The Perfect Time to Reinvest in Process and People

Bill Price

During an economic crisis, customers become nervous about their income futures. They tend to reconsider all of their commitments and reconsider the companies that merit their ongoing business during the stressful times.

Companies that shirk customer experience during an economic crisis do it at their own peril, providing ample reason for the customer to experiment with other providers and switch allegiances. Instead, this is precisely the right time for companies to reinvest in customer experience, cleansing their system of all "dumb contacts" and their underlying reasons and retraining all of their customer-facing employees to exhibit appropriate empathy, and to look for potential customer defection. After all, these employees are probably also affected by the downturn, nervous about their futures, so if they feel neglected it will come across to the customer and most likely lead to their turnover once the economy rebounds.

Reduce Customer and Employee Stress

Let’s look at two steps that companies can take to reduce customer and employee stress during the down economy. The first, big step to take is to eliminate "dumb contacts" in their customer relationship management programs. What are dumb contacts? Put simply, this is when customers contact the company for assistance but there is no value for them or for the company.

Classic Customer Relationship Management Cases:

  • Billing systems that present two amounts to pay on the statement, confusing the customer, who scratches his or her head and picks up the phone or sends an e-mail message to ask, "How much do you want me to pay?" Even if the company is using "autopay," if the statement shows different amounts the customer will need to contact the company to find out how much was deducted from the account, a customer relationship management nightmare.
  • Another customer relationship management debacle is online flight confirmations that don’t show all of the legs, or omit previously approved seat upgrades, frustrating the frequent flyer and/or perplexing the casual traveler who calls the reservations center to confirm their status. This also intrudes on order-taking, a double whammy!

Over the past several years, we have examined closely the value of customer contacts into call centers and the results shocked us: 29 percent of the volume handled call center representatives' "dumb contacts," ones that with some forethought and (oftentimes) simple re-engineering or program error checks can be completely eliminated. Imagine how this would reduce the stress for the customer and the stress for the call center representatives who have to answer the phones or respond to customer e-mail messages that are repeat requests for the same broken issues—plus, the cost savings are dramatic, much more so than seeking productivity improvements.

Eliminating Dumb Contacts in Your Customer Relationship Management Program

Companies can address dumb contacts using a simple four step process:

  1. Categorize all customer contacts based on their value or irritation to the company and to the customer, with the "irritant/irritant" group = "dumb contacts" to eliminate
  2. Set up cross-functional teams to attack each and every "dumb contact," if necessary applying root cause analysis
  3. Report the reduced rate of "dumb contacts" on a "CPX" basis, or contacts per driver X where X = customers, orders, devices, etc.
  4. Celebrate the reduced rate of "dumb contacts" inside the company and with customers alike

The second step that companies can take to improve customer experience, also a big one, is to retrain all customer-facing and -supporting employees to become more empathetic and to spot disaffected customers on the verge of switching.

An article from 2008 in The Wall Street Journal ("Toyota Keeps Idled Workers Busy Honing Their Skills," October 13) confirms the value of investing in human resources during the down economy—in Toyota’s case it makes sense to prepare them for the inevitable upturn, and in all companies’ cases it makes sense to reassure worried workers so that they don’t leave. While it’s true that fewer employees and managers can afford to quit when there are fewer job opportunities, once the economy rebounds, watch out!

Soft Skills Training To Train Employees on Customer Management

What sort of employee training do we mean? There are many courses now for "soft skills" and "negotiations" and "listening," all aimed to shift the employees’ attention from problem-solving or sales to the holistic view of what’s happening with the customer and the customer experience. One of the classic products involves a harried woman calling her insurance company to ask if she could delay paying her next invoice—generally an open-and-shut case with the answer typically "no"—when the call center representative heard a young child crying in the background. He asked the mother if that was a newborn and when the mom replied, "Yes, twins!" the agent noticed that the kids weren’t covered on her policy so he took time to add them and reassure the mother that she could pay later.

The upshot? A delighted customer, maybe a customer for life, a happier call center representative since he could do something nice for the worried mom, and additional sales—even if it meant delaying the customer’s payment for one period.

This employee retraining will pay other important dividends such as employee reengagement and empowerment, and a less stressed workforce that sees management invest in them during the hard times. Eliminate dumb contacts and train your most important resources during the down economy—two big steps to reduce customer and employee stress.

First published on Customer Futures Series.