Die, Call Center, Die! (Why Your Call Center Sucks)

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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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."

16 thoughts on “Die, Call Center, Die! (Why Your Call Center Sucks)

  1. I took time to read until end of your post and it is really interesting which is focus on realistic scenarios and shows that how far you have been gone thru to come up with them.

    Making them call back in an hrs or set call back time, I am just wondering how many centers follow this in business.

  2. Thanks, Raj. The call back this is pretty rare in my experience.

    The last time I got one, the call center was overseas, the rep used his real name, and for bonus points, he had the authority to credit my account.

    The advantage of the callback method is that you can “triage” the calls before you speak with the customer by letting them record a message, and route the callback to a rep who is best situated to help the customer.

    Solves many problems all at once.

  3. Most of the centers manage it if they keep their customer’s data save in their server so when they routing call to another department, they transfer with unique identification number which assigns to their each customer.

    But if your data not save with them then you need to explain yourself again to another department but some reps transfer call after explaining the call if they have avail time with themselves but most of the time they don’t.

    I know it’s big tragedy for caller

  4. The BIG take away for me during our chat was to focus on how to make your support calls (help desk/email support too) into an profit center.

    People are willing pay more to get great support so why not give them an option to pay for higher level VIP support.

    Especially when…

    It’s easy to gain a competitive advantage in this front line client interaction experience most of us are brainwashed to think must be a cost center and suck like most others!

  5. Great call center execution does happen.

    I’ve had to call my auto insurance company a couple times recently, and the first-level rep stayed on the line with me after they escalated to a second level.

    That might sound like a waste of resources to some call center managers, but this customer is more loyal and that first-level rep is getting great training in the best possible context.

    I’ve had 2nd-level reps give me their “direct line” when we have an ongoing issue that’s going to take time to resolve. Now, that direct line always goes to their voice mail (I’m not fooled), but having the option to leave a message and get a call back is, again, much better than sitting on hold, and the rep knows my case already, which saves time.

  6. @Mark, exactly – there’s money in those customer interactions. Apple sells support plans, and it’s not just an “extended warranty” insurance deal, you get all kinds of special treatment.

  7. Recently I got an incident which shows loyalty with customer and where I called to tech support to get warranty deal of my notebook’s RAM which was purchased 4yrs ago and warranty got expired, I called to csr, she told me that my warranty was up but let me check something out anyway. So she put me on hold for about six or seven minutes, although she did come back on the line a few times to be polite, which was good and finally she took me to right dept and I got replacement.

    Earlier of this call I was not really lover of notebook’s company but now I am.

    Don’t you want to know name of company- It’s Mac

    They have earned my interest and they know how to sells customer service.

  8. The right equipment and customer centered services can help avoid these problems.Like you said each customer interaction is a cost and is important.Many businesses run out , because they cannot even afford to reach potential customers.

  9. This one is a nice post . It provides exemplifications regarding the negative side of customer care in call centers.
    I have experiences that are similar to the mentioned scenarios. Hence, I ,if not everyone, can relate to this post.


  10. I enjoyed reading this, glad to know I’m not the only one getting frustrated with the destructive force of certain call centers.

    And I disagree with you – I actually believe this topic is very much part of internet marketing.

    International internet marketing.

    Good telephone practices are vital for internet marketing if you want to get more international clients.

    Bad telephone practices and bad call centers management can totally destroy any great internet marketing for international clients.

    International clients often need telephone support combined with internet marketing. It’s also a part of the cross cultural communication essential need of building trust.

    I’m North American and live in France.
    I wanted cheap tickets on Air Canada for my teenage daughter (so wanted to look into possible price reductions etc).
    I called the only telephone numbers available for me here in France to get Air Canada info.
    I found out that I had to get all the information online and then to call in.
    There was no human being I could get the information from over the phone.
    I had to go online first.

    I found something I was interested in online at a certain price.
    But I then had to order by phone – no other choice.
    I got throught to Air Canada’s call center and spoke with someone in India.
    I needed a few minutes to actually check if flights corresponded to what I needed, etc.
    (It actually took the call center a long time to give me info any price reductions for teenagers)
    The price increased several times as we were speaking.

    To summarize:
    Between the time spent going through Air Canada’s call center, my figuring out if the times and stop overs etc were alright for my daughter, 30 minutes had gone by.
    In those 30 minutes the price had gone up by 30%.
    OK that got to me.
    But what really got to me was the Call Centers personnel’s total lack of understanding that those business practices were unacceptable to me: I was forced to go online, then call them and 30 minutes later the price is not what I saw advertised on their website…30 minutes ago.
    There was no appology, no understanding in its simplest of forms, no sign of being sorry, nothing. Zilch. Nada.
    The attitude was that if I could afford a plane ticket I could afford any price increase that went with it.

    It was the cultural differences between the Call Center Service and my expectations that got to me. And this was for Air Canada !?!

    Of course, I haven’t called Air Canada since then.

    Sure I know there are many, many Call Centers that provide excelent service. And this must obviously be my most unfortunate luck to have fallen on the wrong person at the wrong time.

    But the truth is. No. It’s just not my personal experience. In fact I can’t think of any foreign outsourced Call Center experience I’ve had that went well. There have always been the undercurrents due to cultural differences in expectations.

    (Come on, the economic environments are just so different, there are bound to be personal cultural prejudices that taint the service provided – cross cultural communication is an acquired skill)

    Call Centers that are outsourced to people of different cultures to your clients culture is BAD, BAD news.

    Any bad phone practices can kill any of your marketing efforts including your internet marketing, expecially for international clients.


  11. Hey Dan,

    I managed a call center for years and the company I worked for (won’t mention any names) did many of those same things. Of course, setting them straight was the biggest challenge I ever had. I just wish I could have had you to get the point across as well as you have here.

    Very few call centers ‘do it right’, and we all feel the frustrations of the so many of them that ‘do it wrong’.

    It’s like you said, if a call center can put themselves on the side of the customer and go through the ‘complete experience’ themselves it would be so obvious to them what they are doing wrong. Thanks for a great post!

  12. I work in a major insurance call center and am a licensed Insurance producer in 31 States. I have to tell you from my experience that if a customer needs to be transfered It is almost always the customers own fault, the menus are not that complicated.

  13. Agree with you John. Call center are not to be blamed on the time. Customers do mess up often but of course, they are the customers.

  14. Nice blog Dan, “bonus death points for you”. I have worked at three callcentres (4 are in my small city).
    I have learned nothing other than the fact that big businesses spend as a little as they have to on non-profit customer service. If the call centre is outsourced, they are paid on how many calls they take. Quality is less profitable than quantity so we are trained to be brute and aggressive towards our customers in order to avoid escalations and super calls.
    Words such as should, most likely, might take, hopefully, and my favorite, should expect are verbatim we use to get the cx’s off the phone.
    What cheap f—ing business don’t know about making money is that a wellpaid and maintained cx service rep is worth 5 customer reps. they work 5x as hard, go 5x the distance to help the customer and have a yearn to be better and excel in their company. Instead, the cheap business rely on the desperate to serve the needy and guess what, we do as little as possible and get away with it. We excel at doing less work so our paychecks actually make human sense. Once our call centre loses its contract due to idleness and clever evasion of work, the client looks elsewhere, they goto another country and fuck themselves while wondering why they just didnt pay us more to work harder.
    The outsourcer shares the same blame. WE BELONG TO THEM so they get the big profit cuts from the client and recognition.

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