Gold Collar CSRs

Companies are realizing that the most significant investment they can make is not in their databases or computers, but in their customer service staff

Just a few years ago, technology providers were touting software that would enable a customer service representative (CSR) to handle six real-time online chat sessions simultaneously. But you don’t hear much about that anymore. Not that the online customer service technology failed — rather, it was near impossible for any one rep to juggle so many Internet chats at the same time.

And that in a nutshell captures the state of customer service today — and the challenges ahead. Sure, superefficient service support technologies are continually being introduced to meet the ever-increasing expectations of buyers. The difficulty is in finding and training CSRs who can live up to the technology’s potential.

Sophisticated standards

During the past few years, the concept of customer service has morphed into a sophisticated view of customer “relationships” and customer relationship management (CRM). The underlying tenet is that every interaction with a customer is part of a larger relationship that the marketer should maximize and manage to gain increased customer loyalty. With the emergence of this concept came a new field filled with analysts, acronyms, and information.

As the Internet has become an essential element of the catalog industry, CRM has evolved into eCRM, or electronic CRM. With the Internet such a pervasive force in commerce, in essence everything has an “e” component, and the types and levels of available technology have expanded exponentially.

Consider the changes we have seen in the past few years: e-mail, text-based Internet chat (the ability to hold a real-time conversation over the Web by typing back and forth), voice over Internet protocol (IP) (the ability to have a real-time verbal conversation over the Internet), and push technology (the ability to send a customer a specific image over the Internet from the desktop to the customer’s computer screen).

Now consider the changes they require in the abilities of the average CSR. And this isn’t even to mention emerging technologies such as video over IP (the ability to push video rather than still pictures to the customer, generally while having a real-time verbal conversation).

It’s obvious how the ever-more-sophisticated technology requires CSRs to have ever-more-sophisticated skills. Less obvious, but still significant: When FAQs and basic queries are easily answered on the Website or via standardized e-mail responses, the tougher, more complex problems bubble up to the surface and need to be addressed by CSRs. Kevin Moncrief, vice president of critical technologies CRM at El Segundo, CA-based consulting firm Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, sees a push toward automating as much basic company information as possible, and then, when needed, referring customers to a live person, “a highly skilled manager.”

So the new breed of CSR will need to be able to handle not only the latest technology but also the most complex customer interactions — those requiring extensive problem-solving, management, and negotiating skills. Making matters more challenging, these CSRs will have to be able to communicate both verbally and in writing.

For example, a client of futurist Paul Anderson recently had to let an agent go because she simply couldn’t make the transition to text-based customer interaction. During a voice call, Anderson says, she asked a customer spelling out a name if the letter he’d just used was an “N as in knife,” so you can imagine how her e-mail messages read. Another client heard a CSR ask if the customer was saying “Q as in cucumber.” These agents are not going to make it in the new text-centric world of customer support. And because the skills deficiency among most of today’s reps is so significant (reps often lack 12th-grade-level skills), it’s nearly impossible for a company to provide adequate training to compensate.

Attracting qualified reps

Anderson says that companies are realizing that the most significant investment they can make is not in their databases or computers, but in their customer service staff.

Indeed, the CSR is often the first impression the customer has of the competence, quality, and tone of the company. The rep serves as the marketer’s first line of defense against an unhappy customer. The CSR holds a wealth of “critical information” — intimate day-to-day customer knowledge and understanding that allows an agent to make a snap judgment that customer A, who has been patient through delivery problems, should receive a 10% discount on her next order. Or the knowledge that customer B gets cranky if his monthly shipment of widgets is a few hours late, while customer C is more relaxed about arrival time.

In short, the CSR position is emerging into a sophisticated, professional-level job requiring a college degree. According to Ken Landoline, vice president/director of Telecom Research for the San Ramun, CA-based Robert Francis Group, an information technology consultancy, these “gold collar” workers will be able to command salaries of at least $50,000 a year, or $25-$60 an hour, rather than the $8-$15 an hour most CSRs currently make.

To attract qualified CSRs, companies will also enable employees to work from a “virtual call center” — small, discrete facilities connected by the Internet to resemble one large operation. Some CSRs may even be able to work from home.

With a virtual call center, an agent makes and receives all communications, not just e-mail and text-based chat, through the Internet. Phone calls are converted to IP and transmitted over the Web, allowing the CSR to operate with only a personal computer on his or her desk. There are no telephones or expensive phone lines to connect, no busy signals, and virtually no overtime or time-zone issues to contend with — if a company has agents around the world, it can operate round-the-clock without ever calling in an overtime crew or a night shift.

Virtual call centers give companies access to higher-skilled employees who live (or wish to live) outside the traditional commuting distance. The move to decentralized call centers will also save companies on physical-plant expenses, since smaller, disparate buildings typically have lower energy and maintenance costs. In fact, if the reps work from home, companies may be able to eliminate energy and maintenance costs altogether.

Training the superservice rep

Regardless of his or her inherent skills, the gold-collar CSR requires extensive training. To achieve this level of sophistication requires more extensive and varied training than in the past. Kathleen Klasnic, a senior industry analyst at global research firm Datamonitor, foresees an increase in e-learning software and technologies to allow CSRs to learn at their own pace, rather than via the more traditional training venue — a large session in a big conference room. This type of learning may be done at a CSR’s own work station. It might involve purchasing or licensing software or giving the agent access to an instructional Website.

While the one-time, lecture-style educational option might appear less costly, if everyone doesn’t “get it” and there are errors that result in frustrated employees and unhappy customers, you may end up losing money. “This is another reason you have got to get even more skilled people in initially,” Klasnic says.

Like Klasnic, Cap Gemini’s Moncrief foresees more training for CSRs in the future, but not merely in terms of technical, written, and verbal skills. “You need to do a lot of training and incentives to make people more friendly and more empathetic as well as efficient,” he says.

While you cannot teach empathy per se, Moncrief notes that several firms do offer specialized training in how to handle customers with understanding. For instance, the Incoming Call Management Institute provides several on-site training programs designed to help CSRs understand the customer’s viewpoint, and E-Satisfy offers a course entitled Managing Angry Customers, which trains CSRs to diffuse anger and turn around tense, troubling situations.

Naturally, all these changes in technology and the CSR workforce will result in changes in management as well. Moncrief sees titles such as chief CRM officer or chief relationship officer emerging. The Robert Francis Group’s Landoline envisions a chief relationship officer as “someone in charge of customer relationship management across the corporation the way the role of CIO developed a few years ago.”

While there is no way to predict the future with certainty, you can bet on one thing: Technology will continue to evolve and improve, forcing management and agents to change as well, if only to avoid being left behind.

Lisa Napell Dicksteen is a freelance writer and public relations/marketing consultant based in Port Jefferson, NY.

The Outsourcing Option

If you’re having problems hiring or training your CSRs to reach a higher skill level, consider outsourcing with an off-site agency. Outsourcing allows companies to reduce their dependence on low-skilled employees and use highly skilled personnel for the occasions where a live, “gold collar” CSR is required.

Outsourcing differs from hiring freelance CSRs to work inhouse in that the telephone calls come directly into the outsourcer’s call center. The outsourcer charges based on your call volume and service level requirements: how many calls come in a day; how quickly the calls must be answered; how long is too long to leave a caller on hold. Based on this information, the price ranges from $4 to $12 a phone call, depending on the skill level required of the CSR.

“If you need your calls answered on the first ring, that’ll cost more than if they can get them on the third or fourth ring,” says Erick Rabinowitz, president of New York-based HIS Helpdesk Services. Cost also increases with the amount of data, such as the catalog content, transaction details, and the CRM software, that an outsourcer needs to install on its computer system to handle your calls.

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