May 31, 2011, 5:38 PM

People Power

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The system also allows Walking On A Cloud's agents to save items in the shopping cart for the customer to access later. Agents can also retrieve items that the shopper saved in her cart.

That's a far cry from the retailer's previous contact center technology, which didn't allow agents to look up a customer's order history. To find an old order the agent would have to cull through orders by date. Since switching from that rudimentary system, Walking On A Cloud's contact center conversion rates have doubled from 1% to 2%.

Agents matter

While technology can play a crucial role in improving consumers' satisfaction, a better contact center service experience ultimately depends on the agent who is interacting with 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 satisfy customers who call or e-mail, Bodine 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 contact center agents read from a script, can provide a boost to a retailer's customer satisfaction ratings. "When someone is talking to you using a script it doesn't engender any of the warm interpersonal exchanges that the call center is uniquely capable of providing," Bodine says.

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 malleable 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. "You're sharing the important things to remind you to talk about during a call."

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., 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. And, if agents want a better idea of exemplary service, they can refer to the retailer's "Wow Library" made up of laudable recorded calls.

Freeing contact centers 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 they're using to measure agents' success. Rather than focus on measures like 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 so-called quality assurance, or QA, checklists to measure agents' effectiveness. But about a year ago it dropped that process after agents noted that even though customers were satisfied, they 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 Net Promoter scores, a measure of customer satisfaction, have remained steady and, at times, trended up slightly.

Because contact center agents often represent an e-retailer's first and only opportunity for human interaction with a consumer, it only makes sense to arm agents with the tools and procedures they need to solve problems, says Bodine. If an agent fails to solve a caller's problem, the retailer may never get another chance.

zak@verticalwebmedia.com

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