Agent empowerment is the secret to a great customer service turnaround story.
If you are unfamiliar with TCL (The Creative Life), you probably won’t be for long. Although the brand is a worldwide leader in TV sales, until recently, it remained relatively unknown in the United States. In 2014, TCL’s leadership team made a commitment to change that. Their goal: To become the No. 3 TV brand in the U.S. by 2020.
An initial and critical step toward reaching that goal has been to revamp the North American division’s after-sales support—transforming the operation from a cost- and process-oriented environment into a world-class service provider. To begin the journey toward creating an exceptional customer experience worthy of TCL’s innovative and award-winning televisions, senior leaders restructured the customer service leadership team. In 2015, Chris Luna came on board as Director of Customer Advocacy for TCL North America. “I joined TCL with the vision to assemble and empower a dedicated team that could focus solely on the consumer and deliver world-class customer service,” he says.
TCL’s journey is well underway—and, in fact, the team already has accomplished some impressive results and awards. Earlier this year, Luna’s team was recognized for their customer service turnaround efforts with Gold and Silver Stevie Awards in the Customer Service Team of the Year and Back-Office Customer Service Professional of the Year categories. The Stevie Awards for Sales & Customer Service recognize the achievements of contact center, customer service, business development and sales professionals worldwide. More than 2,300 nominations from organizations of all sizes and in virtually every industry were evaluated in this year’s competition
Listen First & Clear Hurdles
TCL North America’s service transformation began with a clear mission to meet and exceed customer expectations on every interaction. To determine what that meant to customers, Luna and his team went directly to the source. They gathered feedback from customers about how they viewed TCL and the support experience.
A critical finding emerged from the assessment: Customers felt that it wasn’t always quick or easy to get their issues resolved. “Customers were required to go through a lot of steps; it wasn’t effortless,” Luna says. “We had a process-oriented environment with a heavy focus on cost savings.”
After talking to customers about their expectations, Luna and his team decided that it was important to get the agents’ perspective, as well. “Instead of management talking about what the right thing to do is, how to change it and how to provide the right experience, we talked to our agents,” he says. “We believe that our agents are our most valuable resource—not just in terms of providing the customer experience, but also with the intelligence that they can provide about that experience.”
But before reaching out to frontline staff, Luna wanted to establish an appropriate framework for the discussion. To get employees into a customer-centric mindset, management first communicated the new mission to frontline staff, and then continually emphasized it during meetings and huddles. They also changed the name of the unit from After-Sales Service to Customer Advocacy to impress on agents their new role in making sure that the customer receives a superior experience.
Importantly, it was a two-way conversation. “In our talks with agents, we wanted to understand what they needed to be able to accomplish our mission,” Luna says. “We really listened to them in terms of what to do and how to make those changes.”
Getting agents on board was not difficult once leadership demonstrated that the staff’s feedback was valued and acted upon, he recalls. “With that, our agents rose to the task and delivered. They helped us to create and revamp processes that were causing pain points in the customer journey.”
Establishing Customer-Centric Processes
During discussions with frontline agents, management found that “the customer service team had all the right intentions, but were simply lacking the empowerment to do what’s right for the customer,” Luna says. For instance, agents’ performance had been tracked and measured primarily based on productivity metrics, such as average handle time (AHT), which limited their ability to go above and beyond for customers.
“If we set a time limit for satisfying the customer, then we’re doing something wrong,” Luna states. “When you put an AHT constraint on your agents, they will manage to that time limit. Once we removed the AHT handcuffs, our agents really stepped up to the plate and accomplished amazing things.”
Instead of time-based objectives, the center began to focus on first-contact resolution (FCR) and customer satisfaction (cSat) as the two most critical goals for meeting and exceeding expectations.
Empowering agents and resetting KPIs meant evaluating the QA process. The previous QA checklist included more than two dozen standards and protocols against which customer service calls were evaluated. Agents had used the QA form to guide their calls, checking off the items as they complied. As a result, service interactions sounded robotic and impersonal, Luna says. Management revamped the QA process as well as the role of the QA team. “We didn’t want agents to perceive QA as a compliance or disciplinary process,” he explains. “Instead, we use QA as a training tool—they’re viewed as the coaches who can help agents to improve, grow and achieve our mission.”
In addition to QA, TCL management set their sights on putting in place a strong support infrastructure to help agents provide value for customers; for instance, expanding agent training to include other products that integrate with TCL’s products. “Our products are smart TVs, which have built-in Internet connectivity,” Luna explains. “That requires our agents to know how a home network works and how other products integrate with that. We’re not attempting to provide support for other manufacturers’ products, but our agents need to have enough information to be able to explain to the customer how these different products work together and how to get the most value from it.”
Give Agents a Voice—Take Action on What You Hear
Agent input is valued at TCL. Whether it’s contributing to an internal knowledge base, providing feedback on process improvements or offering ideas for continuous improvement, they have a voice that is listened to and acted upon.
It is a principle that TCL leadership firmly supports through regular employee focus groups, team meetings, or through side-by-sides with agents. “Although we have a QA staff that regularly monitors calls, every member of our management team also will sit with the agents to listen, learn and make sure that they have what they need to support customers. It works wonders,” Luna says. “Too often in this industry, I have seen directors who manage from their office and don’t understand what the agents are going through on the floor. You have to experience it yourself. Don’t just listen to phone calls remotely—sit next to the agent and give them your complete attention. Think about what they’re going through and how you can help them.”
Just as important, he adds, is what you do afterward: Acknowledge agents’ feedback, act on it, and follow-through by keeping them informed of the actions taken. It’s also important to ensure that the entire team is kept up-to-date about process improvements that originate from agent feedback, since not every agent can be involved in every project. “We make sure that we tie their feedback back to actions and results in team huddles or group discussions so that they can see that we’re really listening and not just going through the motions,” he says. “That helps to foster an environment of continuous improvement. It’s part of our DNA now and how we operate every day.”
Take Time to Celebrate the Milestones
Once TCL’s Customer Advocacy team started implementing the changes, they began to see positive results right away. According to Luna, removing AHT from the agents’ performance goals generated an immediate bump in customer satisfaction. As agents focused on FCR, customer complaints also dropped off and agent morale increased.
Luna points out that AHT initially increased, as expected, but once the management team established a solid support infrastructure for frontline staff, agents were able to resolve issues much quicker. “It’s actually lower now than when we started,” he notes.
While the emphasis has been on continuous improvement and setting a higher bar for service delivery, TCL’s workplace atmosphere has not been all work and no play. “We also focused on making TCL a fun place to work,” Luna says. “The message we took to our employees was this is where we want to go, let’s do it together and let’s have fun doing it.”
Luna is a firm believer in using positive reinforcement to encourage the right behaviors. The Customer Advocacy team looks for positive events and goals to celebrate, and they do it often—whether it’s meeting a monthly individual or team target, new agents coming on board, or the birth of a team member’s baby. While there are monthly and weekly group goals, teams also have the freedom to establish their own goals for FCR and cSat.
Agents also have taken ownership of their individual incentive programs. For instance, the frontline staff recently created a program that rewards individuals who have achieved top cSat ratings with a raffle ticket. Each quarter, different prizes are raffled off. Luna says that allowing agents to take ownership of the incentive programs—and what motivates them—has increased engagement considerably.
Customer satisfaction results—always top of mind—are emphasized via a real-time leaderboard. The center also shares individual and team achievements, awards, events and photos in a monthly newsletter. “We have a very family oriented culture, so we plan a variety of group and team activities outside of the workplace to promote team bonding,” Luna says.
Where to From Here?
Early results from TCL North America’s customer service turnaround are impressive: Customer satisfaction, loyalty and FCR ratings have skyrocketed since the journey began. As a TV brand, TCL went from No. 20 in 2014 to No. 6 in 2016, according to market trend analysts The NPD Group.
While TCL plans to continue on its path to grow and differentiate its brand based on customer experience, within the Customer Advocacy team, Luna is focusing on ways for the contact center to continue to add value to both customers and the business.
One area that he has his sights set on is QA—or QA 2.0, as he calls it. “We’re always looking for ways to add value by providing intelligence to product development to improve our products. QA teams have been underutilized for that purpose,” he explains. “This is a team whose members typically come from the floor, they have a lot of experience and understand the product very well. While they’re listening to calls to find opportunities for the agent to improve, we want the team also to listen for opportunities to improve the product or opportunities to create new products. We want to do a better job of leveraging that intelligence and opening new revenue streams for the business.”