by David E. Steele
The quality of a customer call center can mean the difference between shining success or a headache-filled failure. The ongoing delivery of high quality service means having a detailed strategy and executing an array of business activities that includes people, technology and processes. The end result will be consumers that are satisfied with the services provided- and improved profits.
Every customer interaction should be a positive experience for the customer and their inquiry should be resolved.
An energy company’s business approach to its customers should be based on honesty and integrity, supported by performance and maintained through relationships with its partners. It also helps to do business the “old fashioned way”-your word is your honor, you do what you say, you don’t overcommit, you admit your mistakes, you deliver the goods undamaged and on time, and you know and appreciate the fact that your clients are the people who write your paycheck.
The entrepreneur environment
It is through a partnership that companies develop the best long-term model, one which provides value to the end-user, the customer.
It helps to have a “bottom up” organization. The role of leadership is to support, encourage, enable and lead, not to send directives down through the chain of command. A day in an operations center should quickly allow prospective clients to see the culture at work-it should be difficult to tell who the bosses are because they should believe “everyone is an entrepreneur” and should approach their job with creativity, appropriate risk, empowerment and accountability. Bossing, rigid procedures and inflexible business processes are the antithesis of creating an environment of individual and team entrepreneurship.
Companies that are ahead of the curve make sure the quality of customer service is balanced against the appropriate cost of providing service; that’s the most important factor in developing the right model. Every customer interaction should be a positive experience for the customer and their inquiry should be resolved.
The customer service representative is there to ensure that customers receive the appropropriate quality of service while finding solutions to their questions and problems.
When resolving issues live with the customer, many of whom are upset and emotional, the customer service representatives should try to solve the problem according to the protocol that has been set. The process should involve asking questions to determine the validity of the issue. The CSR should offer all possible solutions or, depending on the company, provide customers with refunds, exchanges or other reasonable offers in what’s known as customer recovery strategy.
A good customer service representative will always follow up until the customer’s questions are fully answered and/or an issue is completely resolved.
CSRs constantly make changes or updates to a customer’s profile or account information. It helps to keep records of transactions and updates and maintain accurate databases of information.
CSRs should be aware of the amount of time they spend on the phone with each customer and make sure it is time well spent. Some companies are required to set time limits. Many call centers are open 24 hours or have extended hours in place.
Having strong interpersonal skills is also vital. When constantly working with the public, problem solving skills are a key to a company’s survival. Sharp interpersonal skills and being a good listener are tools the CSR uses all the time to be effective and successful with his or her customers. Because CSRs play a vital role in providing an interface between customer and company, employers in the utility industry search for people who can come across as both professional and friendly. This type of cultural approach also leads to long-term success with regard to retaining good employees.
Most customer service representatives are provided with detailed training prior to beginning work. Constant skills updating help to keep up with all of the changes in the industry. This is especially true in the utility industry-continuity is king.
How much influence does updated technology have over a utilty company? A tremendous amount. Updated technogy at the call center has made it possible to have a wider variety of customer service tools.
Some consumers prefer support websites and like being able to have live chats with technical staff. Other companies use databases to locate individual customer preferences-pattern of buying, payment methods, etc.,-and then set up product and service responses based on that data.
A growing trend with the larger companies is to outsource call center processes, such as call center monitoring, to an on-shore or off-shore service provider. This is helpful for multi-site call centers looking for efficiencies and cost reductions. Some smaller companies are moving toward “boxed” solutions.
Another significant development in Internet technology is the ability to send voice over a conventional Internet connection, (VoIP) bypassing the telephone network, reducing operating costs.
Internet “Push” technology gives users the ability to move data to someone browsing on the Internet. It is also easy to share certain applications such as chat sessions across an Internet connection. This gives both the caller and the customer service representative the ability to see the same information.
Gaining your CSRs’ confidence
When your staff is confident in what they know and supported by excellent leadership, they are more likely to go above and beyond to help the customer. They will improve your call center and service productivity, increase customer satisfaction and improve customer loyalty.
It is also vitally important to build customer loyalty and stress the importance of serving customer needs at every customer touch point opportunity. Creating a highly customer-focused culture, driven by specific and well-defined customer priorities and expectations, is the way to be successful long term. These priorities and expectations are aligned throughout the various practices in a strongly-organized, efficient call center organization.
Customer satisfaction research is also important. The criteria include evaluation of courtesy, knowledge, concern for the customer, usefulness of the information provided, convenience of operating hours, ease of reaching a representative, and timely resolution.
- A utility company should be driven by customer feedback. Have an independent firm conduct a thorough audit of influential clients.
- Focus your efforts on total customer satisfaction based on what customers feel is most important to delivering high quality service and maintaining the relationship over time.
- You can’t just work on the easy attributes to increase customer satisfaction. Instead, you have to work on those that are most in need of improvement in the eyes of your customers.
J.D. Power and Associates recently recognized IEI Financial Services for call center operation customer satisfaction excellence under the J.D. Power and Associates Certified Call Center Program. To become certified, the call center operation must successfully pass a detailed audit of its recruiting, training, employee incentives, management roles and responsibilities, and quality assurance capabilities. As part of its evaluation, J.D. Power and Associates conducted a random survey of customers who had recently contacted IEI Financial Services call centers. IEI Financial Services’ call center operations in Indianapolis, Ind., handle 825,000 telephone, e-mail and fax inquiries from customers per year.
David E. Steele, vice chairman, IEI Financial Services, is responsible for strategic direction and development of the organization’s customer relationship management portfolio in the utilities and energy services markets. As a former executive with a Midwestern utility, he held leadership assignments in every area of the customer relationship management chain, and most recently, served as an executive with the utility practice of an international business process outsourcing company.