By Len Tanner
In recent years, utility commissions have taken a much more aggressive role in demanding minimum service levels for the customer, resulting in increased regulatory and economic risk for the utility. In this environment of Public Utility Commission (PUC) activism, many utility executives have decided to hire outsourcing providers with strict service level agreements and a utility focus to help mitigate the increased risks. Others have decided to bite the bullet, pull their IT and customer care departments together and tackle the task of improving their in-house customer care center. With either direction, the utility is left with the same critical issues: how to manage an expensive call center, flawlessly integrate it into other utility operations, and, at the same time, increase customer service levels and overall competitive agility.
In my experience, there are a number of practices that polish the very best call centers and make the crucial difference in keeping customer satisfaction levels high and executives looking good. They are:
Customer Satisfaction Surveys: You might have the world’s greatest technology, the world’s best employees and a robust quality process, but if the customer doesn’t feel it, you have been wasting time and money. One way to measure satisfaction is via post-call customer satisfaction surveys performed through carefully scripted interactive voice response (IVR) programs. This immediate feedback gives the utility the opportunity to make real-time improvements before more customers are negatively impacted.
Benchmark Performance: A call center must measure its performance. In sports it is easy. You know how well a team or athlete is performing based on their win/loss record, batting average, turnovers, points per game, shooting percentage, etc. Customer service performance is much harder to determine because the playing fields are different; each utility serves a different region, there are different customer expectations, different size, budget, etc. Performing against a benchmark study can tell you a good deal about your performance.
Ongoing Quality Assurance: Does the customer care center integrate data from customer satisfaction surveys, call monitoring scores, service order accuracy scores, training assessments, etc.? World-class call centers have comprehensive reporting tools that allow them to report on many different aspects of quality at a low level of detail. The best customer care centers are able to reduce negative impacts to customers and utility field personnel by addressing errors proactively.
Competent Training Programs: In the best customer care centers, employees get comprehensive upfront and weekly refresher training. The training involves utility-specific policies and procedures, systems training, customer service skills training, team building training, conflict resolution training, etc. Having some of this training available on demand via the Web or CD-ROM means employees can take advantage of call volume valleys and put slow time to good use.
Customer Self-service: The need for customer self-service has increased to a point of necessity. At a minimum, a utility should offer a variety of IVR and Web-based customer care options so customers can use these services whenever they want, without human intervention. Both these self-service options should allow access to billing information, allow routine customer payments and allow the customer to change basic account information.
Process Automation: To the extent your CIS infrastructure allows, automation of business processes can decrease call handle time, reduce errors and increase both employee and customer satisfaction. The automation can be as easy as scripting instructions on particular screens, or as complex as complete step-by-step automated management of business process steps using multiple systems. Most CIS systems today support a minimum level of process automation, while the next generation of CIS systems will allow extensive automation.
You cannot make customers happy unless you understand their expectations and understand their perception of the service you deliver. These two things enable you to build a plan to specifically address gaps between the customer’s expectations and their perceptions of you. Whether deciding to manage a call center internally or outsource these operations, the bottom line is the same: Customer service standards must be continuously improved to ensure customer satisfaction. Having real-time quality and benchmarking processes, aggressive training, a technology infrastructure supporting process automation and customer self-service, and the means to listen to your customers in real-time are the most effective ways to ensure customer service success, while at the same time monitoring cost and ROI.
Len Tanner manages ORCOM’s Client Operations Team, which includes customer care, billing, collections, remittance, application support and corporate training departments. Tanner has more than 10 years experience in customer service, operations and consulting services. For more information about ORCOM, visit www.orcom.com.