Live @ Call Centre Canada: Would Customers Pay to Reach Your Call Centre?

Brian Cantor

Sometimes little comments can make big waves. That was certainly true of a comment made during a brainstorming session at Call Center IQ’s 7th Annual Call Centre Week Canada.

Asked by the pre-conference workshop leader to think about the ways in which the customer management function will evolve in the coming years, the high-level call center executives produced a telling perspective on the challenges they are currently facing and the various pathways to excellence—or doom--that rest ahead.

Discussion about the role emerging channels like social media will play in the process was inevitable, and as such, so too was a discussion about how those channels will impact what we think of as the traditional contact center. Engaged in that deliberation, one attendee wondered, "If social media is going to be the main outlet for basic customer service concerns, does that mean we should look into charging to get the ‘premium’ experience of a live call center rep?"

Perhaps said sardonically, the comment nonetheless struck a significant chord. Though quite a few organizations are already experimenting with "premium" customer support options, it remains a general expectation—at least in most industries—that access to some form of call center support is a standard feature associated with a purchase. As such, a pay-to-talk model represents a significant change in how we conceptualize the call center.

More significantly, the comment resonated as an apparent contradiction with the perception many customers have regarding call centers: they are inefficient and ineffective. From difficult menus, to poor organizational knowledge sharing, to powerless, disinterested reps, call centers often represent a source of frustration rather than a source of relief.

Would customers really pay for that?

I recently wrote about one of the hottest clichês in call center management: the rise of low impact channels like social media and self-service will divert the "transactional" calls away from the call center, therefore allowing representatives to focus on the strategic calls. Virtually every customer management professional has this vision of a contact center in which agents create meaningful relationships with callers that not only produces a desirable resolution for the inquiry in question but also sets the customer on a personalized path to engaging in future business with the organization.

It’s the dream call center scenario, one that mandates viewing customers as relationship counterparts rather than numbers. And if customers could access this customer-centric environment as a valued alternative to "quick-fix" support channels, it stands to reason that some would appreciate the "premium" nature of the proposition and pay an additional fee.

When filtered through that lens, the idea of charging for live phone support seems increasingly less greedy and unattainable.

But reaching the point at which a premium call center makes sense is a journey for many organizations. It is not something that can be achieved by saying the right things about a strategic-minded customer service function; it must be achieved by rethinking every phase of the customer management process.

Diverting the "trivial" calls to social might make life easier for existing reps, but if the organizational culture does not drive them to transcend "metrics" and "transactions" and bow to the throne of customer-centricity, it will not necessarily make the experience any more valuable for customers.

No matter what we want to tell ourselves, inundation is not the only reason (or even the main reason) our call centers fail to meet customer expectations. Greater inhibition exists in agent (and supervisor) mindset and development, and if these are not addressed, it would not matter if 99.9% of calls are addressed in alternative channels. That 0.1% will not get the experience it desires out of the call center, and it will not place a premium value on the support.

So in extending this discussion to the Call Center IQ audience, I ask a simple question: Would customers pay for your call center support? And I’ll even let you cheat: when answering the question, feel free to indulge in the idealistic scenario that directs all "transactional" calls to social media and all "strategic" calls to the traditional center.

As it stands, can your call center function deliver premium value for customers?

If not, then in thinking about the journey from point A to a desired point B, keep that question close to the vest. Assume the nature of the marketplace will require you to start charging for live phone support. In order to keep customers happy in such a system, what changes MUST you make?