Determining a company’s success when it comes to serving customers has always been a combination of science and art.
Measuring success often involves listening in on calls; tracking truck rolls; and monitoring how many calls it takes for customers to have their problems resolved. There are myriad formulas, calculations and guidelines operators use to measure how good they are at customer care. Companies are also judged by outsiders like J.D. Power & Associates and are monitored by local, state and federal regulators.
But customer care often boils down to the art of manners and common sense. Operators want their customer service representatives to treat customers just as they would want to be treated and if a sales opportunity presents itself, great.
If not, agents are charged with making sure the problem is solved before getting off the phone. One thing is certain: the days of being satisfied with answering the phone in 30 seconds is over.
There will always be customer service complaints. However, grievances have declined even as the number of products being has gone up, according to operators. Overall, customers appear to be happier with the kind of care they are receiving these days, as evidenced by J.D. Power’s annual surveys.
Satellite TV providers DirecTV and Dish Network perennially top the customer satisfaction list for pay TV. But cable scores are rising every year.
Moreover, when it comes to telephone service, cable companies topped the rankings this year for the first time in each of the six regions measured by J.D. Power.
So what is cable doing differently today than just a few years ago? Clearly, customers now require a higher level of expertise from customer care agents and that means more training and sophisticated equipment to classify and transfer customers to the correct agent.
Operators are beginning to separate customers into “value segments” and are tailoring programs to serve their customers’ needs. Some companies are creating “super agents” who are proficient with voice, video and data issues. Others are spending money on tools that enable agents to route callers to the appropriate specialized agent.
Profiling enables companies to better determine the approximate value of each customer and match them with the appropriate service levels, said John Vanderpool, vice president product and industry marketing for Denver-based customer-care company StarTek.
A high-level customer may best be served by super-agents or domestic agents (as opposed to customer-care agents located offshore if the company outsources the service) or offered unique incentives, Vanderpool said. Conversely, a low value customer — those who routinely pay late or subscribe to only one service — may be sent offshore for support because it costs less per transaction.
“You need to treat every customer differently because each customer has different needs,” said Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research. “And you should be more attentive to your more valuable customers. Broadband customers, for instance, tend to call their providers more, and phone customers need to have reliable service because they need access to 911 service.”
By integrating the billing system information, StarTek can create customer profiles and route callers appropriately. It’s imperative to place a customer with the right agent, said Joe Stackhouse, senior vice president of customer operations for Charter Communications.
“You have to put customers in the right place so their problems are fixed immediately,” Stackhouse said. “You don’t want to have to transfer a customer all over the place.”
Follow-up is also crucial. Charter immediately polls customers who call the company and after field service calls. The operator asks about the interaction and how and whether their problems were solved.
“We have to understand what our customers are saying and figure out how to continue raising the bar on their expectations,” Stackhouse said. “We heard them when they said they want more convenience and so we have done things like add online help that also includes online chat and self-help aspects. We are constantly expanding those services and providing our agents with the tools and procedures they need to make a customer happy.”
There was a time not so long ago when a cable company could measure the success of its customer care by how often it answered the phone within 30 seconds and how quickly those calls were handled. But those days are long gone. Today, a more sophisticated and nuanced set of standards are used to gauge customer satisfaction.
“We recognize that as the level of competition increases, providing excellent customer service is a key differentiator for us,” said Cox Communications vice president of customer care Scott Wise. “We want to be the most trusted provider of telecommunications services in America. We created a number of approaches and metrics designed to measure how well Cox is doing with that goal.”
Indeed, it was not enough to answer calls promptly and operators found that pushing agents to reduce the time they spent with each customer often resulted in problems going unresolved. It also tended to increase the number of unnecessary truck rolls and foster a general malaise among customers. Now, operators are stressing the need to resolve customer problems the first time they call no matter how long it takes.
Cox continuously monitors how often CSRs are able to resolve customer problems on the first call. The company tracks not only the kind of calls it receives, but also how agents handle the calls. Cox calls customers back twice (once, 7 days after they’ve called the system; and again a month after their first call) to determine whether the problem was actually solved the first time and to assist customers if they aren’t satisfied.
“Our customers want their problems solved the first time they call and when we can deliver on that, our satisfaction scores are higher,” Wise said. “Customers also want to avoid truck rolls, so we’re also measuring the percentage of calls that are resolved at the call center level and how many require truck rolls.”
Cox continues to monitor how long an agent is on the phone. Rather than mandate average call times, though, Cox uses the metric as a wellness check for the system, the call center and the agents. For instance, if the company finds that one agent is taking a lot more time to resolve problems than other agents, it may mean that customer service need retraining. If a lot of agents are taking more time to resolve problems, it may mean a problem with the network or system, Wise said.
Like Cox and Charter, Bresnan Communications calls customers back after a service call or truck roll to make sure they are happy with the outcome. It didn’t take long for the company to figure out customers most often had questions about their remote control units, channel lineups, e-mail setup and voice mail setup. Bresnan technicians are instructed to deal with all four issues (if they are pertinent to the customer’s service package) on every truck roll.
During the follow-up calls, customers are asked a variety of questions about the service, including how likely they are to recommend the company to a friend or relative on a scale of 1-10.
“Research suggests that companies that regularly receive nines and tens are more profitable,” Bresnan Communications senior vice president of operations Terry St. Marie said. “I love things you can measure. We have conducted surveys and asked our customers how happy they are with our service. But if you’re willing to recommend a service to people that are important to you, that’s a powerful message. We started asking that question two years ago. We take our high scores and subtract the neutral scores to get a net promoter score. Experts say anything bigger than a zero is good. Every week we get reports that detail that question. We have averaged 50% and our target is higher than that.”
Some operators, such as Cox, subscribe to the notion of super-agents: CSRs trained to deal with multiple products so they don’t have to switch customers from one agent to another if they have problems or questions with more than one service. About 70% of Cox’s representatives are trained in three products today, Wise said, and the number continues to rise each quarter. Every new agent is trained to handle calls related to voice, video and data and existing agents are continually expanding their expertise in multiple products.
But that is expensive and most operators still have specialists that deal with particular services or issues. Also, some experts don’t think super-agents are as effective overall as specialists. Vanderpool believes customer-care agents can be more effective if they can concentrate on a particular aspect of service. The key: direct customers to the right person the first time.
Vanderpool sees a key measurement for customer care as the “economic value for a given level of care.” This is how much an operator spends on care to drive a predicable level of subscriber satisfaction, he said. Companies are beginning to measure the “cost of quality” and the economic impact of subscriber dissatisfaction, he said.
The ripple effect of subscriber satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) is also measured as an economic multiplier. All these metrics come into play when trying to determine how much money a company is willing to spend on customer care.
For many customers, there is a fine line between the need for familiarity versus expertise of service offerings.
In 2004, Bresnan made the decision to move from a localized customer service policy where agents were housed in each office to a more centralized and compartmentalized approach to customer service. On one hand, customers were comfortable with the agents they had known for years and saw at the grocery store each week, St. Marie said. On the other hand, being able to offer customer care 24/7 with specialized agents able to handle technical questions related to each service being offered by the operator, was too compelling to ignore, he said.
“If a customer wants to talk to someone locally, they can still go to the local office,” St. Marie said. “We kept most of our local offices open because we know localism is a big factor in delivering optimal customer service and we kept many of the customer service people we had employed before. But we needed to also be able to handle complex problems on a wider scale and we needed standards that were commensurate with our desire to be the provider and employer of choice in our markets.”
Some 99% of Bresnan’s call center activity is handled by in-house employees, but most major operators now use a mixture of in-house and outside CSRs to handle call volume, Vanderpool said. The ability to use outside firms to deal with customer service calls gives providers more flexibility when it comes to workforce and economics, he said.
For one thing, keeping call center staff for any length of time is hard. Vanderpool said the average turnover for call centers is around 100% a year. Using outside firms puts the burden of retention on the contractor and cuts training and retention costs, he said.
StarTek is constantly training its personnel, conducting contests and adding benefits like on-site daycare centers to keep people happy and adept at their jobs. It also specifically targets small and economically challenged markets for its domestic call centers so the company becomes integral to those communities, Vanderpool said. Turnover is lower and costs are more easily kept under control.
It also costs more to handle calls domestically than it does internationally. By mixing domestic and international agents using a variety of routing methods, operators can get a better bang for their buck and customer care is more prioritized according to levels of service.
Cox has adopted a wellness approach to its customer care to keep costs under control. The company has launched a program designed to check and certify all the equipment in a customer’s home. They proactively make sure all products are in working order and are satisfactory to the customer.
That does a couple of things, Wise said. It gives the customer confidence that Cox is doing everything it can to make sure its products and services are in good working order, and it allows the company to more closely monitor its plant while giving the technician an opportunity to sell new products.
To be sure, the balance between solving customers’ problems and selling them new products is a touchy one. Sales are encouraged but only after a customer’s problems have been resolved, all the operators said. After all, companies need customers to subscribe to new services if they want to grow their business. But it’s a delicate dance that can flop if handled improperly.
“We want our agents to solve problems first,” Charter’s Stackhouse said. “After that, they can ask customers if they can review their account to see where we can add value to their service package. Our agents aren’t judged on the number of pitches they make. They’re judged on the appropriate pitches at the appropriate time.”
In addition to the scientific methods of measuring customer service success, there are visceral tests: those barometers of success that can’t really be measured in either qualitative or quantitative means. Some operators refer to them as “grocery store stories.”
Stackhouse still remembers the day when he saw an AT&T Broadband employee wearing a company shirt at the local grocery store in Chicago. Stackhouse had overhauled troubled AT&T Broadband’s customer service department in Chicago in 2001. He cleaned house, revamped the way customers were dealt with, and instilled a sense of pride in the employees’ work.
“When I saw employees beginning to wear their company garb outside of the office, I knew we were turning a corner in customer service,” Stackhouse said. “They were beginning to feel good about the job they were doing and they began to have faith in the company’s ability to take care of our customers.”
“Everyone has 'a grocery store’ story,” St. Marie said. “The difference now is that those stories tend to be more positive today then they did 10 years ago. Our product mix now is much more complicated than it was then, but we are doing a better job of serving our customers today than we did then.”
Clearly, employee opinion is one of the most potent, albeit one of the most primitive, tests when it comes to measuring a company’s customer-care success. Staffers’ opinions of a company’s customer service is essential to its success, executives said. Verizon Communications’ call center agents picketed several of the company’s regional offices around Tampa, Fla., claiming that the telco’s customer service quality is suffering because Verizon management was putting excessive pressure on agents to sell products rather than fix customer problems, according to the Tampa Tribune.
Verizon manager of media relations Bob Elek acknowledged that the company has experienced some service problems, but told the newspaper that it has “typically … done very, very well with repair service.”
Neither Elek or union leader Doug Sellars, manager of IBEW Local 824, which represents Verizon workers in Tampa, returned calls asking about the issue. The hullabaloo comes as Tampa’s city council was set to take up the issue May 1 in an effort to allow customers and company executives offer their perspectives on the issue.
Customer care success metrics will continue to morph as more services are added to the mix and as customer expectations rise, operators said. It’s not a static business.
“We talk with our people all the time so we know how they feel and so we know what we can do to improve our customer care,” Wise said. Technologies may change over time as will expectations related to customer care. However, he said, the bottom line is making sure customer care agents have the desire and personality to help people.
“You can have a person who can solve any computer problem that could possibly come up,” he said. “But that person may not be able to make the customer go away happy. You have to train people to know the products we sell. But you can’t train people to want to help people. That has always been the case and it will continue to be the case.”