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GUEST COMMENT Is your phone customer service costing you sales?

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by Stephen Mailey

Most of us – as consumers – have had the misfortune to experience what it’s like to call a retailer with a simple query, only to be put on hold to wait for an operator to become available. What was meant to be a quick one minute call turns into what feels like an eternal, disheartening and horrible wait – the mindless music, the uncertainty, the frustration. The effect? At best it leaves the consumer disgruntled, at worst you lose a valued customer. This doesn’t mean you lose just one sale, but potentially numerous sales over the course of the customer’s life and the positive word of mouth from a brand advocate. Suddenly, the inability to manage call volumes effectively looks decidedly more costly.

So this leads us to the fundamental questions – is your phone customer service costing you sales? Is there a more effective way of handling peaks in call volume, which can save you money and increase customer satisfaction?

The problem is confounded during the busy and critical trading months, such as Christmas, when call volumes will escalate significantly. Employing additional call centre staff may help alleviate long on-hold times to a certain degree, however it’s unlikely that it will remove the problem all together and it’s naturally limited by the call centre’s capacity. The alternative therefore is to encourage customers to self-serve.

Many retailers have invested considerable resources into their online platforms, both for ecommerce and customer services purposes, in an attempt to encourage consumers to self-serve and reduce costs. But what’s troubling is there’s rarely the same commitment to improving the level of customer service on the phone, which is odd given that if people can’t self-serve successfully online, find the information they need or have a problem, the first thing they’ll do is make a call. Indeed, many people may bypass the website altogether, preferring to reach straight for the phone.

Likewise, there’s a range of other channels that can be used for self-service purposes that all have their place in the customer service mix. Smartphone apps are a great example. For information or tasks that the customer needs frequently (e.g. checking balances), an app can provide a fast and convenient automated service that can add real value. The obvious drawback though is that the customer has to find and download the app first, which is unlikely if it’s a one-off problem, and it might not always have the capability to manage all tasks. So again, it underlines the importance of providing customers with a quick, easy and effective way to complete their tasks on the phone.

Just as online self-service can improve customer satisfaction and reduce on-hold times (via reduced call volumes), so too can self-service platforms for the phone, but only when intelligently designed around the needs of the customer. The majority of customer calls to retailers are relatively simple in nature and will be related to common queries such as stock availability, opening hours, order status, store information returns and deliveries. So do you really want to cause unnecessary delays for your customers and waste valuable agent time to handle these simple tasks when they could be dealing with more complex, value-adding calls? A much more effective and efficient way would be to automate these simple tasks and help customers self-serve on the phone.

By anticipating common customer service queries and serving customers instantly through self-serve, organisations can significantly reduce the volume of calls to their contact centres and consequentially reduce queues and on-hold times in the process. Indeed, automated customer service platforms can be integrated with data from the retailer’s CRM system to, first, identify the individual customer, and then deliver a highly personalised on-the-phone experience.

For example, if you know your customer has recently purchased a product from you, they could be greeted with: ‘Are you calling about your recent purchase?’ to help streamline the process and create a seamless experience. Likewise, automation could be used to identify high-value customers and route them straight through to an agent to handle the call or the on-hold period could be used to identify and authenticate the customer, so that when they reach the agent they don’t have to repeat the process.

This is not to say the entire customer service process should be automated – far from it. Call centre agents still have an important role to play, as not every customer will be comfortable self-serving. So in this respect, customer service platforms should be designed to meet the needs of the customer, helping them to get to the right place to meet their needs quickly and conveniently – be that via automated self-service or call routing to an agent.

Lest we forget, bad news travels fast. Unhappy customers are only too willing to take to social networks and review sites to vent their frustrations and anger, amplifying negative brand sentiment in an instant.

So if your phone customer service is ironically causing problems, rather than solving them, losing your customers rather than winning them, it’s time to act. Of course, it’s important to have the relevant teams in place to respond swiftly to criticisms on social networks, but the more customer centric retailers will treat the cause of the problem, not the symptom.

Stephen Mailey is head of user experience, VoxGen

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