Warm bodies do not make a call center

Originally published on 7/17/17

I have worked in call centers and support roles for quite a few years in different positions, including team leadership. With this experience at hand, I place a high value and set of expectations on the teams I support, or those that support our customers and clients. It is with this mindset that I find when I require support of some type from a call center, I never seem to get the level of support I would give. I ask that this not be confused with the level of support I deserve or want. If you’ve read my last post on “defining customer service” you will see what I mean.

The complaints are numerous when researching any large company regarding their customer service levels, lack of knowledge of the staff, and extreme hold times. I have even been in a small scale battle with an internet provider for over a year regarding their inability to deliver on the level of service and support they agreed upon in the contract. Thankfully, that is all over, and I hope they have learned something from the experience (although their continued dismal ranking in public customer service shows otherwise). I won’t tell you who they are, but I think you can figure it out.

In the aftermath of this little fandango with the ISP that shall not be named, I decided to investigate their hiring and business practices for phone support based on their support line, direct contact with a recruiter, and their job board postings.

Over the course of a year, I made at least 75 phone calls, sent over 40 e-mails, and wasted countless hours trying to get appropriate notes added to my account and verified by the company representatives. Based on my findings with speaking to almost every phone based support department at this ISP (billing, retention, billing for another service, executive support, tiers 1-3 support, even an e-mail directly to the president of the company), these folks never communicated with each other or notated accounts with any information regarding the issue at hand. They acted as if Tommy from tier 2 support had a thing with Rhonda in billing, and now they don’t talk to each other, just on a larger scale.

I found it irritating the immediate attempts to read solutions to me from a book, solutions I have heard time and time again on each call, that did not apply to my concern. Along with this was the limited knowledge of the staff to think on their feet, step outside of the robotic responses and diffidence to my concerns. And then the inevitable lengthy transfer time to a person or department took place, and they walked blindly into this issue due to lack of communication from their own teammates.

In  this day and age of support, there are collaboration tools that can be used, even at a low or no cost, to at least communicate and get the right person for the job. Something as simple as notating a ticket in the company CRM or sending an e-mail to a management team could have helped in this case – even a simple quick recap with the person I was being transferred to would have helped! Instead, I had to reference recorded call dates, make my own notes of employees and badge numbers, and re-tell the same concern to every person I spoke with until the issue was resolved.

During the issue with the ISP, I received a phone call from a hiring manager at that very business asking if I was interested in a position on their support line. After stifling some laughter at the premise, I said I’d entertain his call. He apparently glossed my LinkedIn profile and saw experience in retail support and some help desk work in a previous lifetime, which he thought I’d be a great addition to the team. He then started to go into specifics of my work history and found out soon that I had more experience than he had noted.

The requirements for the job are pretty simple: an H.S. diploma and some minimal technical knowledge. When I asked about the details of the position and requirements, he was looking for someone who can be trained over a 6 week period and reference a manual of common issues with the customers. I politely declined and explained the recent issues with their company to which he made a hasty retreat.

I then decided to look online at the job posting, long since removed now, to see if I could validate what was shared with me. I was not disappointed to see almost the exact same information on my phone call was in the posting. They had very minimal requirements, only asking for an H.S. diploma, and stating technical knowledge was a plus. The job was essentially for front line support for their products with “room to grow and train within the company.” So, can you tell me what is wrong with this?

With this extremely long story comes the reason for writing this post: this company is filling chairs with warm bodies expecting a call center to just work. In theory, the job description sounds nice enough with blurbs about being solution driven and customer facing, but when you take away the fancy talk and buzzwords, the job is simply answering the phone with a script for all interactions, turning this “opportunity” into “programming.” Deviating from the script is liable for termination as all of the calls are recorded for “quality and training purposes.” With micromanagement of that caliber, it is easy to understand the high turnover rate for these grand scale call centers.

It could be said that in this pool of employees some real talent may exist. That is true, there are some very good technical people who started at such a place, but wouldn’t the practice of scripting the calls stifle individual growth if the answer to every question was fed to the support staff with no explanation as to why these things happen, how to prevent issues, or explaining how things work?

If you are a company looking to add a call center or the company I used in my example above,  I invite you to ask yourself the following:

  1. What customer wants to call in to a company where the employee has no real understanding of the issues the customer is describing? 
  2. What does it say about your company when your front line employees aren’t confident in their job?
  3. Do you think the customers are mostly the problems with the service or equipment?
  4. Do many of your call center employees already have disdain for the customer?
  5. Should you implement a vetting process and really invest in those employees that can perform exceptional work?
  6. Does your support line empower the customer to self-resolve the next time, or continue to rely on the textbook methods until you lose said customer?
  7. Are your training methods to use those exceptional employees’ expertise?
  8. Are the employees hungry for more knowledge?

If you can answer these questions and understand the positive results you could get with practical application, you need but find the right people.

All of this being said, here are the takeaways:

  1. Communicate with each other and among teams.
  2. Document everything.
  3. Be real with your customers.
  4. Take ownership of the issue if it really is yours.
  5. Train people to be service oriented, not regurgitating robots.
  6. Hire smart and invest in those people.
  7. Train your employees to be versatile.
  8. Treat your customers with respect.

-James

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