Call Centers: The Newest Competitive Weapon

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You are at a cocktail party and someone asks, “What do you do?”  Your answer, “ I work in a call center.” The conversation either ends abruptly or turns to complaints about how difficult it is to contact a call center or get anything resolved. The average consumer hates call centers. However, when a customer needs to call and finds a professional, knowledgeable and friendly associate who helps them, that customer falls in love. Just the reaction any company or organization is looking for.  As a customer retention expert, I look at call centers as a new, although already established, competitive weapon for any industry.

Call centers are not only here to stay, smart companies should understand the call center is the most effective and economical channel to positively impact customer loyalty. Associates in call centers communicate with more customers than any other department. I have always said that the customer service function is clearly valuable; it is the heart and home of a company. The call center industry itself must demonstrate and document their successes everyday. The data is there but not put to good use.  The data we collect for call centers is proof that the call center helps companies create repeat business and should be used to quantify their ROI.

Today information can easily be found on the Internet.  Couple that with the desire customers have to self-serve might make some CEO’s think the budget line item for the call center can be removed.  This is penny wise and pound-foolish thinking. Too many companies are forcing their customers to find their own answers even if those answers do not exist on the Internet. Brick and mortar stores are reducing their footprint and associates.  E-commerce sites are turning their products into commodities.  Customers want a human connection when they cannot self-serve. While these trends are going to continue, the most viable solution to providing that human touch and building relationships will be the call center.

Call centers need to shift gears too.  One of our clients has a program where all newly hired MBA graduates spend their first year working in the call center. This serves two purposes: first, it provides the employee with an excellent background to move into other departments; legal, marketing, operations, quality, etc. Secondly, customers get an advantage. Education should never be the only criteria; there are thousands of great call center representatives without graduate degrees. Questions have become more complicated and more is expected of a representative to handle unique and difficult resolutions.  When I accidently posted a credit to an American Express account that had a zero balance, the only way I could resolve the issue was to contact the call center.  I reached a highly professional associate who immediately understood the issue, transferred the funds and told me I was a valued customer and American Express appreciated my business.

When call centers became relevant in the 1970’s, it was necessary to build a facility, find local associates to handle calls and the technology to easily get you to the appropriate person or department didn’t exist. Today, technology is available to easily field calls and have agents work remotely.  The call center can actually be virtual and the dollars saved on space and workstations should be used to compensate associates for the important value they add to the company.

The call center is not dead. It’s alive and well. The key to repeat business is creating and building relationships and call center representatives can do that.  It’s time for call centers to “circle the wagons” because they are under attack. Continue your good work and demonstrate associate appreciation. Call centers can be the company’s best competitive differentiator.

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