5 ways to improve customer service in call centres

Over the last few years I’ve conducted a number of contextual research studies in call centres. It is an interesting environment in which to conduct contextual research. Generally I’ve double-jacked in to calls, observing how the customer service consultants address the queries, and then asked a few questions of the customer service consultants.

Common call centre problems

Although there have been specific issues in each call centre I’ve conducted research studies, there have been a number of common issues. Namely:

  • The customer service application is not used during training. Instead training teaches the consultants to take and rely on hand-written notes. They become familiar and trusting of these as a quick resource for addressing queries. This is an issue for a number obvious reasons; paper doesn’t get updated, their notes may not even be accurately recorded, etc.
  • Consultants have no mechanism for suggesting improvements and updates to the system. If customer service consultants know one piece of information to be inaccurate, it undermines their trust in all other information on the system.
  • Staff are commonly incentivised to complete calls in the shortest amount of time. Besides a whole heap of other issues that this form of incentivisation may lead to, it also encourages consultants to go with the quickest way of finding an answer to a customer query. Encouraging speed rather than use of the information system increases the risk that customer service consultants will provide inaccurate answers.
  • For the reasons listed above, printed reference materials abound within call centre environments. I even once found a printed reference guide titled “Things you won’t find on the intranet”! Rather than ban printed materials and send these underground (as many call centre management do), I wonder if there is a way for management to ensure that printed materials are up-to-date and accurate.
  • Management are oblivious to any of the above and find it a real kick in the stomach when I deliver my research findings.

5 ways to improve customer service

From these common findings I’ve extracted 5 ways in which most (if not all) call centres could be improved:

  1. Use the customer service information system during training.
  2. Encourage suggestions for improvements to the information system, and resolve the suggestions quickly and publicly.
  3. Incentivise new staff by use of the information system, not time to complete calls.
  4. Use colour co-ordinated official print-outs that are changed as regularly as your environment requires, this enables management to at a glance check to see what versions of print materials staff are using.
  5. Management should walk the floor regularly, but not in an intimidating way, and double-jack in to calls for a period of time is a great mechanism for seeing what really goes on.
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6 responses to “5 ways to improve customer service in call centres

  1. Interesting thoughts. As a substitute to print-outs, you could offer webpages with links on the rep’s desktop. That way you could update information quickly all at once.

  2. I like your suggestions but I question the idea about print-outs. It is extremely difficult to keep paper documents up to date, especially if it needs to be distributed across multiple receipients.

    Why not use a Wiki, one with a good search engine behind it?

    Management walking to floor – I think management should use 10% of their time doing what others do to really find out what’s going on. This doesn’t have to be only in call centres. I realise that they’re busy but this 10% really should be a part of their job. A good manager is one who can fill the shoes of anyone whom they’re supervising. How can you tell someone what to do when they themselves don’t know how to do it?

  3. simplerisbetter

    I agree that currency of information is important, but what I’ve observed from my studies is:

    a] paper is often the preferred unofficial medium used by staff in call centres

    b] call centre staff like to have a very quick mechanism for getting to frequently asked, but not memorised information

    What I am suggesting is a way of ensuring the currency of this information, while still providing it in the medium preferred by staff. This would be as well as, not instead of, an information system (could be a wiki).

    What I am suggesting is a pragmatic solution that takes into account how call centre staff actually work, rather than an idealist “wouldn’t it be better if…” type solution. I appreciate that a totally online information system would be better for lots of reasons, but what I’ve observed is that even really good systems don’t get used if they aren’t sympathetic to the pressures of the context of use.

  4. Great observations. I’ve been involved in a couple of contact centre projects and I also sat in with consultants as they make their calls. It’s a great way to get insights into what the real problems are.

    Something that I noticed in both the projects I was involved in was as a final step staff were asked to classify what type of call they had just had so that management could measure trends in the types of calls they receive and track metrics by type of call etc.

    If I remember correctly, the first company often had customers calling about a range of topics, and the system gave 7 very specific scenarios which often didn’t fit. So most people got into the habit of wrapping up the call with ‘option 4’, a generic type of choice.

    The second company had a terrifying hierarchy of drop down menus to drill down to a specific classification, again staff memorized a pathway to a generic option.

    We came up with a range of suggestions from automating this, to removing it completely, (and for the second project swapping it to measure the perceived happiness of the caller at the end of the call) but it was interesting to see a common behaviour in both the companies.

    I totally agree with your suggestion for the paper manual too. Another project I worked on for a DHB intranet was partway through a process of phasing out paper policies and guidelines to an online format to increase the accuracy of the documents.

    I discovered that the paper policies were actually kept under amazing control through the dedication and attention to detail of a very committed and under resourced document control and archival team. Documents issued to staff were individually numbered and tracked so they could be substituted with an updated version when required.

    Moving from this system to an online system is going to be problematic, as clinical staff who preferred the hard copies were hiding paper manuals or declaring them lost so they don’t have to return them.

    The main problem I saw in maintaining accuracy wasn’t the medium they were delivered, but instead it was because there was not enough resources dedicated to the upkeep of policies and procedures, and that changes happened on a reactive basis.

    Unfortunately at this stage, the project had already developed too much momentum to review. A disaster in the making 😦

  5. I read a book called “Manager’s Matrix” that covered many of these concepts. You’re definately on the right track.

  6. Am really impressed with non paper work ideas but load of saving documents for a travel related industry is not safe nor it helps in system running process.
    what do you suggest in terms of daily updates??

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