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Contact-centre experts respond to the top five customer complaints

Contact centres come in for severe criticism, yet they provide a unique opportunity for one-to-one customer communication. We asked a panel of experts to give their responses to the top five customer complaints, and suggest how to avoid causing them in the future.
Nothing is more likely to send a consumer into fits of rage than a drawn-out and ultimately futile experience with a call centre.

Despite this, many companies have failed to grasp the fact that bad customer service can have a severe impact on their brand's reputation.

A survey by Harris Interactive found that nearly two-thirds of those who have had bad experiences with contact centres stopped using the company in question - and more than half said that they would consider switching to another company.

During the downturn, there is a temptation for marketers to cut back on their contact centre spending by employing fewer agents, scaling back on training and even outsourcing the operation overseas.

It might look good on the balance sheet in the short term, but the long-term implications are likely to be significant as customers start deserting unhelpful and unresponsive brands. Customer service is often the most important differentiator in  many consumer-facing businesses, and the power of social media means bad news travels fast.

More enlightened companies have realised that contact centres are vital as the first point of brand experience, and can even reinforce existing brand values.

These companies have invested more in staff training and the most up-to-date call-handling software.

With this in mind, Marketing asked a panel of field experts to respond to five situations that will be familiar to anyone who has dealt with contact centres on a regular basis.

Whenever I phone up to query my electricity bill, I am put on hold for anything up to 30 minutes. Why can't they answer my call more quickly?

Jane Ingram, marketing director, CPM Once is bad enough, but when the incident occurs two or three times the customer quite rightly becomes a 'terrorist' - someone only too willing to tell other people how bad their experience was. A few thousand incidents like this and before you know it the media is involved and the damage to brand equity can be catastrophic. The solution is really quite simple: invest more in the agents and choose the right technology, such as Queue Buster, which allows you to ring people back at less busy times. If you get it absolutely right, your profitability will grow as your overheads reduce, your brand advocacy increases and your attrition rates shrink.

Jason Sharpe, service and sales director, First Direct I think it is more to do with this business needing to develop its frontline staff to be multi-skilled and able to access procedures and assist with customer issues quickly. If the query is more complex than the staff member is able to deal with, then they must manage the expectations of the customer by explaining what they are about to do with the call, where it is being transferred to and how long it might take.

Rachel Robinson, divisional managing director, Teleperformance Nobody should be expected to wait 30 minutes - technology exists today to prevent this. Call-query technology can be employed in such a way as to recognise that people are holding and offer options during their wait time. For example, give them the option to leave their details for a call back.

Whenever I call my mobile operator I am put through to someone whose accent I find hard to understand. I have to ask them to repeat themselves several times, which I find embarrassing.

James Le Roth, contact centre director, Eclipse Marketing A consumer backlash has led to something of a swing from offshore to more local contact centres recently. Cultural differences are a difficult barrier to overcome, and understanding different accents, dialects and colloquialisms are even more daunting. Companies are realising that, while 'offshoring' is potentially cost-efficient, if callers have a bad communication experience, it can be extremely costly to a brand. To avoid this, you need to pay attention to the calibre of overseas candidates and invest in training and developing language skills. One way forward is to have high-value, complex consumer issues handled in UK contact centres, while more basic enquiries are dealt with offshore.

Rachel Robinson It is essential to have an accent that is easy to understand when you are communicating over the telephone. Most people in all walks of life have accents and local dialects, but not all will be suitable for call centre work, where it is vital for commercial clients and government bodies that we clearly communicate on their behalf. Conducting initial telephone interviews as part of the recruitment process would ensure that candidates who are hard to understand do not make it through to the next stage.

I am going around in circles with my bank. A few weeks ago I sent in a form but the call centre could not trace it and gave me another number to call. However, the second agent says they cannot help and have referred me back to the original number. Why can't banks be more joined up?

Jason Sharpe This is an unacceptable scenario which creates an extremely unfavourable impression of a brand because the customer cannot 'see' the process. Timely updates on progress from provider to customer would build confidence and trust, which in turn engenders loyalty. All organisations need to build processes and structures in keeping with customer need, not around what suits the organisation internally.

Chris Hancock, managing director, GasboxDMG In many banks and other organisations, customers are faced with this same problem. The right hand has no idea what the left hand is doing, yet the customer is outside the process and unable to rectify the situation themselves. Even if the process is fundamentally flawed it is essential the agent takes ownership of the situation, at the very least making sure the customer is personally handed over to the right department. A good agent will then follow this up internally to make sure the customer's problem has been rectified. The wider issue here is the difference between the brand experience promoted by an organisation and the service actually experienced by customers when they interact with it. The greater the difference, the more marketing investment has been wasted.

Jane Ingram Call centres are at the end of the banks' service chain. Usually there is only access to 'portal' systems which, at best, give very basic account details on a customer and do not record the various events and contact points that the customer may have had with the bank. On top of that, some banks have not grasped the concept of the telephone and the idea of an agent with the power and authority to help you.

I took out a car insurance policy and the service from the website and call centre was OK. However, I am now getting phone calls from my insurer at least once a month, giving me the hard sell on upgraded cover. It leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

James Le Roth Both cross-selling and upselling can be beneficial to the consumer - but only if they are carried out in a targeted, relevant and timely manner. It should be regarded as an opportunity to offer the customer other services, not as a way of squeezing more sales out of him or her.

Rachel Robinson No call centre should be making hard-sell calls; it doesn't work and damages the brand. Any outbound sales calls should be done off the back of providing good customer service. All customers should also be asked if they want outbound calls and be held on a database on which all information is referred. Other preferred methods of contact should also be offered so you can keep in touch by email, text message or letter as required.

Chris Hancock I wonder if the upgraded cover was offered at the start of the relationship. If it was, and the customer declined, the reason given as to why they did not want to upgrade could be vital in crafting future conversations with the objective of upselling the product. Next time the agent calls, the approach can instead be about why the upgraded cover should be considered now, countering their initial misgivings and demonstrating that the brand has listened and learned from earlier conversations with the customer.

When I try to book tickets for concerts, I always get the robot voice-recognition service. My wife is in a wheelchair, so I need to ask important questions about access but I am prevented from speaking to a human being, which is infuriating.

James Le Roth For the vast majority of consumers, interactive voice response [IVR] is a boon and a benefit, but if it does not cover customer needs, it can be incredibly frustrating not to be offered an alternative. Potential customers who are wheelchair users, have sight or hearing issues or special requirements such as wanting to book a specific seat will feel undervalued if they cannot receive a more personal service and will be less likely to buy a ticket. Contact centres should have a policy of routing people out of the IVR system if needed.

Chris Hancock There is a growing misconception that voice communication should be reserved for high-value customers and transactions and that anything else can be satisfied with automated contact. In fact, there are numerous occasions when an automated service, whether self-service or assisted service, simply does not fulfil the basic customer need of hearing information in a reassuring, empathetic and 'human' way. In essence, this is still a straightforward transaction where information and payment is being passed backwards and forwards. However, having a person available to offer the advice and guidance on the specific issue of wheelchair access will be extremely comforting and emotionally fulfilling for the customer, even though the query could have been resolved by automated or other means, if made available.

Jane Ingram A small investment in a system whereby staying silent, pressing zero or not pressing an option will automatically transfer the customer to an agent will pay large dividends. Again, think about your customer base and how you can allow easy access into your organisation - but one that allows your customers to choose.

Jason Sharpe There can be no justifiable reason why there is not an option to communicate with a real person to ensure that you have the exact tickets you require. This type of experience gives a poor customer impression of the tickets company, and venue.

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