Call Centers: Is 1(800) Still the Magic Number?
Customer service made a giant leap when companies began employing sophisticated communication technology that managed large call volume with ease. In turn, call centers expanded the service availability beyond normal business hours, while automated messages allowed access 24/7.
Launching a Call Center - Large, Small, or Not at All?
Call centers can be as simple as a single phone line manned by a couple of shift employees or as sophisticated as technically complex or geographically dispersed call management systems.
High volume call center situations require careful coordination of the total investment with the appropriate service level. For example, a system that provides an average of three minutes of hold time 80 percent of the day and an average of eight minutes of hold time 20 percent of the day (during peak load times) may well meet company objectives.
Companies looking to implement call centers should understand and evaluate critical factors such as:
- Average hold time
- Calls per hour/day/week
- Average call length
- Call categories (i.e., billing, complaints, orders, etc.)
- Location of employees (central, regional, remote agents, outsourced)
- Return on set-up/maintenance/staffing investment
Upon completing a detailed evaluation, business owners may then determine the most efficient measures to improve customer service as well as reduce company costs. Call center software can run into the millions of dollars, so a thorough assessment is critical to gain cost-effective results.
Conversely, small to midsize companies may find that call center software available on today's market does meet their customer service needs while remaining within budgetary parameters. When setting up an in-house center, industry experts say the following considerations are critical:
- Time. Call center implementation can take a few weeks to six months or more. Thoroughly research the requirements of each product under consideration.
- Usability. Some software systems are more user-friendly than others. Make sure to "test-drive" various systems before signing the sales slip.
- Adaptability. New call-center software should integrate easily with existing operational procedures.
- Upkeep. Any in-house system should accommodate minor upgrades and corrections without calling in high-level technology teams. In fact, most company personnel should be capable of routine maintenance.
- Call distribution. A good system, via caller ID, matches incoming calls to the customer database, identifying in seconds customer characteristics such as contract terms, invoice status, purchase records and much more. This reduces hold time during information collection, as well as transfers between departments in search of the appropriate salesperson.
Given the intricacies of launching an in-house operation, a company decision-maker may find it simpler to outsource this aspect of the business. Nevertheless, an off-site center may still become the customer's main point of contact, so careful selection is a must. Potential call centers should demonstrate:
- A solid track record in meeting individual companies' needs (e.g., customer/employee feedback, call volume records)
- The ability to provide required services
- Service flexibility
- Availability and quick response time
Call Center Courtesy
Although the call-center concept may extend to a variety of designs and models, it's important to note that a consistent message on the part of staff provides the foundation for proactive customer service on every level. Call center employees define a caller's perception of the company, so hiring and keeping quality personnel is a must. To this end, all new hires should show commitment to the organization's mission and goals.
The knowledgeable business owner will emphasize these maxims when screening and training employees for an in-house set-up:
- Be willing to help.
- Always go the extra mile.
- Listen to the customer.
- Instead of saying "I don't know," substitute "That's a good question! Let me check and find out."
- Never present a negative attitude.
A Script for Success
When developing the actual script, it's a good idea to incorporate several standard fundamentals for maximum effectiveness:
- Start by stressing a positive attitude, which often can forestall unpleasant situations. Some large call centers provide mirrors for employees to check their facial expressions when answering phones because a visible smile likely will translate to vocal cheeriness.
- List product benefits in the script so employees can knowledgeably discuss them with callers.
- People like to be recognized as unique individuals, so require employees to call all customers by name.
- Instruct call center workers to establish a team approach with customers. Suggest the use of phrases such as "Let's decide," "Let's make sure this service schedule works for you," etc.
- Instruct employees to ask closing questions when completing an order or wrapping up a transaction. These may relate to the caller's understanding of product guarantees, payment terms, delivery schedule and other services.
No matter how polite a call center staff is, the occasional irate customer does come along. Let employees know that they:
- Are merely a channel for the customer's anger.
- May spend up to 80 percent of their time soothing the customer's feelings.
- Should accept responsibility for the caller's problem on behalf of the company the minute they understand there is a problem.
- Should apologize for the problem while showing empathy.
- Must be quick to offer help.
- Can satisfy most people most of the time by using correct techniques.
- May inform a caller who swears or becomes abusive that they will hang up if the behavior continues.
- Should immediately ask follow-up questions regarding the complaint.
Since call centers are product/service-driven, business owners should assure that staff members check the "pulse" of the customer soon after each transaction. Random follow-up calls, or mailed evaluations, should be part of every call center's routine. After all, feedback is essential to catching problems or improving performance. Scripted questions can include:
- Were you happy with the product or service?
- Was the method of sale satisfactory?
- What can the company do to improve service?
- Would you do business with us again?
- Would you recommend us to your friends?
Call Center Refunds: Upfront Policies, Satisfied Customers
The point of sale - or follow-up call - is not necessarily the final interaction with a customer. Questions or complaints about service or billing may continue long after the product leaves the premises. For this reason, when customers wish to return items purchased over the phone, the business, like any brick and mortar facility, must have a clear return policy in place. Doing so will both protect the vendor against fraudulent returns and offer the customer a reliable mechanism to return unwanted goods.
A return policy is product-driven and set by the individual business and may also be subject to the applicable state law. Return policies can include cash refunds, credit, exchange or no refund at all. Special or custom orders, sale, close-out or clearance items may not include a refund option.
In a retail store, refund policies are posted at the cash register. Online sale refund policies are posted on the business's website, but telephone orders need a verbal statement at the point of sale and/or sent to the customer with the merchandise.
Questions to address in a refund policy include:
- Does a return transaction require receipts, tags or packaging?
- Do credit slips have a time limit?
- Do returns have a time limit?
- Will the store accept returns of sale merchandise?
- Does the return include any shipping cost?
Special considerations to reduce customer inconvenience in making a return:
- If the business has a brick and mortar store, can the product be returned at any of the stores instead of mailing it back?
- When using an automatic prompt system (i.e., voice recordings directing customers to push buttons or respond vocally), can customers complete transactions efficiently, without misdirection or errors?
- Can a dissatisfied customer make a return, no questions asked?
- Can a customer process return paperwork online at the company website?
- Will the customer receive discounts on future purchases?
The objective is to have a return policy that the customer can understand. When a company keeps the process clear-cut on both sides, the customer usually remains a loyal patron - and the business likely can reduce added costs.