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Do Manners Matter in the Contact Center?

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Brian Cantor

Is it really all about the smile?

In a customer management world riddled with contradictions, few concepts attract more debate than the role of agent demeanor in the customer experience.

Intuitively, it would seem that an agent’s manners are of immense importance to customers. Underscored by terms like "hire the smile, train the process," this attitude towards politeness presumes that the true difference maker in a customer interaction is the extent to which the agent makes the customer feel welcome and valued. Virtually anyone can learn to walk a customer through the support process, but only select personality types are capable of creating a call environment warm enough to build customer loyalty.

Others, however, dismiss agent demeanor as another trivial focus that distracts contact centers from focusing on what truly matters to customers.

This school of thought believes that the customer experience ultimately comes down to a single, simple question: did you satisfy the customer?

Openly supported by StubHub’s Randy Rubingh at the 8thCall Center Summit, this conception places paramount importance on the effort a customer must exert to achieve his resolution. If a customer has to deal with multiple, lengthy calls to get his problem solved, he is unlikely to be comforted by an endearing tone on the other end of the phone.

Similarly, if a customer gets exactly what he wants with little struggle, he will not dwell on the fact that the agent showed minimal personality on the call.

Managing Agents vs. Delivering for Customers

Before taking an overview of the situation, it is important to note that both perspectives have merit for call center management.

Training agents to be personable and "human" in their interactions is an essential step in building a culture of customer centricity, which is a core tenet on which brands can create a competitive advantage. But training them to seek a quick, worthwhile resolution for customers will condition them to prioritize the needs of the customer in every interaction.

Clearly, contact center leadership should not force itself to choose between politeness and resolve.

Customers, however, will weigh the various elements when rendering a verdict on an organization’s support experience. The totality of the experience matters to customers, but certain issues are far more likely to impact their brand loyalty.

According to a new study published by Achieve Global (and available free to Call Center IQ users here), the most important of those issues is the emotional component of the call.

Confirming the importance of contact center politeness, "respondents told us that being heard and respected are more important than having their issue resolved."

The finding directly contradicts the notion that the primary concern for customers is the binary question about whether or not their problem was solved.

Today’s customers, the survey demonstrates, recognize that not all customer support issues will reach a tidy resolution. The game-changer, therefore, is not the receipt of a resolution but confirmation that the agent (and brand) cares about his customers and endeavors to make every call an enjoyable experience.

Worth noting is that manners are not the exclusive means by which an agent can demonstrate he hears and respects the customer. While 46% list "rudeness and indifference" as a top three cause of negative in-person customer experiences, 50% blame "no concern for my problem."

Customers certainly want pleasant interactions with front-line agents, but smiles and inviting vocal tones are not enough. The agent, through his demeanor and actions, must assure the customer that he cares about the situation and will do everything in his power to locate and deliver a suitable resolution.

In fact, while some customer management leaders associate conversation with an inviting customer experience, the evidence indicates that resolve trumps that banter. More than 40% of those surveyed get annoyed when agents "talk about things other than the problem I am trying to resolve." Upselling and cross-selling, preached in revenue-minded contact centers, would fit that bill as cleanly as irrelevant conversation about the weather.

But agents must also be organic in their conversations. Efficiency is fine, but robotic, scripted communication is not. Customers absolutely expect to emotionally connect with agents on a personal level, but they want that connection to be predicated on a commitment to resolution rather than beating around the bush.

Practicality Goes a Long Way

The whitepaper is full of valuable conclusions about why customers stay or stray, but the central theme is simple: brands must demonstrate that customers matter to them.

Resolution should be pursued at all costs because it does leave an unmistakable impression on the minds of customers.

But the customer experience is, for many, more complicated than the binary question of whether or not the problem was solved. The "why" behind the outcome—be it exactly what the customer wants or something slightly different—is of immense influence in shaping a customer’s satisfaction.

Not all customer engagements will reach the desired resolution, but that ineffectualness cannot be the result of indifference. And it takes a passion for meeting the customer’s needs, along with a warm, inviting personality, to guarantee that the customer never feels like anything but the brand’s most important concern in the world.