Performing a Customer Communications Check-Up, Part 1

This is the first in a two-part series.

There is a customer-power revolution taking place. The pervasive use of the Internet has created a smarter, more buying-savvy customer. For example, J. D. Power reports that 70% of automobile buyers enter the dealer showroom already armed with specifications, invoice prices, and information on dealer margins and promotions. Travelers can go to the Web for travel deals from Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, competing directly with the traditional travel agents and providers. Even healthcare information has resulted in better informed patients asking their physicians for specific treatments and prescriptions.

This customer revolution has a significant impact on the contact center’s role in the business. It’s time for businesses to begin to listen closer to their customers — what they want, what they like and don’t like about your products or process, how your products affect them, and what the competition is offering. And since the contact center interacts with more customers than any other part of the enterprise, what better place to find out what customers are thinking?

As customers take a more powerful role in the sales process, the role of the contact center is also changing. It is not just the team that handles billing questions, solves product problems, or takes orders from customers. The contact center must gather customer information essential to the company’s success and make it available to the rest of the enterprise in a form to guide product development, process changes, pricing, and marketing decisions.

While better demographic information can help to segment customers for more targeted marketing, there is more to it than that. It is not enough to just mollify the complaining customer or fix a billing error. Issues that affect multiple customers must be quickly identified and communicated to the departments that can make a difference. This puts the contact center in the role of interpreter between the customer and the company, serving as a conduit to enable the voice of the customer to be heard.

When customers truly believe that a company listens and acts upon what it hears, trust is earned, loyalty is built, and retention increases. For these actions to occur there must be an efficient and effective flow of information from the contact center point of entry to the rest of the enterprise, with all corporate functions working together. This flow of information and resulting actions are easier said than done, however, for most organizations.

Customer communications checkup
To ensure your organization makes the most of customer information, you will want to continually review all points of contacts and processes along the way. The customer communications checkup is a practical ten-step process to review and improve the way the contact center interacts with customers and gathers and passes the vital customer input to the rest of the enterprise. This process enables you to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with customers that will ensure retention and referrals, maximize current revenues and repeat business, and minimize the cost of service. It is a process that focuses on both efficiency and effectiveness.

This supports a measured and continuously developing improvement process rather that a massive reengineering that may be too complex and revolutionary to be successful. This practical approach will enable the contact center to take on this Voice of the Customer role in a way the enterprise can assimilate effectively.

The 10-step process can include any combination of the following tasks. The tasks fall into two main areas: effective listening and data gathering, followed by acting upon the information.

1. Review contact center goals to ensure alignment with enterprise mission and goals.

In this vital first step, it is essential for the contact center to take a look at the enterprise mission and vision and make sure that the goals in the contact center are aligned. For example, if the company has a mission/vision that states it wants to be the low-cost provider in its market, the contact center must focus on listening for opportunities to drive costs lower. Any information about the customer’s view of the competitive offerings will be important to both marketing and product development managers.

On the other hand, if the company’s mission/vision is to be the innovative leader, cost may be a secondary factor. Now the contact center needs to listen closely for any information the customer provides that would guide new product features and competitive capabilities that need to be addressed. Traditional service level goals may have some relevance in the process, but they are simply subsets of larger goals. Pressing for lower handle time may be counter-productive to gathering quality input from customers, but first call resolution may be more vital than ever to gaining customer trust. Every contact center goal should support the mission of the company and be clearly tied to its achievement.

2. Review or establish a performance measurement system.

When the contact center’s mission, vision, and goals are clear, specific measures of performance can be established that gauge progress toward those goals. Larger measures such as quality or profitability will need to be broken down into the components that can be measured. The measures need to address overall contact center performance, as well as performance of the staff at all levels within the center that roll up to the overall goals.

3. Review or establish reporting strategies that focus on the established goals.

The reports that are provided to all levels of the organization must be relevant to the recipients and provide them with data that aids in decision making. Establishing a comprehensive strategy for what information to provide, what sources will be used, what calculations applied, what format the report will take, who is to receive it, and how often to communicate will give a solid foundation to the reporting functions.

4. Review options for structured and unstructured data analysis.

It is common for there to be an overall company customer satisfaction survey process, but less common for the survey to specifically address customers’ interactions with the contact center specifically. The contact center needs a survey mechanism that gives it specific and actionable data quickly. Receiving a semi-annual report that scores the contact center for overall satisfaction with a 3.8 on a scale of 5 doesn’t give the managers much to work with to make changes for improvement. There are a number of tools available today to provide quick and specific information that can guide coaching of personnel, process change, and resolve customer issues before they become major challenges.

Much of the communications with customers via calls or email is unstructured. There is no format to guide the analysis in the same way as a structured customer satisfaction survey. But this is where the bulk of the useful information will be, with answers to important questions like:

What did the customer really love about that new feature?

Why did the customer pick this product over the competitive ones?

How likely is the customer to take his business elsewhere?

This is the data that must be gathered, mined, and acted upon to maximize competitive position and gain customer trust. There are a number of techniques for turning the unstructured data into useful information, including new analytics technologies and processes as simple as a customer suggestion box.

5. Establish effective processes for sharing customer feedback with the enterprise.

When the customer data has been gathered, it must be shared with the appropriate departments within the enterprise who can use it effectively. The call center must establish communications methodologies that provide the data in the form most useful for the receiving department. Overcoming the appearance of “finger-pointing” by the contact center is critical to the effectiveness of the process and will require of the development of common goals and cooperation among all of the affected departments.

Maggie Klenke is a founding partner for Lebanon, TN-based The Call Center School, a consulting and contact center education company.

To go to Part II, click

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