Why Do You Put Your Call Center At Risk?

brian
Posted: 02/17/2014

Unwilling to restrict its commentary to the evils of politics and human nature, the second season of Netflix’s "House of Cards" also takes aim at target familiar to CCIQ readers: the call center.

Sensing dejection, a friendly stranger and fellow bus passenger asks whether key character Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) is suffering from a "long day."

Rachel’s response?

"I work in a call center, so…yeah."

Though the viewer knows there was more on Rachel’s mind than her bleak workplace culture, her brief comment spoke volumes.

She did slightly elaborate by referencing the countless strangers with whom she has to speak in an hour, but she did not have to. She did not have to complain about her pay. She did not have to complain about the comfort of her desk. She did not have to complain about the attitude of her boss.

By confirming that she works in a call center, Rachel signaled to the stranger—and to the world—that she is not leading a happy day-to-day life.

Considering customer engagement is the key to business success and considering call center agents are the individuals responsible for that engagement, how can businesses continue to tolerate the grim call center conception? How can businesses continue to allow agents to succumb to apathy on their best days and outright frustration and sadness on their worst?

How can businesses continue jeopardizing their customer interactions? How can they allow anyone but happy, enthusiastic and passionate representatives to handle their customers?

Why would they dare take the risk?

One would prefer not to elect someone unenthusiastic about his country to the role of president. One would prefer not to let someone unenthusiastic about football coach a football team. One would prefer not to let someone unenthusiastic about history teach a high-level history class. One would prefer not to let someone unenthusiastic about people serve as a greeter at Abercrombie & Fitch.

Why does that logic not apply to the call center? Knowing how important customer interactions are to the bottom line, how could businesses possibly justify letting unmotivated, uninterested, disengaged facilitate those interactions?

Improving the call center culture should not be a strategic alternative; it should be a business obligation. No one who has not been properly trained, properly coached, properly motivated, properly satisfied, properly paid, properly empowered and properly aligned with the business’ value perspective should ever get near a single customer, let alone serve as the only voice hundreds of frustrated or inquisitive customers hear each day.

Allowing such an agent to engage customers epitomizes the notion of putting one’s worst foot forward. It is tantamount to knowingly running an offensive, poorly-conceived, poorly-reviewed marketing campaign. It is similar to knowingly sending a bad salesman to pitch a powerful prospective client.

Investing in the totality of the agent experience—not just superficial workplace "culture" but the fundamental manner in which an agent is integrated into the business—is the only means of assuring agents are primed and positioned to satisfy customers. And insofar as satisfying customers is a surefire means of driving business results, investing in the totality of the agent experience is a surefire means of improving the business.

Businesses, therefore, have no excuse not to do so. Unless they consider customer relationships to be meaningless, transactional, low-impact affairs, they cannot manage call centers in accordance with that conception. If they value customers, they must value the agents who serve those customers.

Agents are not innocent victims in this equation. While an agent cannot control the training, motivation and atmosphere he receives, he can control his willingness to engage and delight customers. He can control how he perceives and approaches the needy, demanding, and even rude customers with whom he interacts on a daily basis.

Even an ideal call center environment is not an optimal fit for all individuals. If one lacks the patience, drive and communication skills needed to delight an unpredictable, often disrespectful batch of strangers, he should not be answering customer support calls. If one cannot fathom the concept that the "customer is always right," he should not be answering customer support calls.

If one’s first reaction to a difficult call is to blame the customer for his rudeness or sense of entitlement, that individual should not be working in a call center.

That agents, themselves, can hurt the customer experience is all the more reason why businesses need to better manage their call center environments. By offering minimal wages, limited training, minimal engagement and an apathetic or even unpleasant work environment, businesses send the message that the role of call center agent is not an elite one. A low-priority focus for the business, it is a suitable fit for those with limited qualifications, skills and mental advantages.

By hiring in accordance with those light expectations, businesses only further poison the well. They reinforce the idea that customer support is not a high-value career opportunity but an entry-level job to tide individuals over until something better comes along. This results in a weak pool of job candidates and a similarly weak pool of call center agents. It closes the business out to those who can truly reinvigorate the customer service function.

It is time to stop taking unnecessary risks in the call center. If customers matter, those providing customer support matter. And if those agents matter, constructing the optimal call center environment is essential.

Image credit: Netflix's "House of Cards"

brian
Posted: 02/17/2014

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