Ideas for getting buy-in from above, within and beyond the center.
I recently had a conversation with Jon Koelling, Director of Customer Care at Intuit Inc., and a finalist for the ICMI Global Contact Center Award in the Best Contact Center Manager category. He said something that caught my attention. In discussing his company’s culture, Koelling attributed having strong employee engagement, in part, to the company’s high “say-do ratio”—the ratio of what company leaders say they will do to what they actually do.
It’s interesting that the say-do concept is also at the foundation of good customer service. It’s what frontline agents have been coached and trained to do—follow through and deliver on your promises to customers. And yet, so many organizations seem to struggle with it—especially when it comes to translating customer experience vision statements into beliefs, behaviors and practices.
Two recent surveys have highlighted that fact: According to the 2015 Forrester Research Customer Experience Index, improving the customer experience is a strategic priority for 73% of businesses, yet only 1% of companies deliver an excellent customer experience. Ouch.
A Forbes Insights study on the adoption of modern customer service best practices, commissioned by Oracle, found that while companies are investing in new technologies to realize the business benefits of modern customer service best practices, the majority of organizations (62%) still fail to grasp the full importance and impact that customer service can have as an organizationwide strategic goal. Only 38% of survey participants viewed customer service as a companywide priority.
It gets worse: The report stated that many organizations still define customer service as a post-purchase function: Executives did not view customer service as a key agent for increasing sales (60%); retaining existing customers (47%); or enhancing the brand and marketing message (85%).
Clearly, there is still much work to be done. The onus is on contact center leaders to educate others in the organization about the value of customer service. How do you cultivate a customer service mindset among execs, other business units and your staff? What can you do to raise your organization’s say-do ratio and translate the words that are posted on the wall into actions and behaviors? The following are ideas that have been covered in Pipeline over the years. These practices have been proven successful for getting buy-in from above, within and beyond the contact center. Keep in mind, though, that this is not a once-and-done effort. Leaders who have been successful at raising the value of the contact center have adopted many of these practices as part of a continuous communications initiative.
Getting Top-Level Support
Getting top-level leaders to understand the role the contact center plays in driving the customer experience is critical to getting the entire organization to adopt a customer service mindset. How do you dispel the cost center image and focus attention on the value that great service provides? Take a look at the information that you’re sharing with senior execs.
“The main reason why executives are not tuned in to our economic value is because it simply has not been defined in those terms,” says Service Agility’s Jay Minnucci. “Strategic documents focus on improving customer satisfaction and Net Promoter Scores, and our performance reporting focuses on tactical, logistical items, such as volume and handle time.”
Kathleen Peterson of PowerHouse Consulting refers to this as “bottom-up thinking,” which she says leads to bad technology choices, poor process design and inefficient crossfunctional relationships.
Think Like An Exec
You’re not likely to have much success getting executive support for your cause by presenting them with reports filled with performance metrics like service level, quality or abandonment rates.
“You shouldn’t stop reporting on classic contact center metrics, but you need to contextualize those in formats that the senior level will understand,” Peterson says. “It’s how you manage how you’re seen. If you only report on productivity, then you’ll be seen as a factory. Start thinking the way that executives think, in terms of revenue, margins, market share and customer experience. Every time you make a recommendation for process improvement, an investment in systems, training or staff, relate it to a senior-level category, such as the impact on the overall vision, financial growth and efficiency, and the customer experience. Adopting top-down thinking will allow you to build a relationship of mutual respect.”
Practical pointer: Most contact center reports focus solely on how well the operation performs (service level, quality rates), not how much value it generates (cross-sell opportunities, loyalty rates), says Minnucci. He recommends changing your reports to show value metrics first and competency metrics second.
Watch Your Language
Senior executives will find it easier to relate to you if you know how to speak their language. Make sure you have a firm grasp of financial terms, and avoid using call center-related acronyms and jargon when speaking with execs. Think in terms of the company’s pain points and solutions you can provide.
“Your language is probably dominated by discussions of competency and related activities,” Minnucci points out. “Your communication with internal decision makers should also be infused with the value of what you do. How do you contribute directly and indirectly to loyalty and repeat revenue? What does your organization know about customers based on your work, and how has that influenced other key decisions in the business? How have you provided nearly instant feedback on new issues or problems, and how has that helped to avoid complaints, lawsuits and negative publicity? You want people to know that your team does their job well… but first they have to know that the job matters.”
Nothing Beats Time In The Center
How much time has your executive team spent on the call center floor? Not simply a quick walk-through, but actually taking the time to plug in with an agent to listen to customer calls? As you begin to impress upon your executives the value that the center provides, invite them in to experience what a quality customer experience sounds and feels like. They’ll get to experience first-hand what the agents go through on a daily basis, and their willingness to be in the center and to learn about the its function will have a positive impact on employee engagement and culture.
At Canadian national telecommunications company Telus, executives are committed to working a full shift on the front lines. Instead of observing one or two calls, they learn what it’s like to handle 50 or 60 calls per shift. As a client experience exec pointed out, making the engagement process experiential is highly effective in getting their support for a customer-centric culture.
Getting Other Functions Onboard
Departmental silos will stop a customer service initiative dead in its tracks. Silos also throw wrenches into daily service delivery goals when the contact center is unaware of projects and activities in other areas of the company, or cannot get other functions to respond to requests in a timely manner.
Knowledge is power, which gives center leaders the ability to change this dynamic. Ready access to customer data provides you with the opportunity to provide valuable insights to help other functions improve their performance.
Ask How You Can Help
Contact center leaders who have forged solid interdepartmental partnerships typically have one thing in common—they view other internal functions as their customers. It’s important to be proactive when cultivating your relationships with internal customers. Make an effort to visit each department to talk about what the contact center does. Do they have any projects coming up that your center might be able to help with? Find out what their goals and pain points are, and ask how you can help to solve those issues.
Share Customer Insights
Sharing customer data and feedback with internal groups will make the contact center more relevant to the rest of the organization. Push out customer insights in the boardroom, via dashboards, newsletters, intranet, email and in company meetings. Don’t just report metrics—understand the “why” behind customer behavior and what it means for your business. Polish your story-telling skills so that you can translate customer data into engaging narratives that matter to the audience you’re targeting—whether that's the CEO, department leaders or frontline teams.
“Package the customer information in a strategic and organized way that connects back to the business,” says customer experience expert Jeanne Bliss. “Consider sending a monthly customer revenue memo that draws insights from the customer database—the trending of customer issues, who’s calling and why. Be sure to translate the data into compelling nuggets of information.”
Practical pointer: When sharing reports with internal departments, don’t just report solely on the complaints—offer ideas on how to improve the processes that are at the root cause of the complaints and describe any projects dedicated to resolving those issues.
Invite Your Peers Into The Center
As with senior executives, inviting other department leaders into the center is a great way to provide them with first-hand knowledge of what goes on.
Some customer-centric organizations make it an essential activity for new leaders. At ING Direct, department leaders spend a month in the contact center jacking in with agents and listening to calls—and even handling customer complaints. They not only develop a better understanding of the frontline agent’s job, they realize how their own processes impact the contact center, and ultimately, the customer experience.
It doesn’t need to be a month-long commitment to make an impression. The contact center leadership team at Unilever found that a well-planned open house could make a significant impact. Various brand teams were invited into the center for an afternoon. The teams were given an overview of the types of information the center collected and how the frontline agents interacted with callers. Each brand team was asked to discuss the new products being released with the frontline team so that agents could offer their suggestions and ideas. After the open house, contact center leadership followed up with the various departments to reinforce the idea that the center was willing and able to do more to support each area. The team also asked for feedback on the value of the reports the center was providing to each department and whether there was other information they could be providing.
Walk in the Customer’s Shoes
At BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, Customer Experience Officer Vicki Whichard and her team have created some very unique special celebrations just for the customer service staff, but she also plans activities for other functions that help to create a better understanding of the customer service advocate’s (CSA) role. For instance, one year, she set up a call-listening room next to the employee cafeteria.“We wanted the non-customer service people to have an appreciation for what the CSAs do, and to understand that what they do impacts what happens on the telephone,” Whichard says.
Customer Experience staff stood outside the room encouraging employees to come in and listen for at least five minutes, though Whichard says that most ended up staying for the entire 20-minute presentation. Once inside, employees were given popcorn and a free set of BlueCross ear buds. They watched a slide presentation that provided compelling call statistics, and then plugged in to listen to five actual customer calls, which were scrubbed of personal information.
Calls were selected that demonstrated the importance of other functions. For instance, since the site includes the organization’s Information Systems campus, Whichard included one call where the system went down and the CSA wasn’t able to access the customer’s information. “I could hear their gasps when they listened to that call,” she recalls. “I wanted them to see that they’re not just sitting in a cubicle punching and coding. What they do impacts the ability for us to serve our customers.”
Set Up A Listening Post
Make it convenient for unit leaders and execs to spend time in the center by setting up a permanent listening post. As Minnucci explains: “A listening post is a workstation in the contact center that is always manned with a strong agent and has an extra chair and headset available for anyone who wants to sit and observe call handling.”
An alternative to live listening: Provide peers and execs with access to a library of recorded calls. Classify the calls into categories that will be relevant to different internal functions, Minnucci adds, “such as ‘slow computer response’ to describe calls where agents had to suffer through long response times between screen changes.”
Wisconsin Physician’s Service used a similar technique to help marketing and sales groups understand the benefits the center could provide. Following the release of a promotional mailer for a new product, call center leadership scheduled a meeting with marketing and sales to listen to recorded calls so that the two groups could learn what customers understood, what they didn’t, and what led to more questions. The ability to hear what actual customers thought about the mailer and what their questions were was an eye-opener for the other departments.
Engaging Your Staff
Every contact center leader understands the link between employee engagement and customer satisfaction and loyalty. In centers that pride themselves on maintaining high levels of engagement, common themes are clear, frequent communication from leaders about goals and expectations, active involvement in process changes and being empowered to do the job. The following are a few practices in place at best-in-class contact centers.
Give Them a Closer View of the Customer
Frontline agents may be in contact with customers every day, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know what the customer is experiencing. Some companies help to provide agents with that perspective by allowing them to accompany sales staff on customer site visits. Agents get a chance to see what happens on the customer’s end—how customers are using the company’s products and what issues they might be experiencing—to gain a better understanding of their perspective.
This is a practice that can work for centers in a variety of sectors. As Minnucci points out: “If you have retail stores, agents should have a chance to work in them. If you have focus groups with customers, agents should have the opportunity to be involved (even if only observing). If you have a product or service that a consumer can use, every agent should get it for free (or at least at reduced cost). For the relatively minor expense of some time off the phone, the payback is more compassion, greater understanding and a higher level of engagement.”
At Memorial Health System, employees attend empathy training that explains the different types of patients that staff will come into contact with, their specific health issues and what they may be experiencing. Managers reinforce the training by posting “empathy boards” in all of the backstage areas, like break rooms and storage areas. The empathy boards include photos of a patient type discussed in training (but not an actual patient), along with key points about their situations. It serves as an ongoing reminder of the patient’s voice.
Having open discussions about the organization’s goals and the ROI associated with the customer experience is an effective way to help frontline staff understand the impact their work has on the company’s success. As Intuit’s Koelling points out, clear and meaningful communication is an essential activity in his center. The organization’s goals and progress toward those goals is discussed in quarterly touchpoint meetings, as well as in traditional team meetings, via email updates and during biweekly preshift meetings.
Ask For Their Feedback
Engagement tends to be high in centers where frontline staff’s opinion and feedback is valued. Take Nicor National, for example, where management place a priority on frequently soliciting employee feedback.
To keep a pulse on the workplace mood and the impact of management decisions on the culture, Nicor National implemented a Voice of Employee (VOE) program, which uses online VOE tools to collect unsolicited questions, suggestions and concerns from staff. Employees can log into the tool whenever they want to ask a question, make a suggestion, offer a comment or bring up a concern. They can also take an online survey that asks for their feedback to statements like: “Nicor National values my relationship”; “The company really cares about me”; and “The company invests in my success.”
On a monthly basis, the company also conducts a benchmarking survey using the VOE tool. In addition, culture surveys, or “pulse checks,” are sent out to random groups of employees on a regular basis. Their responses make up an employee engagement index, which is tracked on a weekly and monthly basis to help management to identify trends.
Face-to-face time with employees is also important. Management firmly believes that personal contact and involvement provides a complete culture, and employee feedback is collected through monthly roundtables and daily management walkarounds.
At SciQuest, an initiative called “the buddy system,” pairs product development professionals with customer support reps for new product releases. As the product development team goes through the process of designing and developing new features, they get feedback from the CSR on how customers might view the functionality, or to identify any gaps that might cause issues with particular customer configurations or the way that they use the application.
Involve Them In The Processes
There is nothing more frustrating and demotivating than working in an environment where you have no input into how your work is done. We’ve discussed agent councils in past issues as an effective way to get agents involved in process improvement. Typically, agent councils meet as a group to discuss the items that they want to present to the contact center leader. They then form subcommittees to oversee those issues and report on progress to the council and to the leadership team.
Agent councils at Comerica have tackled issues like attendance policies, agent motivation, call center production goals and incentives. A bonus: When agents take on a self-governing role, they become more aware of how the business operates and the reasons behind certain decisions and policies.
Taking the time to show frontline agents how much they’re valued is a critical role for the center management team—or should be. Jill Houghland, senior operations manager at InterCall, and a finalist for ICMI’s Best Contact Center Manager Award, points out that management can’t always impact significant daily change on agents’ pay or time off, so they need to find different ways to show appreciation. Besides collecting their feedback through various methods and making them feel like they’re a part of the process, “We also bring them in for brown-bag lunches and have conversations to understand what they go through on a daily basis, and what ideas they have that we might be able to implement to make their jobs easier,” she says.
Practical pointer: Make sure that your team huddles don’t focus solely on updates and changes. End on a positive note by asking agents what went well on the previous shift and why, what they were proudest of that day or week—emphasize the things that are going well.