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Call Centre Customer Experience Tips

We have all become accustomed to dealing with call centres – whether it is to query an electricity bill, order a cheque book or complain about a missing delivery. They are part of the way that we live today – and in many ways they represent a significant improvement over the ‘old’ way of doing things, providing a personal service at a time to suit us.

Millions have been invested in improving call centre service levels and efficiency, through sophisticated technology, improved business processes and complex performance metrics. However, call centres often achieve low levels of customer satisfaction due to a poor interaction between the call centre staff and the customer.

Have we been guilty of focusing too heavily on improving processes and systems and ignoring the (more complex) human factor?

If this sounds familiar – read on!

We have identified a straightforward process that delivers real improvements in customer satisfaction by aligning the way that front line staff are recruited, managed and developed with the organisation’s customer service experience.

This consists of five distinct steps.

  1. Agree what ‘good’ looks like
  2. Get it all lined up
  3. Equip managers to embed the new ways of working
  4. Train new skills and behaviours
  5. Measure progress

Too often, the ‘knee jerk’ reaction to a requirement to improve customer service is to jump in at Step 4 and provide a ‘sheep dip’ training programme, often at great expense and with little long term impact on business performance. This five step approach has been developed to deliver sustainable improvement by ensuring any training is part of a wider programme of activity focused on embedding change into day-to-day activity.

This type of thorough and systematic approach is particularly important in the call centre environment, which typically faces challenges around staff recruitment, retention and engagement. In this demanding environment it is often much harder to build the cadre of experienced and competent staff required to deliver consistently outstanding customer service.

A brief description of each step is as follows:

Step 1 – Agree what ‘good’ looks like

The first step must be to agree a clear statement of the customer experience that the organisation is aiming to deliver. This must fit closely with the marketing brand strategy and provide a clear, practical description of the customer interaction which will be meaningful to front line staff.   It’s surprising how many service organisations focus all their efforts on defining their brand and communicating it to their customers, without making sure that their own people really understand what it means for them. The output from this step will ideally be a concise description of the customer experience, with a clear statement of the skills, knowledge and behaviours (competencies) required from front line staff.

It goes without saying that this definition of the customer experience should form the basis of the performance measures that are subsequently used to measure and report on customer satisfaction.

Tip: This activity should ideally be carried out by a senior cross-business group, including representatives from marketing, customer relations, product development, operations and HR/training.

Step 2 – Get it all lined up

The next step is to make sure that the way front line staff are managed and developed is aligned with the customer experience – providing them with an unavoidable message about the way in which they are expected to behave with customers. 

Focus recruitment and appraisal on key competencies

At this stage it’s critically important to re-focus the recruitment and appraisal processes onto the skills, knowledge and behaviour identified during Step 1.  A wide range of other HR and development activity – such as call monitoring processes, career paths, remuneration, training courses and development materials will also probably need to be refocused to reflect the skills and behaviours that deliver the customer experience.

Getting recruitment right is critical to the delivery of an outstanding call centre customer experience. Call centre work isn’t for everyone. The working environment, the pressure to meet targets and the need to deal courteously with customers who can sometimes be upset or rude doesn’t suit everyone. A structured recruitment process is vitally important to avoid the appointment of unsuitable candidates who are never going to make the grade.

Use psychometric tests to identify key personal qualities

Psychometric tests can provide a useful way to identify individuals who have the personal qualities to be successful in the role. However, there is an increasing amount of test fatigue and cynicism from both test users and respondents, simply because some individuals have completed the same test several times. In response to the increasing demand for something new and relevant, the market has also seen an influx or poorly designed and validated personality tests.

As always, the trick is to do the background work to check that the psychometric is measuring the qualities that predict call centre performance and that it is well designed and validated. The British Psychological Society’s Psychometric Testing Centre (PTC) provides a useful register of the tests that meet their quality standards.

It’s worth spending some time validating the psychometrics that you plan to use to check that that it differentiates between good and poor performance in your environment. Don’t assume that all Call Centre Customer Adviser roles require the same personal qualities. Our work with the call centres operated by a major UK Bank using the cdaq personality profile (cdaq.co.uk) identified significant differences between the personal characteristics of ‘Service Advisers’ (focused on dealing with customer enquiries) and ‘Sales Advisers’ (focused on selling additional products and services to customers).  High performers in each group displayed significantly different personal characteristics, which correlated strongly with job performance. For example, successful Service Advisers displayed a strong preference for following established processes and ways of working, whilst successful Sales Advisers displayed a strong preference for evaluating customers’ requirements and intentions – useful as part of the sales process. These qualities predicted both staff retention and subsequent job performance. This information helped the Bank to focus its recruitment to improve the ability to identify high performers. It also explained why the organisation was having such difficulty in transitioning successful Service Advisers into Sales roles.

Use on-line recruitment tools to provide frank information about the job and automate the front end of the recruitment process

Given the requirement for call centre staff to interact effectively with customers over the telephone and on-line it makes sense to use web and voice technology to accept applications and carry out initial screening. Given the challenges of the role, it’s also sensible to provide a fair amount of information about the job on-line, to paint a realistic picture of what’s involved and allow potential applicants to consider if they are really suited to a call centre role. Clearly, key decisions must be based on a range of data, including information from a face to face assessment. However on-line recruitment systems can do a great deal to improve the effectiveness of recruitment processes and the ability of the organisation to select against the qualities that are required to deliver the customer experience.

Tip: In many large organisations the range of recruitment and HR tools and processes can be truly bewildering. A key challenge is often to get the sponsorship in place that allows these to be simplified into a streamlined set of processes and tools that is focused on delivering the customer experience. It doesn’t need to be complicated!

Step 3 – Equip managers to embed the new ways of working

Training programmes aimed at delivering improved customer satisfaction often fail because they are rolled out in isolation, without the ongoing support from line managers needed to embed the new skills, behaviours or ways of working.

It’s important to build the understanding and support of line managers and equip them with the tools that they need to support and develop their team. This typically includes improving coaching skills and possibly providing useful tools – such as a ‘toolkit’ of development exercises that managers can use with their teams to build understanding of the customer experience and the skills and behaviours that underpin it.

The on-boarding process is particularly important in a call centre environment. Experience shows that some many new call centre staff fail to make it through the first few weeks. Challenges often revolve around maintaining motivation and commitment during the initial (sometimes lengthy) training period, when there is little or no contact with the individual’s team manager. There can also be a problem with managing the transition from a supported, training environment into real–life working.   A well thought out on-boarding process including significant support from the line manager is an important part of retaining new recruits after their initial (and expensive) training programme.

Management competence is a vital factor in the ability of the organisation to deliver an outstanding experience to it’s customers, through the way that new skills are embedded and through the wider impact on the motivation and retention of staff.

New cda research carried out in a major UK service business reinforced the importance of management competence as a key factor in staff engagement and retention. ‘Interaction with my manager’ was given as the most important reason for staff attrition, followed by negative responses to ‘my manager coached and supported me’ and ‘my manager supported my career progression’.  Those who took part in the survey consistently rated their relationship with their manager as a more important factor in their decision to leave the business than other factors such as pay or working hours.     

Tip: Don’t hesitate to make tough decisions at this stage; if necessary make changes to improve the calibre and skills of your managers before embarking on Steps 3 and 4.

Step 4 – Train new skills and behaviours

It’s clearly important to make sure that any training and development is carefully designed to reflect the customer experience that the organisation is aiming to deliver and the competencies that underpin it. Generic training courses are positively unhelpful here!  Training must be aligned with the customer service experience, to provide a consistent message to staff about the skills and behaviours that are important.

Training must also reflect the preferred learning style of front line staff, which will probably favour a practical, ‘hands on’ environment with opportunities to try out new ideas rather than a more theory-based classroom style. These days, processes can be taught on line. Any face-to-face training should be focused on developing customer-handling skills, using the wide range of interactive media that we now have available to us.

Tip: If you have a lot of training courses to run, consider running ‘Train the Trainer’ programmes to develop a group of your most able line managers to deliver training on an occasional basis. This increases the available training resource and also provides your best managers with an extended skill set – and an opportunity to act as advocates of the new way of working.   

Step 5 – Measure progress

Change programmes often start in a flush of enthusiasm, which can quickly be followed by pressure to change the approach or cut costs if there is no concrete evidence of progress or return on investment. An important early step in the programme must therefore be to agree the measures that can be used to benchmark performance and track improvement.

New approaches to evaluating Return on Investment (ROI) involve working with key stakeholders to define the business performance metrics that can be used to measure the impact of customer service training on the customer experience.  In the past, training programmes have typically focused on specifying and measuring learning outcomes and evaluating the quality of the learning event. New tools allow us to make the link between business needs, learning outcomes and performance outcomes and to understand more about the organisational context that is required to support the performance uplift. ROI tools are a key step in joining up this five-step process to demonstrate the link between each step in the process.     

Tip: Aim to measure both project inputs (e.g. delivery of training courses, achievement of key project milestones) and project outputs (e.g. trends in customer satisfaction, staff retention, sales results etc) to provide a full picture of what’s going on. Don’t expect too much too soon. Set performance targets which allow time for training to embed and deliver improvements.

To conclude:

This simple five–step process is a proven approach to delivering effective, memorable customer service through call centre front line teams.

In our view, delivering improvements in customer service doesn’t need to be an unduly complex or expensive process. It’s about acting in a targeted way to define and deliver a clear picture of the customer experience, supported by focused recruitment and development from competent managers to deliver a measurable and sustainable uplift in customer satisfaction.

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