May 24, 2011, 2:05 PM

With a touch of humanity, retailers improve call center performance

Forrester says more consumers are satisfied with e-commerce sites than call centers.

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Asked about their most recent visit to a retail web site, 87% of consumers say they were satisfied with the interaction. But only 73% say they were satisfied with the most recent call they placed to a retailer’s call center, according to a recent Forrester Research Inc. report. Those results suggest shortcomings in how retailers provide customer service, says Kerry Bodine, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester.

“It’s kind of crazy that a nameless, faceless piece of technology that requires the customer to do all the work scores better than talking to another human being,” she says. “Talking to another human being should be the best thing. We’re social creatures. We’re intelligent creatures. And ultimately a human being should be able to help consumers in a way that a piece of technology cannot.”

To improve consumers’ satisfaction, retailers must focus on the agent who is speaking to the customer, says Forrester’s Bodine. “Retailers need a frame-of-mind shift at the core level of their organizations,” she says. “They need to realize that call center interactions influence their other business metrics.”

However, too few retailers are spending the money to improve their call center interactions, she says. In a recent Forrester report, she found that only 32% of merchants said they planned to focus on improving their call center agents’ interactions this year. That compares to 76% that planned to improve the online customer experience.

Even so, not every change has to be expensive, she says. In fact, shifts in a retailer’s operating procedures, like moving away from having call center agents read from a script, can provide a boost to a retailer’s customer satisfaction ratings. Instead of scripts Bodine says many retailers have found success developing and providing conversation guides that detail the important elements of a call. By having a flexible format, agents can better adjust to an individual consumer’s particular issue and frame of mind. “It’s a guide, not a mandate,” she says.  

It’s helpful to occasionally reinforce those key points, she says. For instance, Zappos.com, the shoes and clothing e-retailer now owned by Amazon.com Inc., No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, has agents meet about once a week for hour-long, one-on-one coaching sessions in which a supervisor and agent each take a call. The two then discuss what the agent did well and what could be improved the next time around. Freeing call center employees from sticking to a script helps the agent listen more actively, says Bodine. “When you’re sticking to a script you get bogged down in the mechanics of the job,” she says.

Another way to encourage agents to provide excellent service is for retailers to rethink the metrics used to measure agents’ success. Rather than focus on such measures as average handle time, which doesn’t account for whether an agent resolved an issue, retailers should find metrics that do measure success, she says.

For instance, Zappos.com used to employ quality assurance checklists to measure agents’ effectiveness. But about a year ago it dropped that process after agents noted that even though customers were satisfied, agents were getting penalized for not meeting criteria on the QA checklist, such as whether they had adopted a pleasant tone or added a degree of personal flair to the call. Now the retailer has agents listen to their own calls and score themselves on various aspects of the interaction.

“Assigning a numeric value to the quality of service provided was actually counterproductive to our culture,” says Jim Carrillo, Zappos customer loyalty team manager. “What happened was the QA form ended up creating a checklist mentality for our team members, and that didn’t help provide the Zappos experience we promise our customers.”

Since making the switch, the retailer’s NetPromoter scores, a measure of customer satisfaction, has remained steady and, at times, trended up slightly.

Scot Wingo, ChannelAdvisor CEO, and Colin Sebastian, Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst, will speak at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2011 in a session entitled “How does Amazon do it? An in-depth look at e-retailing's pacesetter."

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