How to make the modern customer contact center efficient and profitable

How to make the modern customer contact center efficient and profitable
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By Joe Mullich | www.joemullich.com

The responsibilities of customer contact centers are changing rapidly. In an era of self-service, customers aren’t as likely to reach out to for routine matters, such as checking an airline reservation or ordering a catalog. More and more, they’ll handle such “low value” transactions themselves, says Dr. David Butler, executive director of the National Association of Call Centers.

The flipside is the issues that these centers do handle are more important, complex, and directly translate into customer satisfaction–or disappointment.

No wonder 80 percent of companies say the top focus of their contact centers is to improve the customer experience, according to a survey from Aberdeen Group. “This is the number one channel that a customer has when they have an issue,” explains Aberdeen research analyst Omer Minkara. “companies want to delight those customers.”

An efficient and profitable operation?
“Delighting the customer”–and transforming a contact center into an efficient and profitable operation–offers plenty of challenges, though. Contact centers are difficult to manage and optimize. They require rigorous attention to data, from all areas of the company, and it takes significant training to prepare agents to handle heightened customer expectations that can have a direct impact on the bottom line.

How do companies achieve the transformation? For starters, leading organizations are implementing a multichannel contact center strategy, which integrates Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems, live agent, mobile, web, email, and other channels into a single seamless hub.

The different channels allow companies to steer customers to the most cost-effective interaction. One study found that web self-service costs only pennies per contact, while virtual agents cost less than $1 per contact, live chat about $5 per contact, and telephone customer service from $6 to $12 or more per contact.

But it’s not simply a matter of reducing costs. Allowing customers to choose their preferred channel shortens the sales process and increases the rate of sales completion, turning the call center into a profit center.

Determining the best channel
Achieving this goal requires a company to gain a firm understanding of the best channels to meet a customer’s needs. For example, one healthcare company purposely avoided the cheaper IVR system and opted to have live agents answer every call because the product–a Medicare drug program–was so complex. With this approach, the average speed to answer a call was a mere 30 seconds–and sales were brisk.

New cloud-based technology, which outsources contact center functionality to a third party accessed over the internet, permits the different types of contacts, such as voice and email, to be collected, stored, and managed seamlessly. With such integration, the agent can immediately access an email that a customer, who is calling today, sent last week.

Use your data quickly
Most contact centers excel at collecting data, but the premier ones are able to use that data effectively. Butler recalls an incident where a company offered a particular service for free to new customers. When existing customers got wind of the offer, many called the company to cancel their accounts–and then immediately re-upped as “new” customers to get the freebie.

“This cost the company millions of dollars,” he says. “Their problem was that even though the contact center was getting the information of what was happening, the marketing department did not have a close enough link with the call center to pull that information out faster so they could react and tweak its campaign.”

A laser focus on your people
As interactions become more complex, the people who staff the contact centers are becoming more important–and so companies realize they need to raise the caliber of that staff. For example, many contact centers use speech analytics tools to evaluate the tone of a customer’s voice to see if he or she is angry and should be handled differently. Omer Minkara notes that high-performing companies also use these tools to evaluate if agents lack necessary skills and need more training.

One surprise from the Aberdeen study is that in addition to customer-facing skills, best-in-class companies are laser-focused on hiring agents with appropriate technical skills. In a time when an agent might handle one customer on the phone and simultaneously chat online with another customer, “you can educate agents on how to handle customer interactions more easily than you can educate them on technical skills,” Minkara says.

Top companies also pay contact center agents on average 40 percent more, because, as Minkara puts it, the companies want to “delight” the frontline personnel who play such a key role in promoting customer loyalty.

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