We explore why Social Customer Service is such a hot topic for the contact centre, relive the disastrous consequences when you ignore its impact and look at how others have used it to benefit from free advertising, manage risk and recover lost service standards.
The Internet and social networks means that all aspects of a company’s interaction with the consumer are under the spot light. Where once we could hide the damage caused by poor customer interactions by the limited reach of customers, today examples of poor customer service are frequently posted on to the Internet and seen by not only regular customers but also potential customers in new markets.
This is a challenge for most organisations because whilst they may be portrayed as a single entity or brand, in reality they are comprised of individuals and departments who often only have a partial view of their company’s operations and may have conflicting service standards. Representing the company falls to the frontline staff. Whether they sell physical goods, offer a service or both, your customer service agents are indispensable assets to the company. Taking an order, giving information or helping resolve complicate issues, the impact of their work has never been more important than today. They carry the responsibility for representing the brand and company. The ability of the Internet to transmit news quickly means that any example of bad customer service will spread to new customers.
Many of us can remember the classic posting on the Internet a few years back by Dave Carol, the Canadian musician, regarding his poor experience with United Airlines. The short film he made and posted on Tube became a viral hit overnight, bringing down the share price of the company (link here).
More recently, Tesla, an American electric sports car maker, suffered a similar hit in their stock price following an incident where one of their vehicles caught fire. They handled things rather differently. In direct response to the fire the owner of Tesla wrote an email to the victim of the car fire apologising and explaining the cause. The response from the owner was one of gratitude and a continual love of their Tesla Car (link here). Making use of the positive response from the victim, Tesla published the email correspondence on to their website and onto their social media accounts (twitter, facebook, linkedin). This resulted in a much more sympathetic eye to Tesla’s position. (If you look at the facebook page or comment page of the news article you will come across a large portion of commenters defending the Tesla brand). This resulted in a slight recovery on Tesla stock.
This example in service recovery demonstrates that Tesla was mindful of and harnessed the power of social media in finding a solution to the problem. Publishing good customer service an effective damage limitation strategy preventing further public outcry. It helped maintain stock equity and project a more positive brand image for Tesla.
Observations on the age of continual proactive communication
Social networks offer a continual proactive means of communication with customers. Its biggest advantage over communication methods such as email and letter is in its ability to allow customer service agents to continually engage with customers as well as update the same post without creating a new one.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes in consumer behaviour, driven by new technology, is with the advent of social network integrated smart phone users are checking social media more and more often; an IDC report suggested that smart phone users check Facebook on average 14 times a day (for more click here). Although to the non-user this may seem somewhat compulsive customer behaviour, the ability to be continually updated makes it an ideal tool to pro-actively inform users of service disruption whilst giving up to date news on the situation. An example is Blizzard the makers of popular MMORPG World of Warcraft. They inform users via both social network and through the use of a website of potential downtime in their service.
A commercial benefit in the use of social media is that contact centre agents are receiving unexpected help from the customer. Due to the interactive nature of social network it is commonplace to find users informing other users of why a service is down. For contact centre operations this can offer reductions in call traffic at key times, allowing front line staff to focus on resolving more complex or personalised problems without having to spend time responding to repetitive or more simple tasks.
Social networks are now firmly established as a means to market products and services. The promise of winning goods and services for sharing feedback on customer service experiences, offers the chance of free social network advertising. An interesting route to market was recently employed by Steam the Internet biggest e-retailers for games. In September 2013 Valve, the owners of Steam, announced the release of three ground breaking updates revolving around Steam giving only three images as a clue to the update. This became a vast topic of debate on Reddit and throughout other social networks, the discussion and guess work on the Steam product provided an interactive way for Steam to advertise their product. The same method has been used by Mercedes in their ‘Escape from the Map’ adverts and has also been used to great effect at ComicCon in the run up to the ‘Dark Knight’. The interactive element of such adverts ensures the message remains lodged in the imagination of the customer and a driver of their behaviour. However such adverts would not work without the ability of social networks to form communities and act as a conduit for news.
But these benefits do not mean companies can be complacent. An unhappy customer who is unable to contact customer service departments easily (and many organisations do not make it obvious to see how to make contact) can now find the names of customer service and operations directors simply on social media networks and often make contact with them directly within a matter of minutes.
This is a real game changer, sweeping aside company procedures and escalation levels for resolving issues. Senior staff now find themselves increasingly visible and accountable for their organisation’s service standards and the customer experience. How these incidents are managed is of crucial importance.
We have talked about the importance and use of social networks. The contact centre has a vital role to play, with agents acting as community moderators, directing discussions, dispelling hear-say as well as ‘business as usual’. To protect the brand and maintain customer loyalty it is vital that that contact centre provides consistent examples of excellent customer service and that these are publicised on social networks.
With the blossoming of social customer service and the ongoing advance of technology, the work of contact centre agents has become even more challenging. Online accessibility of information and increasing customer expectations means greater skill is required to manage customer perceptions. The quality of contact centre communication is under increased scrutiny. Is your team ready to meet the challenges? At dancing lion we can help ensure you offer a joined up service, and that your people fulfil and exceed customer expectations.
It has been widely reported that agents can suffer from emotional stress, leading to emotional burn out for staff, which in turn leads to a high attrition rate within the industry. We have spoken about this prevalent problem within call centres in our recent articles on Gamification and Home Shoring, providing pointers towards a solution to high attrition rates, however these are not always the right solution for every contact centre. Changes can be made in call centre organisation, including management practices, processes, enabling technology and providing training for all staff. However in order for us to implement the most efficient change it is useful to explore the different causes of emotional stress.
“The customer perception of quality service is significantly affected by the nature of interaction with frontline staff.”
Peccei and Rosenthal, The Antecedents of Employee Commitment to Customer Service
The customer service professional is recognised as central to the customer perception of the quality of service. According to Fineman in his work Stress, Emotion and intervention, this may require the call centre agent to forego their natural emotions and smile down the telephone which can cause tension between the employee’s inner feelings and the requirement of outward display needed by the company. This description points towards an individual working under considerable duress and discounts the element of choice that the customer service professional has in performing the task. It also discounts the employee’s inherent customer service ethic and desire to make a contribution in their role.
The nature of call centre work today is certainly competitive and can be stressful. Off shoring is an established competitor to the UK for call centre contracts. We can understand how the employee can be left behind in favour of higher profits and the ability to handle more calls, however, this sacrificial approach to people management can only be sustained where there is a large talent pool to recruit from. In both developing and developed countries when people know they are not valued and simply ‘a bum on a seat’ it can lead to low morale, poor performance and attrition.
Those outside of the industry have criticised the quality control of call centre work, in particular the supervision placed on call centre agents to adhere to targets, the use of agent scripts and the surveillance of call centre workers. The Health and Safety Executive based in the University of Sheffield has gone as far as describing the call centre as a modern day “Satanic mills” in the same vein as Blake.
Unfavourable comparisons have also been made between the way a call centre is managed and that of the factory floor. In both scenarios workers are operating within a target driven environment. Looking first at the factory environment:
“The main problems faced by the operatives on the assembly line related to ‘Speed Up'”
Beyon, Working for Ford
The concept of ‘speed up’ is the act of speeding up the assembly line to increase operational output, in both call centres as in the Ford Factories. Beyon spoke about this setting of unrealistic targets can lead to emotional stress on the part of the worker. Within the call centre the use of power diallers for outbound calling carries this risk as does an over zealous approach to managing average call handling time, (assuming the average is the target to aim for).
However not all call centres are the same and it is a mistake to claim they are. We argue that making generalisations and demonising call centres is due to a lack of understanding in how they work and the positive benefits that can be achieved through working in them.
Targets are key to the way the call centre operates and understanding the metrics is essential. Experienced managers fully appreciate that a successful operation balances the different tensions and conflicts to provide the best quality service at a cost effective rate.
A well written script or call guide can be a useful resource in helping the call centre agent maintain the professional image of a company, however it is only a tool and clearly needs to be adapted to each customer conversation. The skill of a customer service professional involves the synthesising of customer needs with what the organisation can offer and utilising empathy, intuition and applied intelligence to ensure the customer is satisfied. These skills can be taught and developed but not scripted. Clearly, unless flexibility is given to the agent for their conversation damage can be done to the brand and quality of experience of the customer.
In our article on Gameification, we highlighted some of the changes needed and recommended giving frontline agents greater discretion on how calls are handled. For those concerned that this lack of control will lead to an abuse of power, our caveat is that adequate means of measuring employee performance should be in place. This means aligning appropriate metrics to monitor the response of the customers, staff, team leaders and managers.
Creating a work environment where call centre agents can satisfactorily resolve customer issues and provide high levels of customer does not occur by accident. It takes careful thought and orchestration of many different elements.
Managers should keep a close eye on the performance of the call centre to act as both a check on the quality of work provided by the staff and as a major support network for staff to avoid emotional stress.
At dancing lion we can help you transform and improve the quality of your call centre service and customer experience.