Sorry folks, this one has nothing to do with search marketing… unless, like EVERY business, you use the telephone to interact with customers. Oh right, that’s almost all of us.
Why? Why? Why?
I spent last Thursday-Sunday at Stompernet’s "Live 5" Conference, so called because it was our 5th live event… really an amazing event, which I’ll cover in more detail at another time. If you must know what happened there, new member Lynn Terry has some interesting perspectives.
What I want to talk about today comes out of a conversation that I had after the conference, while I was sitting in the hotel’s coffee shop on Monday morning. I was chatting with Mark Benda of Faster Audio, creator of the soon-to-be-famous Benda Index. We got to talking about support costs for software developers, and that wound around to a question I have been asking for years…
Why Aren’t Call Centers Profit Centers?
Some of the activity of your call center (wherever you answer your phones) is definitely costly. Customers calling to check on order status, that costs money. Customers calling about returns and refunds, that costs money. Customers calling because they can’t figure out how to use your product, that costs money. In a moment, I’ll suggest some ways to turn a profit, even with these calls.
If you’re doing business on the web, of course, you just might be able to reduce those costs by doing a better job with your website.
Personally, I buy a lot of stuff online, and fewer than half of the merchants I deal with provide any kind of order status information online or by email. Of those who do, fewer than half give me a way to track shipments – most of the time, you don’t even know that your order has been shipped.
Even those who provide tracking information, at best, only provide a tracking number, and *maybe* a link to the FedEx or UPS web site. Why? Is that all your "free" shopping cart software will do? Do you realize how much "free" costs yet?
Shippers can get detailed tracking information automatically, and send that directly to the customer. In fact, you could even send an email with a subject like "Your Order Should Arrive April 9, 2008 via UPS." Wow – wouldn’t that be nice… and I wouldn’t be calling you about it.
A call for returns or refunds is probably worth taking, but you could at least give your customers a way to initiate the process online, and call them back with instructions. I’ve seen good phone reps with a good product save many sales by talking to the customer, and in fact, I’ve even seen them generate new sales.
Most of the time, though, a conversation with a customer is an opportunity. A chance to learn what they want. A chance to collect testimonials. A chance to find out what your website doesn’t do well enough. A chance to sell them something. A chance to regain their trust. A chance to create a raving fan.
If you can’t turn a profit by answering your phones, you probably aren’t thinking hard enough, and you may need a better business model.
Die, Bad Call Center Practices!
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s a good sampling…
- If you call your customers with a machine that puts them on hold, you should just go die. I know that it saves precious seconds of labor when your phone reps have zero idle time between calls, but it makes your customer and your phone rep less friendly, and leads to a much lower quality of interaction. You saved 20 seconds dialing time, and the customer is going to spend part of that time complaining about being called and put on hold. Let your reps breathe and compose themselves between calls, or one bad call will lead to another. You’re already interrupting your customer, so try not to be a jerk about it.
- If your call center that’s trying to do outbound selling does #1, you should die hard with a vengeance, you idiot. I’ve had this happen so many times, and I seriously don’t get it. Your robot calls me up, puts me on hold, and then your poor rep gets on and pitches your offer to me? Unbelievable. You’re throwing away opportunity, and wasting customers’ time, all with one bad practice.
- If you ever tell your customers that they called the wrong toll free number, and tell them to hang up and call someone else, you don’t deserve to suck any more of our precious air. Bonus death points if you made them sit on hold for several minutes, tell you their entire story, and then asked them to hang up and go get in another queue. A humane death by lethal injection if you at least told them to call elsewhere quickly.
- If you transfer customers to another queue, after they’ve already sat in one, because your reps can’t handle the slightest exception, go die, and then sit in Purgatory for 999 years and think about what you did wrong. Do I even need to explain how bad this is? Figure it out yourself, call center guy. Go ahead, we’re waiting.
- If you make a man named Vishy tell customers that his name is Mike, you don’t have to die, but please stop. Seriously. We know his name isn’t Mike, and it’s insulting to all of us, especially Vishy. He works hard for you, much harder than you deserve. He’s probably smarter than you. He lives in a country where this is actually a halfway decent job. What’s your excuse?
Now, Some Ways To Get Better
In addition to being whipped to death by bad call centers, I’ve also been pleasantly surprise by some astonishingly good practices, and even used some myself…
- If you can’t answer the phone immediately, collect information from the customer while they wait. Some call centers get all the information they needed from me automatically, and when I get a rep on the line, they know exactly how to take care of me. In fact, you might be able to collect some fantastic data on what your customers want. "We’ll be with you shortly, and if you don’t mind answering a quick question we’ll move you to the front of the line." Ask them what their favorite color is, ask them anything that might help your business make better decisions.
- If the wait time is going to be anything but brief, offer to call the customer back. This seems like such a no brainer. Humans do it all the time – ever called someone’s office where their assistant takes a message and asks when they can call back? "This is a very busy time for us, and our current wait time is approximately 19 minutes. We’d be happy to call you back if you prefer. If you’d like us to call you back within the next hour, press 1. If you need to schedule a later time for us to call back, press 2. To continue holding, press 3." How hard was that? Your robot can call me back and connect us, and nobody has to sit on hold.
- Why not make a little cash on the phone? If repeat business matters to you, offer customers coupon codes when they call. If they’re using an older model, ask them if they know about the new one. If you sell software, why not offer the tech support customer a great deal on training DVDs, add-ons, or upgrades? Points off if you try to do this before you take care of the customer’s need, bonus points if you actually start turning a profit in your call center. It can be done.
- Staple yourself to a case! There was a great article in HBR about 100 years ago called "Staple Yourself to an Order." The idea was to see the entire process… if you run a call center, put together a list of common customer stories & cases, set it up in your CRM system so it will look real, and make the calls. Over and over. Don’t just listen to recordings, experience the whole process just like a customer. Bonus points if you attach a blood pressure monitor and note what made your blood boil.
Thanks for listening, folks.. I feel better already. If you offer good call center or phone solutions that can help my readers fix what’s bad and do more of what’s good, I’m happy to hear from you in the comments.
PS – Quick thanks to Linda and Craig @ Kinko’s who helped made the phone my "favorite machine."