No Jitter is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

The Death of the Contact Center...The Rise of the Relationship Center

Is your goal to "delight" your customers...really?

By putting them on hold and running them through an obstacle course of menus? Through speech recognition and "screen pops"? Maybe you think fancy speech analytics will do the trick?

The reality is that customers dread calling in for assistance. Why?

The majority of so-called customer "innovations" have been nothing more than cost-cutting measures and are designed to support the needs of the enterprise, not the customer. New ways to automate routing have resulted in pushing customers toward self-service options or simply forcing customers to wait on hold until agents can cost-effectively handle them.

These technologies all share the same central premise: Your "valued" customers need you, more than you need them. This reinforces the ideas that the relationship is asymmetrical, that you can keep them waiting on hold, and that your time is more valuable than theirs. That is like meeting someone at a cocktail party and only talking about yourself. Those are not long-term, sustainable relationships. Bottom line: It is about the customer.

There is a bitter irony that the automated attendant technology once introduced to liberate customers and give them external control when calling an enterprise took a dark turn and became the very symbol of customers' helplessness--"voice mail jail." It has all the makings of many customers' technology horror stories.

Meanwhile, enterprises are spending a great deal of money trying to reach and attract new customers as well as keeping existing ones amid a changing environment. Many of the long-time channels like TV and print are either experiencing increasing costs or decreasing effectiveness. The cost and efficiency of the channels like social media are untested. So it is ironic that customers, the most valuable asset the organization has, are not taken care of better when they need assistance--especially since 51% will go elsewhere if they are not treated the way they expect, according to Accenture.

A reboot is needed, a resetting of the customer relationship to one that is reciprocal and puts the customer first. Preparing for customer calls is one of the initial steps that needs to be taken. So how do you get prepared?

When a salesperson prepares to call on a customer or a prospect, what do they do? They start with research and try to learn everything possible about them. Salespeople want to know what the customer's background is and anticipate what kind of issues they are having so some common ground can be found to establish a relationship.

The same need to be properly prepared when speaking with a customer also applies to a contact center, with the difference being the communications are inbound and there is no time for the agent to prepare. All relevant customer information needs to be immediately available because you don't know what will be needed. You need the customer history so that you understand your customers' experience with your organization. This includes which products or services they buy, when they buy these, and how often they make purchases.

The better prepared and the more accessible this information is to your agents, the better prepared they will be to address your customers' needs. One of the most important things to know is what occurred with their recent transaction, as there is a strong likelihood that this is why they are calling. Was their item in stock? Did it ship on time? Does this customer usually call in? Can you tell if an item has shipped, or left the warehouse, etc.? Immediate access to all relevant customer information from all of your systems, Financial (ERP) and CRM, will be necessary. If you really want to make customers happy, this information should be immediately available to the agent so you can really speed up response times.

Another way to speed things up for your customers (which also lowers your staffing and network costs) is to tightly integrate your telephony systems with your CRM systems so you can eliminate or minimize the need to put customers into IVR queues. Route the calls automatically to your agents by reading the Automatic Number Identification (ANI) or other identifying information that travels with the call. Your customer relationship management database should contain all of this information. When that is not possible, there is no reason a customer should ever have to input information more than one time. All of your systems should be sufficiently integrated so all of your tools can access this information.

It is possible to increase personalization and customization while offering self-service options. The key is to emphasize the design intent, focusing on self-service as an option for customers to choose for their convenience, not something they are forced to use. That way, the relationship is front and center.

So if companies are all saying that they are focused on the customer experience, why is the level of customer satisfaction so low?

The answer lies in the history of the technologies that are found in today's contact centers. Telephone contact centers have grown to include multi-channel capabilities, external monitoring and reporting packages, social media, and CRM and ERP integrations. There are many products, from many companies, with many migration paths. This creates a lot of complexity and expense in tying these systems together. Issues of support, responsibility, and testing all make for a lot of heavy lifting. If customers were happy, this scenario would be acceptable...but it's not, and customers are voting with their feet. It is time to take a fresh look.

Louis Sullivan, the legendary Chicago architect, was quoted as saying, "Form follows function." If the existing technology isn't getting the job done, then it is time to find the means that can.

In a subsequent article I will address this in greater depth, but for starters you need:

1. A commitment to focusing on your customers and that commitment driving all other decisions. Looking at the big picture, and your desired results, the only conclusion should be for you to be committed to a paradigm shift, to transforming your contact center into a true relationship center in order to satisfy today's (and tomorrow's) customers better.

2. Agents provided with all the tools possible to quickly and efficiently handle your customers' inquiries. All relevant information from all of your systems needs to be at their fingertips.

3. Respect for your customers' time. Don't keep them needlessly waiting, and don't ask them to repeat themselves. Just like our cocktail party analogy, you don't want to look bored or disinterested.

4. Platforms and vendors that can be part of your long-term strategy with products and services that are designed to work together, so that you don't have to spend the time and resources to do that. Vendors also need to be financially viable so they can make a long-term commitment to you to continually invest in innovations that support your efforts to give your customers world-class service.