Who’s No. 1?
Most U.S. companies jump to answer this question by saying their customers take top priority. However, as high-quality customer service becomes increasingly difficult — and costly — to provide, some firms are citing a new crown jewel: customer-service employees.
On the surface, this trend might seem counterintuitive. After all, many companies in recent years have chosen to outsource customer-service functions entirely, eliminating the concept of “employees” altogether. However, other businesses have eschewed this outsourcing doctrine, instead acting on the principle that agents are not interchangeable, and that only agents who feel highly valued will provide excellent service.
“Employee satisfaction is synonymous with customer satisfaction,” Bob Furniss, president of Call Center Ideas, told CRM Buyer. “Unhappy employees generally equate to a less-than-stellar customer experience.”
Workers in the Loop
Furniss, who has worked with clients including Dell, Delta Air Lines, Corporate Express and Chase Bank, pointed out that today’s customers demand service representatives who are bright, perceptive, sympathetic and can offer solutions to problems. But the truth is that the day-to-day grind of helping customers can be tiresome, frustrating and tedious — and many companies do not provide sufficient support to help their agents overcome these difficulties.
Some companies even exacerbate the problem for agents by ignoring them when times are tough, Furniss said.
“If we’re behind the eight ball and have calls on hold all of the time, we tend to cancel employee meetings,” he noted. “But that is the time we really need to communicate most with employees — when things are busiest and not going well. If communication is a problem in the call center, and it’s being run in such a way that calls are always on hold, agents are not being coached and cannot see a career path. That’s when they start looking for something else.”
Drawing a Map for Agents
To maintain low turnover — and thereby keep a staff of better-qualified and more knowledgeable agents — companies should lay out a clear career path for customer-service representatives and then treat these employees well, Furniss said.
“There are call centers out there that have very low turnover,” he said. “These are companies that have made a commitment to their employees. They use internal employees rather than outsourcing. And then they offer good benefits, plus a pay scale that is comparable [to] or a little better than market in that area.”
Headsets.com president and CEO Mike Faith uses these strategies, among others, to discourage turnover in his company’s small call center. By putting employees first, he told CRM Buyer, his firm doubled its revenue in 2002. The company also will add 50 percent to sales in 2003, reaching a total of nearly US$11 million.
Faith said he offers employees several opportunities to earn bonuses. The most unique one is a $50 award for complaining.
“On their time sheets every week, people have an opportunity to make comments, from praise for another employee to complaints,” he explained. “I pick a bunch each week to pay $50 to. I’m most often eager to pay for complaints. Whether I think it’s right or wrong, I want to hear it.
“Plus, it gives our people a chance to get heard and get things changed,” he added. “Since they are closest to the customer, they have the best chance to find out what’s right and what’s wrong with the company. Paying [for complaints] has been a really good move for us.”
Also, because customer-service employees directly earn revenue for the company, they are paid above-market salaries and awarded stock options, Faith said.
“Anyone else, including me, is overhead,” he noted. “We have to let our agents know that they hold important positions. In fact, for us, it’s a key position. We want our best people there, and we want to keep them there.”
Turnover Be Gone
Some companies are compiling solid evidence that a focus on training and valuing agents translates directly to the bottom line. A case in point is Continental Airlines, which employs 5,200 customer-service representatives.
“[Continental] used to have epidemic attrition rates,” said Oscar Alban, principal global market consultant at Witness Systems, which provides the airline with contact-center software. “Now they are running below a 5 percent attrition rate.”
To achieve this low turnover, Continental elevated the position of front-line agents, Alban told CRM Buyer. The company’s effort included launching ongoing training and incentive programs.
Those initiatives included the installation of eQuality, a software program sold by Witness Systems. The product enables supervisors to record phone calls and screen the activity of agents as they handle customer interactions. Recordings then can be used for training and development purposes.
Happiness Rubs Off
At Continental, Witness’ software helped executives determine which agent behaviors led to outstanding customer service. In just six months, the airline saw e-ticket sales rise 8 percent, while vendor transfer programs (such as car rentals and hotel bookings) increased 22 percent.
“The average agent contributes $1.13 million in lifetime customer loyalty in the average year,” Alban said. “That is huge. The organizations that are successful actually raise the standards in the call centers, and then put in the infrastructure and programs to set agents up for success.
“If you focus on the agents, then there are going to be some byproducts that are automatic,” he added. “Customers are going to feel they are being taken care of by someone who cares.”