How Can Contact Centers Be Less Painful for Customers?

Aug 16, 2013

We’ve all had the experience of buying something from a retailer, having a problem with it and needing to call their customer service center to resolve the issue. Sometimes, just finding the phone number from the website can be difficult, as some retailers seem to purposely make that difficult. And when calling the retailer, consumers are often forced to listen to lengthy recordings encouraging them to go back to the website and/or asking them punch in everything but their children’s names and social security numbers to get an actual live person.

The call itself can often be problematic and annoying as many call center personnel read from scripts, and there are sometimes language barriers. Other options aren’t always easy either, as web chat isn’t always available or the agent may be dealing with multiple chats at the same time. Facebook and Twitter posts can go without a response as can e-mails and texts.

So, I wondered if savvy retailers can improve contact center operations to create a positive point of difference, building revenues and profitability in the process.

Recent posts on the Interactive Intelligence blog offer some tips for improving contact center performance. Here are a few, paraphrased:

  • Measure agent performance and make sure agents are satisfied with their jobs.
  • Don’t emphasize efficiency over customer experience or vice-versa.
  • Excel at the contact channels you currently have (i.e., call centers) before adding new channels, such as texting or social media.
  • Don’t overload agents with concurrent tasks — the ability to multi-task is a myth.
  • Different channels require different skill sets, so hire appropriately.
  • Voice is still the channel preferred by most customers for service and support, so don’t neglect it.
  • Get IT to collaborate with contact center management to devise the best processes.
  • Make sure your agents have well-organized desktops.
  • Ensure that your training is sufficient and test the knowledge of your agents regularly.
  • Survey your customers and pay attention to how they think your contact centers are doing.

A 2013 State of the Contact Center in Retail report from LiveOps offers additional reminders and pointers including:

  • With more communications channels, customers have higher expectations.
  • Servicing customers via social media increases customer satisfaction 15 to 20 percent.
  • Eighty-six percent of shoppers want a common buying experience with a retailer, regardless of the channel they use.


Understanding that efficient processes and standardization are important, how can call centers service customers better? At what point do you see a good customer experience being sacrificed for the retailer’s efficiency and ROI?

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13 Comments on "How Can Contact Centers Be Less Painful for Customers?"

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Joan Treistman
8 years 9 months ago

First the retailer has to want to satisfy its customers. Oftentimes it seems the goal is to provide a voice at the other end of a phone call or a drop down menu on a website.

Over the years I’ve learned that those call center folks are not out to get me, but rather in many instances they don’t have the tools to help nor have they been trained to look for solutions.

The to do list in this post is very good. It will be very helpful to those retailers who want greater efficiency to go along with their mission of great service. For those retailers who don’t reinforce to their call center staff that they are there to satisfy their customers’ needs, this list won’t help at all.

Bob Phibbs
8 years 9 months ago

I’m still in the nightmare that is the Adobe “help” center. For some reason, Norwegian is the installed language. Two different agents via chat, controlling my mouse, sharing screen, etc., still leave me with ja, not yes.

How about hiring smarter people who can troubleshoot quickly? Not the lowest denominator who can follow countless scripts asking how I’m doing? Time is short for all; there’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom. Call centers should pay for wisdom.

Tom Redd
8 years 9 months ago
This is all about talent management. Call centers need to find the right candidates and leverage processes that expand their talents. Me being someone with first-hand experience, this statement can be considered the hard truth—if talent management is not in place for a call center, the retailer or business WILL have problems. Proof: my son (yes, there are more Redds) works at a top notch call center. Their hiring process involved a well-structured process that weeded out the the people that just did not show potential for dealing with and making decisions around customer incidents (per my son). Their training was long, but exciting and now he is solo and working towards the next level in the center. He is measured daily and they offer programs to help their team better deal with unique customer situations and to help him deal with improving. He has worked his way up to a top rated service person and is getting to solutions faster and faster, which is what callers want—fast answers that work. So, it is all… Read more »
Tony Orlando
8 years 9 months ago

This may be a self serving statement here, but if more folks dealt with a local business, there would be no need for a call center. The owner or manager should handle the issue personally, and get the problem solved quickly. I’m not saying they all do this well, but your chances are better. There are exceptions to this in the big store world, like Zappos and Amazon, but mostly all you get is frustration.

It must be difficult to handle this call center, as most companies do a lousy job at it, and the bigger the company, the worse job they do. Have you ever tried to change your airline reservation? Good luck!

Rick Moss
8 years 9 months ago
Oh the horror! Contact center experiences have been the cause of my worst blood pressure spikes in the last decade, no exaggeration. When they’re bad, they’re really bad. I think anyone of us who has lived through a horrid experience could offer advice, but it all begins as Tom and others have said with intelligent, well trained personnel. 1) Lay off the scripts. Sure, give the rep a checklist but find people who can respond in their own words to the customer. 2) Tell the customer what the process is. In keeping with the “Your wait will be approximately XX minutes” principle, customers will be much more patient if they know in advance what to expect. If you must take them through a seven step troubleshooting regimen before getting down to brass tacks, at least tell them first and briefly explain why. 3) Create a service record and pass it on. There’s nothing more infuriating than being transferred around and having to explain oneself over and over. Take notes and pass them on to the… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
8 years 9 months ago

Both Tony and Tom make strong points. But the facts of life in today’s world prove that buying all locally or improved talent management is, in the minds of those in the “Ivory Tower,” only a function of increasing the bottom line. That is why so many larger call centers are off shore where labor costs are much lower. Therein lies the language barrier issue. Personally, it frustrates me that someone I have difficulty understanding is reading from a script with no sense of true assistance.

Bring the call centers back home. It would sure relieve much of the unemployment problem. But why do that (he asks sarcastically)?

Kenneth Leung
8 years 9 months ago

Good contact center customer service is a combination of staffing, technology, and corporate goals on efficiency and customer satisfaction. If corporate is measuring based on reducing call times, the employees will react accordingly. If corporate is measuring based on satisfaction on resolution, and enabling employees with the right information through technology, the employee and customer satisfaction will follow. When the company pulls just the efficiency lever and ignores the other two levers, there is nothing the employee can do but create unsatisfied customers.

Shep Hyken
8 years 9 months ago

If efficiency causes inconvenience for the customer, then the company should rethink the strategy. There is a balance. How long should a customer have to wait on hold before being taken care of? How upset is the customer before he/she calls, and how does long hold times exacerbate the problem? How often does an upset customer choose not to return when they have a poor call center experience? All need to be considered.

Lee Kent
8 years 9 months ago

OMG! I really thought it best that I not write anything on this topic as I too have had some horrific call center experiences. But, wait! Those horrific experiences have never been with retailers.

This just leads us to the obvious. When technology or services break, the call center must be prepared to deal with the issue.

Unfortunately so many of them are trained to the script and do not know how to LISTEN. I was dealing with an issue with a vendor recently and after several calls finally got someone on the line who listened to me. I stopped her in mid sentence and said, “Stop right there! I just have to say thank you for listening to me. You are the first person with [hit list company of the day] who has done that.” My problem was resolved.

Verlin Youd
8 years 9 months ago

The secret to successful customer experience with a call center is not so different from the secret to in-store customer experience. A customer wants to feel that their desire or concern is being heard and addressed by someone that is sincerely interested in helping and is able to address their desire or concern effectively.

Much has been written and discussed, even regularly here on RetailWire, about successful in-store customer experience so I won’t rehash it all, except to say you need to have supervisors and managers who care about both customers and team members enough to train and coach “in the moment” and lead by example.

In the spirit of disclosure, I worked part-time, after my full time job, in the contact center for a very well known credit card issuer back in the late 80s, and did quite well. It seems to me that the best contact center employees were those who had a natural desire to help, combined with good ongoing coaching, including knowledge that calls were being monitored regularly primarily for that purpose.

James Tenser
8 years 9 months ago

A darned good checklist, but I think it misses one core point that unfortunately is chronically overlooked:

Relentlessly enable agent success.

It’s not enough to hire right and train right and measure performance. The organization must design mechanisms for winning—practices and systems that assure team members can consistently deliver good results for customers.

Work pride flows from the ability to create successful outcomes. Satisfied associates tend to create more satisfying experiences for customers. This is well documented in the customer service academic literature.

On the flip side: Put a high-aptitude, great attitude worker into a can’t-win work environment, and you almost instantly create a clock-watching drone who will deliver just enough performance to avoid getting fired.

Empower service agents with the tools, skills, incentives and discretion to deliver customer success, and the positive energy will tend to feed upon itself.

Anne Bieler
Anne Bieler
8 years 9 months ago

Structuring call centers to provide excellent customer service instead of focusing on efficiently “clearing” customers in the queue, is a starting point. It is as important an investment in the retail process as marketing and advertising. The list is a good one—key is giving reps the tools and training they need, with a robust followup system. Often a call center rep will go above and beyond, but the critical issues are not documented.

Retailers keep sending customers to websites for “faster service,” yet many times they have a complex menu with choices that are so narrowly defined that they frustrate customers.

Repeat business is the retail goal; keeping clients on hold without information is risky business!

Ralph Jacobson
8 years 9 months ago
Okay, let’s make this simple. Yesterday, my home printer was not working. After fiddling with the usual troubleshooting tasks, I called the call center for the printer manufacturer. The agent answered in less than 30 seconds on a Friday afternoon and only for asked my first and last name, and did not ask for the spelling. Interesting. He simply wanted to know what to call me while on the phone. He then asked for the model number and serial number and never asked when I purchased it, if it was still under warranty, or anything else. He asked if he could “take over the use of my PC” with an application that allows remote operation of my PC. I agreed, and within literally two minutes of of me calling this company, the agent started moving my cursor around, quickly diagnosing the issue, reset some parameters that I would have never guessed on my own, and within a total of maybe ten minutes, my printer was working better than ever. This company took personal responsibility for… Read more »

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