The phone-service test: Call centres

Call-centre service continues to underwhelm, and busy clients are taking their business elsewhere. It doesn't have to be this way.

Ever call a company and find yourself lost in a labyrinth of phone trees? Or put on hold for extended periods at a time? Or transferred to what those in the customer-service biz call “voice-mail jail” — a seemingly unrelated voice-mail box? The horrors of poorly thought-through automated phone service can make the simplest of inquiries chew up valuable time. Even standard-issue treatment — soothing voices telling you your call is important, anemic Vivaldi or a recorded message outlining that company’s latest offers — can be enough to make a busy person hang up and take their business elsewhere.

Clearly, phone service is important. Those calls are often a company’s first contact with a customer. According to Jim Jubelirer, vice-president of Burke Inc., a U.S.-based customer satisfaction research and consulting firm, people who experience good service are two to three times more likely to return to that company than those who get the Vivaldi-and-voice-mail treatment. Yet horror stories abound. And levels of customer dissatisfaction show phone service continues to underwhelm.

Jubelirer says up to 30% of customers report somewhat or increased dissatisfaction with recent service. And research on phone service and customer satisfaction from Service Quality Measurement (SQM) Group, a Vernon, B.C.-based company that monitors call-centre performance, suggests those dissatisfied customers — up to 34% of all call-centre customers surveyed, according to Steve Hankinson, partner at SQM Group — have been dissatisfied for years. But is phone service really that bad? And if so, what can companies do about it?

To gauge the state of phone service in Canada, Canadian Business partnered with AnswerPlus, a Toronto-based contract call centre that provides service to large corporations such as RBC and Tridel Corp. We picked a sample industry — airlines — that relies on phone service for part of its business model. We then surveyed the service at 12 carriers across Canada, both regional and national, by calling each airline to book a flight on a specific weekend this August. (Flight routes varied depending on whether the carrier was regional or national.) The results are summarized in the table on the next page.

Evaluation criteria included wait time before getting to a live voice, how the caller was greeted and whether the rep was able to resolve the customer’s needs on one call. Clarity of voice and the rep’s ability to offer workarounds to problems, such as whether a carrier flew on the dates requested, were also taken into consideration, as was total time on hold, whether the rep tried to make a sale, and the endnote — whether the rep closed the call positively or abruptly.

The findings were mixed. Only three companies had live attendants answering their phones; all of these were smaller regional outfits. The remainder use auto attendants, with a minimum 14-second wait before getting a live voice. Over two-thirds of calls were put on hold at some point in the call, and hold time for all calls in the survey averaged one minute and 43 seconds. In other words, if you’re booking a ticket on the phone, factor in at least five to 10 minutes for the transaction. More worrisome, from the airline’s point of view: only two of the customer service reps surveyed actually tried to make a sale.

On the upside, once reps came to the phone, our reporters found them generally knowledgeable, mostly pleasant and able to resolve queries quickly. Only one company, Air Transat, told the caller that they’d have to call back or transfer to a different agency.

According to Dolly Konzelmann, president of the Toronto chapter of the International Customer Service Association, for every bad customer-service experience, the dissatisfied customer will tell between eight and 10 people. Factor the Internet, blogs and e-mail into that equation, she says, and you can ramp the number of people receiving that negative message potentially into the thousands.

So how can a company improve its service? “People would rather talk to a live person, but we’ve gotten used to automated systems,” says Jubelirer. “What’s most important is to match the service you offer to your business model.” Sectors like the airline industry handle enormous volumes of calls on tight margins; hiring agents to handle every call isn’t feasible. Airlines now actively discourage phone bookings. They offer discounts for booking online, fees for phone service — and rely heavily on automated response.

Given that, it’s important to get the automated response part right. When designing a phone tree, Jubelirer says, companies should make it easy for a customer to go directly to a live person: “Always offer the option of hitting zero at any time, right at the top.” He also points to companies like JetBlue, which as of 2002 began to use voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) systems to bounce overflow calls to low-cost agents working from home. “Overflow agents are paid on a per-call or per-hour basis,” he says. “It’s a cheap, efficient way to beef up live agent service over high-volume periods.” Another option: offer a designated call line for frequent flyers.

Jubelirer encourages companies to adopt strategies for feedback on their customer service. Calls should be screened for traditional quality metrics such as speed of answer, talk time, abandon rates and hold times. Jubelirer also suggests hiring a third-party organization to monitor calls for their “human” content — from whether the rep uses voice prompts to whether their voice trails off at the end of the call.

Hankinson of SQM Group further emphasizes the importance of screening customer rep calls for first-call resolution — resolving a customer’s needs on one call. SQM research shows a high correlation between getting the call resolved on the first try and customer satisfaction rates. Ways to do that include monitoring calls for first-call resolution; keying in a query in the voice tree asking customers if this is the first call they have made for their inquiry and capturing that data in a database; and surveying customers within one to three days of the call to find out if their query was resolved.

As Hankinson points out, not doing that actually drives up call-centre costs. If 33% of calls are not resolved on first inquiry, that’s 33% more calls a rep has to take. Not resolving an inquiry also increases the risk that customers may take their business elsewhere. Hankinson recommends companies provide financial incentives for reps to resolve queries on the first call.

Bradbury encourages companies concerned about their customer-service feedback data to contact industry associations such as the Canadian Call Management Association, which offers industry-standard training courses in the dos and don’ts of phone service. She also offers a few tips. For instance, she says, “The caller needs to feel the person they are speaking to is engaged and shows interest in getting them what they need. If that connection is made, customers don’t mind technical errors.” The ability to empathize, solve problems quickly and maintain a positive spin on what are often difficult points — like the fact most airlines don’t offer free food anymore — are other pluses. Reps should avoid dead air, which makes callers uncomfortable. Negative language and imperatives, such as telling customers they have no choice but to take a certain option, are no-nos.

Long hold times are an obvious problem and a challenge, but they can be managed properly if the person on hold is told how long they can expect to wait. And scrap the Vivaldi or soft jazz in favour of a voice recording that provides customers with useful information they would need to know in any case, such as (in an airline’s case) how to pack carry-on baggage in light of the recent security alert.

For more detailed insights on great practice from the winner of our survey, click here.

Airline Grade Auto-attendant/ live answer Hold time Comments Close
WestJet 9.5 Auto 4:50* Personable opener; quick responses; positive phrasing: “You are welcome to bring food on” Good
Calm Air 9.5 Auto 0:42 Pleasant opener; suggested options and workarounds to problems Good
Air North 9.5 Auto 2:00 Pleasant answer; offered workarounds Poor
First Air 9.0 Auto 0:46 Clear opener; quick responses; offered workarounds Good
Canadian North 9.0 Auto 5:50 Clear answer; located information quickly; asked for sale Good
Harmony Airways 8.5 Auto 1:46 Acknowledged first-time customer; quick responses; asked for sale Good
Provincial Airlines 7.0 Live answer 0:14 Clear answer; placed on hold to get information No close
Bearskin Airlines 6.5 Live answer n/a Clear answer; negative response to route question; unprofessional tone Good
Air Canada 6.0 Auto 3:28 Offered two route options; quick responses Poor
Wasaya Airways 6.0 Live answer n/a Very unclear; suggested other carriers as workarounds No close
Air Labrador 5.0 Auto n/a Clear answer; didn’t know whether they served meals No close
Air Transat / TravelPlus 4.0 Auto 1:03 Negative language; rerouted to agent No close

Customer service tips: The dos and the don’ts

1. Ensure customer service reps have quick, easy access to relevant info.

2. Give reps some decision-making abilities such as the option to waive phone-booking fees.

3. Aim to resolve a caller’s query on one call.

4. Put a positive spin on difficult issues such as whether services exist, and offer workarounds.

5. Monitor for consistency of content and whether the rep resolved the inquiry in one call.

6. Monitor feedback; if negative feedback persists, schedule training.

7. Avoid negative language and imperatives; offer options rather than shutting down callers.

8. Avoid dead air and try not to transfer customers to voice mail.

9. Long wait times are not desirable but can be managed with recordings estimating hold times at the beginning of the call.

10. Scrap anemic music in favour of a voice recording that provides useful, relevant information.

11. In phone trees, avoid long menus. Always include an option up top to go straight to a live agent.