Google, Striving for 95% Customer Satisfaction, Again Expands Call Center...What Can We Learn?



Brian Cantor
11/16/2011

It’s official—Google loves call centers.

Earlier this year, Google announced the debut of call center support for its AdWords service. It later touted the endeavor as immensely successful, noting its positive impacts on customer service—direct insofar as customer communications were improved and more dynamic and indirect insofar as the voice interactions provided greater opportunities to build customer relationships, gain insights and eventually drive sales revenue.

Seeing the call center channel the way many, trend-obsessed organizations see Twitter and Facebook, Google simply cannot get enough. It announced Monday that Google Apps for Business will now offer 24/7 contact center support to all customers.

"In the early days, our customers reached us mainly through email, and our 24 x 7 phone support was limited to critical issues," wrote Google’s Jocelyn Ding in a blog post. "To improve the experience of our customers, we now provide 24 x 7 phone support to small, medium, and large Google Apps for Business customers for all issues affecting the core services…All support cases are handled directly by trained Google Apps experts."

Though Google is best known for providing customer support through email, it is not a single-channel organization. The tech giant has also enabled customers to resolve their issues through a "web-based support portal, online help forms, and online help center."

And, by most standards, the existing service works. Google reports an 80% satisfaction rate for business customers, with that number improving to 90% for large businesses. Compared to other e-businesses, Google is very successful at pleasing its customers—the ACSI reported an average e-business satisfaction score of only 75.4/100 this summer.

Google, however, wants to do better, and its success with the AdWords call center has provided confidence that live phone support is the way to spur improvement. In the announcement, Google reveals its hope that the heightened commitment to customer service can generate a 95% satisfaction score.

The call center as the impetus of customer satisfaction improvement? What a departure of wisdom for today’s era of customer management, one which is instead inclined to view call centers as bottlenecks to progress on the customer experience front! These days, it is quite typical for customer management professionals to promote strategies that direct inquiries away from live phone reps.

Google, however, remains married to the perspective that if the customers want to communicate via call center support, it stands to benefit from maintaining a worthwhile presence in the channel. This is particularly true for its business services, like AdWords and Apps for Business, which will produce inquiries that warrant an ample display of responsiveness, knowledge and resolution. Customer service cannot be approached as a necessary evil; it, more and more, must represent a selling point in its own right.

That is why all reports of Google’s success on the call center front are accompanied by comments regarding how true the centers are to the corporate culture. With AdWords, Google confirmed that only employees are answering the calls, which come in by the thousands from at least 60 countries.

In the Apps for Business announcement, Google stresses that the support cases are handled by "trained Google Apps experts." The result should be efficiency that is meaningful to both the company and customers. Calls will be more productive due to the reps’ ability to actually diagnose, understand and resolve the problems—customers will not have to sift through an endless chain of unskilled "note-taker" reps before reaching someone who can actually provide service.

These reps should be able to grow—and help the organization grow—with time, as they should be connected enough to the Google Apps services to actually revamp their strategies in the face of customer interactions. While a robotic "tell him he can’t return the product if it’s opened" rep gains little perspective from binary, repeat-the-rules interactions, a product specialist should be weaving insights customer reactions and customer experiences into his own perspective of the offering.

As a result, the rep should become more valuable on the phone, while simultaneously becoming better equipped to deliver meaningful feedback up the chain.

So for those traditional call center leaders beaming at yet another example of a "hip" company valuing the medium and for those who dismiss the importance of a live phone system in today’s customer service era, here are key takeaways from Google’s endeavors.

Recognize the Value, and Don’t Be Afraid to Target – The call center is not an "all or nothing" support channel. Google has introduced live phone support for those services most conducive to the channel, and the result is an ability to value the inquiries as meaningful customer interactions, rather than time- and resource-wasters that keep employees glued to their headsets.

Organizations should not look at the call center offering as a net-wasteful product that should be minimized in as many ways possible. They should determine which customers and inquiries are most valuable when handled in the call center environment and structure around that reality.

When an IVR or self-service system successfully resolves an issue, organizations should not necessarily assume efficiency. They should also consider the opportunity cost of not interacting with the customer in a live environment. The call center strategy should be designed to minimize that cost.

Knowledge is Power, Quickness is a Sickness – Call center professionals who totally discount the importance of "efficiency" metrics are deluding themselves; like all business functions, the ability to quickly manage the workload matters.

But call centers should similarly embrace efforts to boost the knowledge—and thus the power to resolve—of its agent force. Like Google, it should "own" its reps, assuring they are defined by the organizational culture and ready to truly resolve issues. They should not be guided merely by "best practices" for dealing with customers in generic one-on-one engagements; they should be guided by "best practices" specific to the organization.

Though Google’s oppositional stance on call center outsourcing is clear, the lesson here is not that outsourcing is always bad. It is, however, a reminder that the substance of the care provided matters, so the outsourced staff better be capable of fully engaging with the organizational culture.

Multi-Channel is for Customers, Not Organizations – Almost every customer-facing organization known to man brags about its commitment to multi-channel communication; its desire to let the customer reach the business on the terms he finds most comfortable. Yet, it’s very easy to make such claims when investing into functions like self-service and ticket support, which often, certainly in theory, provide cost savings over the traditional call center.

In reality, the channel the customers "demand" could very well be a traditional phone support channel, which comes with higher resource, cost and training demands than other channels. If such is the case, will your organization put its money where its mouth is when it comes to multi-channel support?

Learn to WANT Deeper Customer Interaction, Satisfaction – Given its reputation for costliness and inefficiency, the call center is the best test of how deeply-committed a company is to customer satisfaction. Google, for instance, is proving its dream of achieving 95% support from its B2B customers is not an empty PR statement—it is investing into the mechanisms that can achieve that success.

Beyond mere "success scores," call centers also provide opportunities for agents to gather insights, build relationships and develop upsale propositions. Any organization truly committed to the "customer experience" should be embracing these benefits, even if the immediate cost-efficiency is technically lower.

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