3 Ways Your Agents are Giving Your Call Center a Bad Name



Brian Cantor
03/11/2013

Businesses care about satisfying customers. Well, at least they say they do. And even if they do not embrace the sentimentality of customer service, their profit kind of depends on it anyway.

For most businesses, the call center is the business’ primary means of supporting customers and delivering that satisfaction.

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So we have an objective and the means by which a business achieves that objective. That makes the center the essential ingredient in the recipe for customer satisfaction. It should, therefore, make the call center a source of customer happiness rather than misery.

Why, then, is call center such a dirty word? Why do customers associate their supposed link to satisfaction with incompetent agents, disrespectful service and tone-deaf policies? Why do they dread calling for support?

The reality is the fault of three major disconnects between the experience agents deliver and the service they are supposed to be delivering.

And, before getting all judgmental, supervisors and senior executives, remember that while communication between the agents and customers might be what is causing the dissatisfaction, it is often poor management that leads agents awry.

Agents do not know their businesses

Make no mistake, there are plenty of xenophobic and racist customers—even in the United States of America. No matter how progressive our society, there will always be a segment that resists tolerance of those who are different.

But when customers complain about the futility of live support, which connects them with "some random person in India rather than an actual American who can help," it is not exclusively because they believe American-born men named Michael Smith are the only ones capable of resolving their issues. Their real objection is that they sense an inherent disconnect between the individual providing support and the brand from whom they need it.

They see the call center as a means of deflecting customer problems rather than a means of embracing the opportunity to build relationships and fix things that went wrong.

Fair or not to outsourcers, foreign office locations and accents are only off-putting to customers insofar as they signal distance between the support line and the brand. If the agent, no matter his name and ethnicity, demonstrates that he is the brand in question and that he lives for opportunities to bring that brand closer to customers, he will create a successful customer experience.

To get there, brands need to assure their customer support team is a true part of the family and not a stranger that lives in the pool house. They need to assure their cultural and business initiatives resonate through every corner of the call center, and they need to hire and train agents who are not simply good at support but good representatives of the brand.

This is not necessarily a case against outsourcing, but it does mean that when a business does outsource its customer support, it must look beyond cost. It must require the outsourcer develop a complete cultural alignment and become part of the business rather than an institution that sells to the business.

Agents do not know their customers

If your boss tells you one thing, but your boss’ boss’ boss tells you something else, to whom do you listen?

Far too many call center agents are conditioned to focus on the former, believing that their only obligation is to the will of their direct supervisor. They mindlessly echo the scripts handed to them. They mindlessly enforce policies without any concern for how those policies were developed or how they impact customer satisfaction.

They are supposed to be serving customers but instead focus exclusively on serving their managers.

Could the dilemma possibly be more obvious?

Supervisors and senior leadership might have the power to fire agents, but it is the customers who can make the big picture decision to fire the organization. They are the boss’ boss’ boss, and if they do not receive the satisfaction they want, they can wish the business best in its future endeavors and throw their eggs into other baskets. The brand is therefore only safe from the chopping block when agents do what the customers want.

But when agents know it is their supervisors—not their customers—who physically confirm their checks and specifically determine whether or not to continue the employment, it becomes difficult for them to look beyond the barriers of their organization. It becomes difficult to feel confident telling a supervisor that he is wrong; while a boss’ boss within the organization might go to bat for the agent in such a case, one outside the organization—a customer—would have less standing to do so.

That is why it is imperative for all levels of management to convey the importance of customer-centricity. They must be willing to not only walk agents through the core customer-facing intent behind every policy but also give the agent confidence to adapt where necessary. They must empower agents to truly get to know their customers and to act not based on an antiquated script but based on their understanding of what matters to the audience.

The only way to assure agents deliver for customers is to make it clear that their job performance is evaluated by that satisfaction objective rather than murky, unjustified internal ones.

Without that, customers will feel secondary to the agent’s internal stakeholders. And, far too often, that is the feeling they experience when interacting with non-customer-centric centers.

Agents do not know each other

An organization is a singular entity that must have one voice when communicating with customers. The problem is that an organization cannot talk, and in many businesses, no individual person can handle the workload of an entire customer support function.

Businesses must naturally hire a team of agents to handle the task, but the mere fact that it has numerous agents does not mean it should not still communicate with a unified voice. No matter the channel and no matter the specific agent, the brand must provide a consistent message that fully takes into account any prior engagement the customer had with the organization.

Of course agents should feel free to incorporate a personal touch—especially in newer, more social channels—but that should not jeopardize the consistency of the core messaging. Joe might converse differently than Mandy, but both representatives should be on the exact same page when it comes to delivering satisfaction for the customer.

When customers feel like they are being given conflicting messages and not being recognized as an individual with whom the brand has had a lasting relationship, they lose faith in the brand’s ability to satisfy. They start to see the call center as a crippling, non-resolute institution that runs them around from agent to agent without a clear sense of what needs to be done, what can be done and how it will be done.

No matter the channel and no matter the agent, all customer communication must be unified so that the customer does not spend a single millisecond wondering whether the specific agent to whom he is talking is capable of delivering the resolution he demands to receive.

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