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Randy Saunders of Cincom Knows the Value of Differentiating on Customer Experience in the Call Center

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Randy Saunders

Randy Saunders, Program Director for Cincom Systems, knows the value in dollars of differentiating the contact center through improved contact center technology. Saunders is proud of how Cincom, a provider of software that improves customer communications and business operations, enabled Absa Bank to improve overall contact center profitability. Absa is a well-known South African bank who, after implementation of Cincom technology, started delivering the gold standard of customer service. Gone are the days of siloed divisions and poorly resourced contact center agents. Cincom's solution helps companies improve integration, brand messaging and customer experience. The brand message is the result of "One Absa" which offers a single view of the customer. Now the contact center, a profit center, is a respected strategic arm of the business. In this interview we talk to Saunders about contact center technology, customer experience and a new age in customer service.

Cincom offers intelligent call center desktop technology. What stops companies from investing in this kind of technology?

Well first of all, many companies are either just not aware of what’s possible today, or they’re happy with the status quo—they’re just not looking to make transformational improvements.

Also, not everyone places enough importance on the agent and their role in delivering the brand promise. There really needs to be a strategic focus on customer experience—what is the promise to the customer and how is it delivered?

When the customer picks up the phone, your agent is your brand and possibly the only human interaction with the organization. But unfortunately, too many organizations put the emphasis on driving costs out of the contact center and steering customers to self-serve, that we’ve forgotten the impact that good, personal service can have on your companies’ image in the marketplace.

That’s not to say that self-serve is bad or not most appropriate for many situations. But when a customer wants to talk, you need to make it easy to connect to a live, knowledgeable agent that leaves a memorable impression and drives real customer value.

At Cincom, we focus on companies that recognize that it is your people—your customer-facing employees—who represent your brand. These organizations want to make the most of every customer conversation. By providing a customer-centric desktop with intelligent agent guidance for each specific customer—leveraging all of the information you already have about the customer—you can really deliver winning conversations.

I understand Absa Bank has leveraged your technology and seen some amazing results. Can you explain how Absa leveraged the Cincom technology and what they have achieved?

Certainly, but first let me give you a little background on this client.

The Absa Group Limited’s (Absa) highly rated and award-winning contact center, Connectzone, is the largest contact center in South Africa. Absa is a subsidiary of Barclays Bank PLC and one of the country’s largest financial services groups, offering a complete range of banking, assurance and wealth management products and services.

Customer Experience Management (CEM) is a top strategic initiative in Absa’s Connectzone contact center. The contact center is viewed as a strategic unit within the bank and a hub for building better customer relationships that helps build and grow their business. For example, Absa is striving to answer as many of the customer’s requests and needs at the first point of contact, which they consider an important indicator of the customer’s experience. If they can resolve the customer’s issue on the first contact, it stands to reason that the customer will be more loyal and more willing to refer others to the bank.

Absa implemented Cincom Synchrony to support the strategic CEM goals and to gain operational efficiencies. Some of the benefits they are realizing include:

  • Increased efficiency by 30 percent by improving loan application processes
  • Loan applications are processed in real-time or with hours versus days, providing better outcomes for the customer and the organization
  • Agent training was reduced by 50 percent
  • They are doing more with less—30 agents have been reallocated due to new efficiencies
  • Workflow and processes are standardized and replicable, making them faster and more responsive
  • New product lines are rolled out in a fraction of the time
  • Agents are guided through Absa’s complex systems and decision trees to provide optimized experiences
  • Agent job satisfaction has increased as frustration levels have dropped

These are just some of the issues that Cincom is helping Absa to address. Absa does a much better job of explaining these challenges and the results that they are achieving with Cincom Synchrony. Fortunately, they recently participated in a Call Center IQ webcast which can be viewed in its entirety here.

If you could change one thing about the call center industry what would it be and why?

I would change the culture. I would like more organizations to see the value of an experience-focused contact center over a traditional cost-focused business unit.

Often contact centers are too short-sighted. They focus on efficiency-based metrics instead of customer value. Let agents talk to the customer for 30 minutes if that’s what it takes. Don’t rush them—in the long term, you’re developing deeper relationships and more customer value and that is really what’s important. Otherwise, you could lose them altogether, forever, over a single bad experience.

Part of that change in culture involves compensating agents for what you really need them to do and raising their status in the company. After all, they hold a powerful role--they’re responsible for delivering the brand. Some companies do this really well. For example, in her book, Chief Customer Officer, Jeanne Bliss talks about the warm friendly agents at Lands’ End. Their agents were so pleasant that often insomniacs would call their contact center in the middle the night just to talk to a caring human being. That’s the culture that Lands’ End founder Gary Cromer has created at this exceptional company.

I was talking to the director of customer service at Virgin Mobile Canada and asked her what they were looking for when hiring new agents. She said, "Energy and attitude … and preferably no previous call center experience." That’s what I mean about changing the culture—in other industries you want experienced people because it’s typically considered an asset, not a detriment.

But I believe as more companies begin to differentiate on the experience, "previous call center experience" with the right company will truly be a sought-after attribute.

What is the most surprising thing a customer has ever said to you?

We are fortunate to work with a lot of very innovative companies—real game changers.

One of our clients is a healthcare advocacy and assistance company that helps their members throughout the U.S. deal with issues they encounter while accessing the complicated healthcare and insurance systems.

During a visit to this client, I was speaking to one of the agents (they are called "advocates") who was a Registered Nurse (RN). Prior to working in the contact center, she had worked in a hospital. She had become a nurse because she wanted to help people but because of all the bureaucracies and cost control filters, working in the hospital had not fulfilled her expectations. Fortunately she'd now found a way to really help people by working in this contact center.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this nurse felt she was providing greater service in the contact center than she could in a hospital environment.

Social media provides insight into the customer. That being said one of the values of your technology appears to be a better relationship with the customer--How do you see social media altering the call center?

First of all, social media is raising awareness of the impact of every customer interaction – whether it is good or bad. Some well-known examples of bad experiences that have gone viral are Vincent Ferrari trying to cancel his AOL account, Jeff Jarvis who coined the phrase "Dell Hell" in a blog post that ultimately helped drive real changes in Dell’s customer service and singer/songwriter Dave Carroll’s "United Breaks Guitars" YouTube video that had over 2.5 million views in the first week and garnered unwanted attention to United Airlines. In all of these high-profile cases, it took just one person to tell their story and the power of social media to spread it to millions.

At the same time, there are just as many examples of companies whose reputations and brand have grown much stronger as a result of social media singing its praises. Of course, Zappos is often used as an example here. Their customer-centric culture even comes through in their tagline: "a service company that happens to sell shoes… and other apparel." They see customer service as a marketing investment not a cost. They make it easy to reach a live person by putting their phone number and live chat on every page … they want to talk … it’s part of their "secret sauce." As a result, customers love to sing their praises and helped catapult them to a billion company, even faster than they had projected.

So the social media impact can be HUGE, and companies need to engage with this audience. The challenge is to get organization on the same page in terms of messaging and experiences. Often we see the Marketing and PR folks who are all excited about social media and talk about "how conversational" the company is … but did the call center get that memo? Or are they still operating under the old playbook? Are agents still rewarded for short handle times? Can they capture ideas, comments and feedback from customers? To truly be "conversational," the contact center needs to be soundly integrated in the social media process.

Forward-thinking companies see social media as a new way to interact with the customer. Think of social media as just another touch point, another way that customers and company can connect. Contact center agents can monitor, respond, and collect information from this channel. The contact center "agent" could be a marketing or HR employee, but they need to use the same intelligent desktop and guidance center that will give them insights into who they are conversing with. Technologies like Cincom Synchrony let anyone in the organization see a complete view of the customer across all interactions so that the "agent" is well equipped to engage in relevant dialogue.

What do you think our industry (contact centers) will look like in five years?

I foresee a number of changes. First, agents will be more mobile and become more specialized. There will be more virtual contact centers/home agents to help attract a more educated, higher quality population. I expect these more flexible work environments will result in lower turnover and higher performing agents when compared to their traditional counterparts.

Second, agents and the contact center as a whole will have higher (well-deserved) status in the organization. Agents working in "Best in Class" companies will be pursued by other companies while employees will seek out opportunities in those companies that have elevated the status of the contact center.

Compensation and career paths will be competitive and attractive to top performers. This allows agents to work for the best customer-centric companies … and the best companies to recruit and employ the best agents.

Plus when you consider how much more mobile and accessible these top-performing agents are becoming, it makes it easier for the leading companies to successfully recruit the best talent as they are not constrained by local geographic boundaries.

And finally, as part of this evolution, the contact center will become a more important differentiator. Organizations that recognize the collective power of all of the agents in the center, and empower those agents to deliver truly excellent customer experiences through technology, guidance, training, and authority, stand to win the battle for customer loyalty and advocacy. Short-sighted companies that continue to begrudgingly treat the contact center as a necessary, yet costly service center, stand to lose in the long run.

First published by Call Center IQ