One-to-None Relationships:
The Call Center Imbroglio

by N. Ramasubramani

You have a million customer profiles in your database classified on recency, frequency and monetary values. You have invaluable data on what they buy and what they don't, when they make their purchases and more. Your call center operators are well trained to answer your customers' frequently asked questions. Every time a customer calls your call center executive is able to quickly identify him and most importantly your Mean Hold Time-- the average amount of time that a customer dialing into your call enter has to wait - is less than a minute. And yet your customer retention rate is less than what it used to be in the good old days? And you are beginning to get an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that something, somewhere is just not right. What is the problem?

Faced with a situation of declining or stagnant loyalty despite all the technological wonders that we have created, we tend to blame the results on the favorite flogging horses-increased competition, demanding customers, changing cultural values and so on. They are safe, are almost universally true and are easily accepted. But perhaps there is an altogether different reason that is making customers desert your brand faster than any of these reasons. And that is lack of customer empathy.

Customer empathy is achieved - not by analyzing his purchase history and lifetime value- but by understanding his idiosyncrasies and more importantly, his interaction requirements. And that is where most of the CRM systems that we have set up in the recent past are sadly lacking. And the high attrition rate at call centers is accentuating the effect. The objective of this paper is to look at this interaction between the customer and a call center executive a little more closely, understand the implications, and arrive at some pointers on what could be done to remedy the situation.

What happens when a customer calls a help line today? An executive under an assumed alias attends the call. He or she probably knows the customer's purchase data but may not be tuned into the 'softer' aspects of his personality. And, unfortunately most customers can 'sense' that the person at the other end is not who he claims to be. Rightly or wrongly, the consumer performs the following equation in his mind: Alias = insincerity. That spells the first sign of trouble for customer loyalty.

Things will not be so bad, if the customer stops with just sensing that the call center executive is not who he claims to be. By a simple stroke of extrapolation (perhaps wrong), he starts thinking that the brand is cheating on him. After all, if you are not who you claim to be, can I trust you to be true to your claims? And therefore constructs the next equation in the series: Insincerity = Disloyalty.

Now, look again at how calls are attended at the call centers: ACDs distribute calls to whoever is free at the time of call, and therefore, the chances of a customer talking to the same executive again are minimal. Which means that I am not even dealing with the same alias. Every time I call you, I get to deal with a different person with a different alias! Overlay this with the fact that attrition rates at call centers are high and it is not difficult to see that the executives are not around long enough to 'soak in' the product or the customer requirements. What does this mean to the customer? While he does not mind one marketing person knowing complete details about him, he surely does not want a number of those whom he feels are 'floaters' having access to his buying behaviour. The relationship becomes asymmetrical - you know a lot about me, and I don't even know who you are - and customers, like nature love symmetry. Knowing that a whole lot of executives now know their intimate buying details, the customer completes the final equation in his mind: Multiple exposure = betrayal. And what happens? He probably never calls again, or starts distorting his information…and so loyalty and retention fall by the wayside, thrown out by the very same methods that were supposed to foster them.

Is there a way out? Or are we doomed to go back to serving a small bunch of customers, so that we can build in-depth and lasting relationships with them? There are no fail proof solutions yet, but intelligent marketers are already experimenting with some solutions. We are giving below some solutions that we believe will remedy the situation somewhat:

  1. Build intelligence into the systems: Capture the softer aspects of the customer-what does he like? What does he hate? Is he a social shopper or is he a loner? These could give vital clues on how to handle queries on the phone. If for example, you are dealing with a customer who likes to talk, a matter-of-fact one-line reply is likely to put him off. On the other hand you can imagine the effects of cracking a joke on a customer who is time starved. If these psychological profiles could be captured on the data base, it will help in making the experience a far more satisfying one.

  2. Build intelligence into the systems: No this is not an error. We meant it to be that way. If executive X attended a customer last time, can the system route the call to executive X automatically. Or, if the executive is busy, can it tell the customer that Steve (executive X) is busy, and offer him the choice of waiting online, speaking to another executive or asking Steve to call him at a number? This one measure alone will go a long way in building comfort in the minds of the customers. It will show that you, the marketer truly care for them.

  3. Align executives to customers: Yes, this is a tall one and very difficult to deliver. But if you are serious about customer loyalty - and we are sure you are, otherwise you would not have made all those investments in the first place and would not be reading this paper either - it is worthwhile looking at this seriously. Make sure that your executives are responsible for a group of customers and that they know these customers' requirements fairly well.

  4. Be honest: If you are Jiten Varma speaking to Charles Rainkot, just tell him who you are. Don't pretend that you are David Beckham. This is not to say that you should not speak in a particular accent or use the idioms of a region. Those are necessary to make the customer feel at ease and should be used. Just do not pretend. If you let the customer know that you are Jiten, then he will appreciate the fact that you have taken much effort to make life easier for him. And you would have sown the seed for customer loyalty, in a small, simple but effective way.

  5. Make sure your call center executives stay: Sure this goes into the area of employee retention, more than that of customer retention. But remember what Friedrich Reicheld says? Customer loyalty is always preceded by, and is the result of intense employee loyalty. So you would be well advised to make sure that the call center to which you outsource your work, has a good employee retention policy in place.

Ultimately, customer retention and loyalty will result when the customers are able to relate to the brand in a wholesome way. And that can only happen if all the components - in this case- the customer help line, helps them build that sense of comfort and loyalty. In the absence of this feeling of comfort and loyalty from the brand, customers will not demonstrate a sense of loyalty. And your relationships, far from being 'one-to-one' may end up with the customers writing them off as 'one too many.'


N. Ramasubramani (Ram) is a practicing loyalty manager from India. He works for Surfgold, which is a pan Asian Loyalty management company with world class IT clients such as Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Advanced Micro Devices, Seagate and many more. He has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, advertising, brand building, direct marketing and online brand building. Visit www.surfgold.com or telephone:91-11-26511042/91-11-26515227 Mobile:9810774676 .

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Copyright 2004 by N. Ramasubramani. All rights reserved.

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