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One Reason Customer Service Sometimes Sucks

Carol Wilson

In her role as global head of Salesforce.com for Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Lisa Hager oversees hundreds of consultants who help major telecom companies address critical customer relationship management (CRM) issues, and what her people see in customer service, even today, goes a long way to explaining why consumers complain so often about their telcos.

In an era when telecom products are becoming more complex for both the consumer and business markets, the customer service reps who support those products are being overwhelmed with information, much of which isn't integrated or processed in a way that can be easily digested.

"Because of things like mergers and acquisitions, and service bundling, the average CSR in a call center may have five screens in front of them at one time," Hager says. When calls come in, whether from customers who are having problems or those seeking information, the CSRs have to go from screen to screen looking for the relevant info.

That's a primary reason why, as Hager points out, "It takes longer to train a customer service rep than a US Marine." And it may go a long way to explaining why, according to the Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. exec, the average CSR turnover is 60% annually.

The immediate result is that CSRs not only can't provide the level of service customers want and expect, but they also miss opportunities to upsell, so the service provider gets a double whammy: higher customer turnover and lower revenue.

That reality is driving more network operators to turn to TCS and other large consultancies to help them more effectively integrate the back office operations. The need is becoming more urgent as they create more service bundles and more complex products (think cloud services and on-demand bandwidth) and try to bring these to market more quickly.

"They need to be able to tell the CSR what is the next best action or offer," Hager says, and that needs to be presented as guided scripting so that the CSR can immediately respond to an anxious customer.

Typically, the consultants look both short-term and long-term at what is needed, starting with incremental changes such as creating a new user interface at the CSR layer that can integrate information from multiple back-end systems, even some legacy systems that ultimately will be phased out.

"This is a journey -- it's not a big bang," Hager says. "We can put things on the front end and create an abstraction layer that hides the back-end complexity."

In fact, she says, there is nothing in the technology itself that is stopping telecom operators from doing a better job of customer service and even moving the majority of the operations to self-service processes. In the era of instant apps on smartphones, many consumers are more open to finding their own answers if the self-service portals are well- esigned.

Getting to that kind of elegant simplicity doesn't happen easily for companies burdened by trying to support literally thousands of service variations, Hager notes.

"Before you innovate, you have to start cutting, and that is always an interesting challenge -- what do you get rid of?" she says.

That's one of the reasons TCS's approach is to start at the front end and work backward to focus on what a telecom operator wants to offer its customers and design the systems that will enable that. It's a business the company has been developing for more than nine years and one in which it is likely to stay highly engaged for some time to come.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Beer
5/7/2014 | 7:43:29 PM
Re: Call center complaints
Couldn't agree more. Automation had its benefits, but it can be easily misused with a focus to cut costs instead of one that is first beneficial to the customer and second beneficial to the bottom line.

Call centers need to consolidate software with simple, straight forward suites that will help them get the right information and ask the right questions.

It's all a matter of finding something that works first for the customers and that will dictate the winning strategy going forward.

Brad Hodson, JobNimbus
User Rank: Light Beer
5/5/2014 | 11:30:44 AM
Re: The problem with customer service ...
I couldn't agree more with Lisa Hager's point. Another key metric our customers such as Misys, Yellow Pages.com and Insynergy Network cite as critical are handling a growing volume of calls more efficiently without increasing headcount. As Lisa points out, integrating data and creating wizards/process guides for service cloud applications make life easier for call center users and management.
Carol Wilson
Carol Wilson,
User Rank: Blogger
5/5/2014 | 10:07:20 AM
Re: The problem with customer service ...
Paying people more is one approach but if you are still supporting smarter people with stupid systems, you are not likely to get what you pay for.

Lisa Hager's point is that cleaning up the product catalogs, integrating systems and creating an intellligent front end can give CSRs the tools they need to provide better and more efficient customer service. Then they are less likely to be screamed at all day by angry customers - I suspect that has a lot to do with the high turnover - and with greater job satisfaction, will stick around longer. 

Better equpped CSRs can also upsell more effectively. Case in point: I was unhappy with my cable bill and went looking to make changes. The CSR that handled my account was apparently unaware of an imminent upgrade in the service and dealt with my issues by agreeing to give us an extension of promotional pricing that would reduce our bill by $40 a month for the next year. 

Only when I read (in Light Reading) that my cable provider was extending its Cloud DVR service to my area was I able to call back and order the new offering, for a higher cost. This was less than two weeks after the first change was made, so it's not as if the upgade was a last-minute thing. Because of the trouble we'd gone through (and some well-place threats) we are getting the new service at the promotional discount for an additional year....and we're still not all that thrilled as consumers. 

So, my cable company is missing out on revenue and still likely to lose us as customers the second the promotional price disappears because of all the hassle. And the CSRs were always dealing with angry customers, even though we wound up with better service at a lower price. 

User Rank: Light Sabre
5/4/2014 | 9:10:22 AM
Re: The problem with customer service ...
A very curious comparison between training CSR and Marines. Maybe it's because the Marine is trained to just say 'yes, sir' to most all requests. A CSR must not only say that, but then know how to solve a problem on his or her own. Not an easy task, and at low pay scales it's easy to see why there's a 60% employee turnover. I wonder if higher pay and more skilled people would solve the industry's problem?
User Rank: Moderator
5/3/2014 | 9:16:43 PM
The problem with customer service ...
It stems from a number of places.  I disgaree that Telecom Products are complex -- they are not.  It is the amount of services offered versus simplicity.

If you explore any back office, it is going to boil down to great integration and the internal IT infrastructure serving the reps. The reps should not have to laern a foreign language to naviagae a customers inquirey.  All the data, customer profile, etc. should be accurate and up to date.

The culture of the entire company must be focused on the customer for sales, service and support - anything else is an internal fiefdom.  Capital should only be allocated when it makes customer facing persomnels jobs easier and where speed can m be applied by empowerment to address just about any siytuation bt a represenative.

When you do NOT build your systems from the customers perspective inward - expect problems and don't blame the CSR.  Simplicity in product/service offerings is kery and expalianble to acaller in plain English.  The telecom ndustry believes every person should know their "language" which is grabage.

Then ther is the management of a CSR.  60% turnover -- you have a bad manager and maybe wosre, poor technology also not supporting and empowering the CSR. Mangers t do NOT manage people is what they do not get.  Slavery went out with the 13th Amendement.  The "manager" is responsible for improving the reps working environment, making sure the work is interesting and humble in supporting the CSR success. Customers calling with a problem -- you don't have a message on hold telling them how great you are and or trying to up-sell them ... that is plain dumb.  You do not put the CSR "on the clock" as to how many calls they can handle per hour -- that is dumb.  You are trying to solve a problem, create good will and he opefully that calling customer becomes a marketing Ambassador for having a great experience.

I also dislike phone trees - they are annoying and need simplification.  The better systems at laest tell a caller i on hold, what their estimated time is or, one better, we'll call you back as the queue is long.

You design the digital Telecom company around all those that touch the customer with user interfaces and customer information redaily available and prsented logically -- not in a format that makes some prgrammers life easier.

Here is what I did - we had a software relaes.  Okay, the Group Leader on that relaese sat in the call center and was a transfer target each nd everytime av customer called related to something with that software.  Nothing like an engineer understanding their is a human being using whatever you thought was good for them but was not and to take the heat over the CSR.  What happened?  Our software and customer friendliness got better and better. Enginners have a habit of not listening when the Product Manager is specifying what the market (customers) need or want and thake it upon themselves to knoiw better - after all; they use the phone!

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.  Better IT. Better CRS interfaces and data. Better CSR mpowerment to make desiions -- the winning formula.

Off-the-shelf software --okay, if you can customize it to your needs of the customer, not internal Geek needs.  Salesforce.com to me is acts as a Plantation owner tracking everyone's moves and is not at all intelligent enough for complex situations or "requests" made by others that if you don't respond within "X" time, it reports you to some Supervisor which is garbage.

It's not a CSR problem.  The problem is the oberall serb ving culture when it is not customer centric driven.  Most telecoms love looking internally, not externally - like as soon as everyone wakes up in the morning across the Globe, their first thought is the phone company!  Sorry, but it's not.

Compensation - you get what you pay for.  Whenever a position is offered at "competitive erates" that translates into the cheapest I canb find.  Pay higher , and only hire thye top 20% of any grdauating class - watch things improve.

Plus, there is that over riding tendancy in telecom for Telecom Executives to run a human serving company by the numbers -- dumb also.  Actually, less layers of execs would make things better for those value adding.
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/3/2014 | 3:14:29 PM
Re: Call center complaints
Drawing from recent experiences that I have had, it always seems like CSRs are distracted. Often this can probably be attributed to too many processes.

I think that is probably why Salesforce has been such as giant in the industry; they have been able to simplify processes that other incumbents simply weren't willing to do. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/3/2014 | 4:54:56 AM
Re: Call center complaints
Upon being switched to my third set of menu options I once bellowed an unrepeatable expletive into an automated response system whereupon it announced "one moment please, I'm putting you through". And it did. Thirty seconds later I was speaking to someone. True story. And yes, it was the obvious one.
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/2/2014 | 9:15:51 PM
One Reason Customer Service Sometimes Sucks
@mendyk, great points.  I couldn't agree more.

We have totally mismanged the Customer Service function - first with the "brilliant" idea of cost savings and then with our "brilliant" designs that, as Carol points out, actually interferes with the customer, their questions, and the relationship.

It definitely is time to truly design a system that works.  If not, let's turn it over to the Marines?

User Rank: Light Sabre
5/2/2014 | 5:47:54 PM
Re: Call center complaints
Back to the initial point, offshoring and automating (with IVR) call centers are "improvements" from a cost-containment point of view that have a clear negative impact on the customer experience. Now that the telecom industry seems to be keenly interested again in improving customer experience, it may be time to step back and take a frank and realistic assessment of just how bad business-centric decisions have affected customer relationships.
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/2/2014 | 5:37:48 PM
Re: Call center complaints

 Intuit is very good with customer service...they will call you rather than keeping you on hold, and to sam's point, only on a weekend have I run into a person who was hard to understand.

In my experience, the issue with non-native English speakers is the worst with outbound calling or with credit card issuers. Even in these instances, if people take their time to make sure they speak clearly, they won't frustrate people. But if they rush through the English, even native English speakers are hard to understand.
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