the confines of present realities. It should also be said that excellence exists after much effort and lessons learnt from failure. Ask Steve Jobs!
So the first time strategist should not imagine that the hill they set themselves and their team to climb needs to be at 45° or more. 15° of transformation is quite sufficient for the first iteration! In conclusion to this session, strategy needs to be seen as the still part in a fast moving world which includes customer service directors who leave mid term. On average every two years if you examine their Linkedin profiles!
A relevant strategy fosters an ambition and structured debate on what is really needed rather than coping with what you have got. As such it enables decisions to transcend pragmatic solutions by providing a well thought through rationale as to the route and the benefit of going places in a deliberate, conscious fashion instead of being dragged reactively by customers and competitors.
Remember if you don’t seize the opportunity, someone else eventually will. And how many times have you noticed that happening in your life?