An Advice Column Only for
Contact Center Managers
This month we thought we’d change it up a bit. Rather than answering a question submitted to this advice column from our readers (don’t worry, we already received a fantastic question for next month’s column), we submitted a question to a longtime client and dear friend of Ulysses Learning who is retiring this summer – Vince Pepper, Director of Customer Operations Support at one of the nation’s leading energy companies.
With over 30 years in the customer service and contact center space, Vince has seen our industry grow from its humble beginnings into one of the most sophisticated, high-stakes, and must-have businesses of today. Always the pragmatic visionary, we think you’ll enjoy reading Vince’s insights.
Our question this month is:
Q: Knowing where our industry has been and sensing what’s on the horizon, where do you see the greatest opportunities exist for contact center executives to create even greater prosperity and prominence for their business units and team members?
A:(Vince Pepper, DTE Energy)
After all these years, I still see our greatest opportunities exist in our people – who we hire, how we train them, and how we match their talents to the needs of the business. I’ve spent the better part of my career dedicated to maximizing call center operations in these areas and I see it becoming even more important in the years ahead. But it’s not enough to do what we’ve always done, we need to delve deeper to come up with meaningful solutions that will matter most. We need to meet the customer where they want to be met, their channel of preference. We need to make access to that channel as easy and effortless as possible, or deliver them to the CSR most skilled to deal with their specific situation. We need to hire and train CSRs who are genuine customer advocates and not just information givers!
For example, I can look in our call center today and there are 30 CSRs that our customers love. Month after month, their post-call survey results are exceptional. We hired these reps just like everyone else, we trained them like everyone else, and gave them the same opportunities. Why are they continual “All Stars” in our customer’s eyes? What are they doing differently? What makes them tick? We need to get deeper information on the characteristics, skills, and behaviors of these top performers and incorporate them into our hiring and training practices.
I encourage you to informally ask any of your frontline supervisors the question – Who are your two best people? They will most likely give you the names immediately. Then ask them “Why did you pick these two reps?” I’ll bet they’ll say things like “great attitudes”, “they’re always here”, “the customers love them”, “they meet their metrics”. These are general feedback points. For each of these general feedback points, you need to ask deeper questions to fully understand this segment of your rep population that really delivers everything you want.
Spend time with these top performers, or hire someone to do the research for you. Do as much testing as you can with them, like behavior assessment, personality type, etc. Tests like Myers Briggs, DISC, Strength Finders, etc. Looking for a trend or pattern among your best agents. Ask your top reps - Why are you always at work and on time? What drives you to do this? Why do your customers love you so much? How do you meet your metrics so consistently? Get detailed with your questions. Let them know that your customers think they are fantastic and you want to really understand what behaviors, skills, and character traits they have. Don’t be surprised though if these CSRs reply, “It’s just the way I am!” We know there is a lot more to it than that. We need to hire and train to whatever “that” is!
Then, once you’ve gathered your research, work that information, thoughtfully, into your sourcing and hiring, staff training, and incentive programs. It’s also just as important to have leadership foster and support your approach. It must be a central part of the company’s mindset and culture. An example of this in our environment, is that I’ll spend time with every new-hire class. One thing I do is demonstrate for them our way of greeting customers in an upbeat, engaged manner versus a monotone manner that conveys boredom or an unwillingness to serve. In every class I will have had one or two trainees tell me “But Vince, that’s just not the way I am. I’m quiet and reserved.” And my answer is always the same – “You either need to quit today or become an actor.” Voice tone and vocal engagement will make or break the customer’s experience, every time.
Once you have gathered the most complete profile possible into what makes a top performer, you have to make the commitment to pay for those top performers. The fact remains that our representatives have complex jobs and we ask them to do a lot. We say the CSR is the “face of the company”, that they play a critical role in our customer’s satisfaction….and they do! We stress the vital importance of the role. But they are usually on the lower end of the pay scale. That’s a disconnect.
I would gladly pay $40,000 to $50,000 per year for the agent who continually, regularly satisfies customers.They are worth every penny. The CSR doesn’t have to be an entry level position – have tiers. Too often we assume that people don’t particularly enjoy the work of a CSR, or that they are taking the job just to get their foot in the door, but many really do love it, and excel at it. In my experience, those top agents deliver the work of two to three average agents. Their work results in fewer call backs, less customer dissatisfaction, less incorrect information, and, in the energy industry, fewer public service commission complaints. CSR performance excellence has real dollars tied to it.
A last point I’ll make is related to how we are using technology. We are beginning to adopt technologies that can identify with customers in more meaningful ways. I think we can take this technology to an even higher and more forward-thinking level, ultimately to make better decisions and strengthen relations for both our customers and our representatives. For example, if you called into our center today, your call would be routed based on what you select in the IVR – I want to pay my bill, I want to move my service, I have a question about my payment plan, etc. The customer makes their selection and their call goes to a group of representatives trained to handle that type of call.
But what if we had an IVR that tells me in a nanosecond that you are a repeat caller who has called 7 times in the last 30 days? That information would give reps added insight into your behaviors. Reps are then in a better position to navigate the conversation to be more investigative (to get at what is driving multiple calls) solve any issue you have, and/or provide education to you so that you don’t have to call so many times. What if you’re a high-value customer, generating thousands of dollars in revenue each month? That is good information for your reps to have before they take your call. What if you’re on a payment plan and your account is in arrears? You get the idea. It’s more about using technology to get a better sense of who the customer is and their situation rather than what they select in an IVR. And then getting them to a representative with the appropriate training to handle their situation most efficiently and effectively.
Any way you look at it, the future is already here. Our industry will continue to gain and advance technologically. Yet I believe the real gains will go to the contact centers and the executives who run them, that demonstrate a real passion for their representatives and make a clear business case to invest in them. From my vantage point, that’s where we can get the greatest return on investment.
This month’s featured expert is….
Vince Pepper,Director of Customer Operations Support at DTE Energy
Vince Pepper is Director of Customer Operations Support at DTE Energy. Vince is responsible for workforce management, process improvements, call center data analytics, and vendor management in support of call center operations. He also has served as the company’s Enterprise Change Management lead on conversion to SAP CR&B and is the lead for Supplier Performance Management for Customer Service.
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