Tag Archives: customer service articles

Is Your Customer Part of Your Benchmark Process?

By Dr. Jodie Monger

Eventually, each contact center manager gets the question from upper management, “How does that compare to other contact centers?” If you haven’t been asked yet, you can be sure that the question is coming. Prepare yourself and use the response to your advantage by highlighting your understanding of the industry and benchmarking.

As we gauge ourselves against others in the contact center industry, we do so in an effort to effect change to our service delivery. To create a competitive advantage, benchmarking became part of the way the contact center would set goals and operating targets. We want to be as good as or better than our competition. This is the fact that needs to be demonstrated when we are asked how we compare. But one important question must be asked here – are we comparing ourselves to the right group? If the answer is “No,” or if you don’t know, the benchmarking data you are using could be completely irrelevant. Most direct competitors are not willing to share their performance metrics and if they are, you should be somewhat wary. Therefore, we need to depend on benchmarking projects that provide scores for your specific industry.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that while there are several ways to benchmark the performance of your contact center, when all is said and done and the results are in, it is your clients that have the final say if you have best practices. The benchmarking process can be divided into two parts: practices and metrics. The tendency, especially in contact centers, is to concentrate on the metrics part and forget the practices part. It is easy for managers to work with the metrics and quantitative targets to identify quickly where the contact center stands against the competition. It is important to have comparable information so you can have the confidence to say we need to make some changes, because our performance is not where it needs to be. The problem with this approach is that you cannot identify why the gap exists just by analyzing the metrics.

This is why the practices part is such a useful aspect of the benchmarking process. It allows you to identify the methods behind the metrics in order to identify why the gaps may exist. Just looking at the metrics can mislead and defeat the purpose of why you are doing benchmarking in the first place.

Another way contact centers seem to defeat the purpose of benchmarking is by chasing the performance goals of only one or two perceived leaders in contact center performance. Contact centers that do this will always be putting out fires and constantly have a new initiative that is doomed to fail because what is right for one organization is not always right for another.

So let’s say you end up going about your benchmarking project the right way. You combine metrics and practices so the numbers have life and can be understood more completely. You compare your metrics to a relevant sample of other contact centers that have similar attributes, trying to get as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as possible. Based on these assumptions, the benchmark results should allow you to make well-educated business decisions on how to become a best in class contact center.

Whoa, stop right there. You are missing the most critical piece of the puzzle – your clients and their callers. The biggest question that results from a benchmarking report is how the metrics align with caller satisfaction. The efficiency data must be overlapped with the effectiveness data. Unfortunately, this is rarely an output from benchmarking projects and it is critical to the process to address this factor.

You know what your metrics are and now you know from benchmarking what metrics are identified as best practice for your industry. Validate your performance metrics with your clients and callers to determine if there are deficiencies. If there are no gains to be had by getting to the best-of-the-best metric, why announce that as a goal and expend the energy and resources?

Without the client and their caller to validate your metrics, your decision making process is flawed. Therefore, before you set out to make big changes in your contact center because of what the benchmark results told you, take some time and find out what your customers think and whether the desired changes would even improve their service experience with your company. Your response to upper management can be to either defend your metrics or defend your case to make changes if you have these caller data points. Caller opinions of service delivery are truly the key data points and these are not generally covered in benchmarking studies; other methodologies must be used.

Should you not benchmark operational metrics anymore? That is not what I am saying. You need to take everything into account when answering the comparability question and realize who has the final decision on world class service. It is your customer, not you or me, who makes that judgment – unless of course I am your client or caller.

Jodie Monger, Ph.D., is the president of Customer Relationship Metrics, LC. For more information, contact Jim Rembach at 877-550-0223, jim.rembach@metrics.net.

[From the Fall 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Going for the Gold: Excellence in Medical Call Centers

By Peter Dehnel, MD Medical Director

In the spirit of the upcoming 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, think about your vision for excellence in a medical call center. What would rate a “gold medal” level of quality and service to the center’s customers? How would those standards differ for quality and service delivered to parents and patients, subscribing clinics and medical facilities, or corporate sponsors?

Consider this picture of a “gold medal winning” medical call center that provides after-hours triage for a large group of pediatric providers practicing in a number of independent clinics. Parents with concerns or questions can call in at any hour of the day or night without having to navigate a confusing automated attendant, getting a busy signal, or being put on hold. They are connected in a timely manner with an experienced, well-trained nurse who is working in an environment designed to foster superior performance.

The nurse electronically accesses the appropriate guideline and care advice that is well founded, reviewed annually, and updated more frequently as needed. The information systems used by the nursing staff would be up-to-date, user-friendly, and work without interruptions. The information and care advice would be consistent among subscribing clinics and would appear seamless to the caller.

There would be a number of appointment times available to the call center nurse to schedule for the following day as needed. Finally, a record of each call encounter is automatically sent to the caller’s clinic by the following morning, where it is reviewed and follow-up actions are planned as appropriate. An electronic copy of this care encounter is maintained at the call center for quality review as well as future reference.

An important prerequisite to this “gold medal” level of service and quality is the call center’s leadership through a commitment to excellence. The call center manager structures ongoing training and feedback through a very “hands on” approach. The medical director of the center is engaged and knowledgeable. There are robust quality assurance and performance improvement programs supporting the work of the center. The governance of the center is composed of call center staff, subscribing clinics, a parent or community representative and a representative or two of the corporate sponsor. The corporate sponsor would recognize the value of the call center’s activity and would provide the necessary financial and administrative support to ensure excellent results.

While the above example illustrates one type of service, there are a wide variety of organizations that fit in the category of “medical call center.” They can range from a small center providing after hours triage for a handful of medical clinics, to one that is handling nurse advice calls on a national basis for a large health insurance company. In any case, there is still a gold medal level of service and quality possible for each organization. While the specifics may vary, the principles underlying that service and quality are going to be basically the same, whether the center handles 2,000 calls per year or 200,000 calls.

What about your call center? How does it compare with your vision for what “could be” in terms of quality and service? While the example of the pediatric call center above is slightly idealized, it is possible to attain this level of performance. The key is a commitment to excellence that must be shared at all levels of the organization and then promoting an environment where nurses can perform exceedingly well.

Beyond Telephones: While it takes determination and hard work to get to a high level of performance, it is even more of a challenge to maintain that “gold medal” level of service and quality over time. It is especially challenging to maintain it in an environment where technology is rapidly advancing. While most physician offices are still using a paper-based medical record, they use cell phones and pagers to extend their activity beyond their office walls. Many other industries have adopted new ways of conducting business that will provide a whole host of new options for medical providers. Many of these changes involve communications and the transfer of information from one source to another.

With the explosion happening in communications technology, most medical call centers will be performing a broader array of services in the near future. Instead of just being limited to standard telephone interactions, there is the potential for communications of all types to be funneled through call centers. The very term “call” center will transition into “communications” center, and nurses will likely be responding to both voice and electronic (such as email and text chat) communication.

The type of communication possible will get more sophisticated as more medical information becomes available in a digital or electronic format. One important future role for call centers will be to direct the flow of information on behalf of clinics. For example, if an on-call physician is asked to call a family, the pertinent information from the electronic medical record could be forwarded to the physician’s digital phone that has a text messaging capability. Or imagine if the call center could forward an electronic copy of an x-ray to a physician’s PDA that the ER had just obtained on a patient with chronic lung disease who has now developed respiratory distress. The communications technology exists today to do this, and it is only a matter of time before the medical information becomes available electronically.

Another important role of call centers in the future will be in assisting clinics with management of their patients with any sort of chronic disease or ongoing medical condition. Any number of conditions, ranging from asthma to diabetes to tobacco cessation to obesity, can be better managed through the assistance of a call (or communications) center. As there becomes a more public emphasis on the quality of care that patients with chronic conditions receive, there will be a renewed emphasis by medical providers on how to most effectively and efficiently manage them.

Going for the gold – are you up for the challenge? While it may not be easy, the assistance that you provide patients and families will make it all worth it. If you are at this highest level already, how are you going to stay there?  With the rapid advancement in new technologies, staying at the top will likely be even more challenging and more rewarding.

The Children’s Physician Network Triage Service has been in operation since January 1997, serving the Minneapolis – St. Paul metropolitan region of Minnesota. It currently provides coverage for over 250 pediatric providers in 20 independent pediatric clinics. It also provides nurse triage coverage for the two Children’s Hospitals’ Emergency Departments and subspecialty clinics in Hematology – Oncology, Endocrinology, and Infectious Disease. It currently handles over 60,000 triage calls per year, with a total of over 300,000 since beginning operations.

[From the Summer 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Communicating with Seniors

By Barry Spiegelman

Delivering and receiving critical information by telephone is an especially challenging proposition when an elderly caller is on the other end of the line. Whether the impediments are technological, physiological, or psychological, or a combination of all three, telephone communication with seniors requires an elevated level of skill, attention, and patience.

While the younger generation is busy applauding the convenience, mobility, and personalization new telephone technology brings, this same wonderment is often viewed quite differently by seniors. As a rule, older people are less at ease with technology (although it will be interesting to see what happens when the baby boomer generation – who propelled the computer and microchip generation – hits 65). To most seniors, the smaller, faster phones with their buttons and gizmos can present a daunting challenge. Encountering his son’s new voice mail system, a friend’s elderly father said depressingly, “It says ‘press one.’ I don’t have that kind of a phone!”

Keeping up with 21st Century phones, which seem to change daily, is just one of the communication challenges that face older people every day. Not only have the instruments themselves become more complex with added digits, layers of calling “services,” and multiple lines, but the perceived benefits of all of these “improvements” are negligible to many elderly persons whose telephone needs are very simple. While the abilities and deficits of elderly callers vary enormously, seniors can also find the telephone challenging because of physical or sociological factors. These could include:

  • Hearing loss, which may interfere with both speech and comprehension. By age 65, up to half the population may experience some hearing loss.
  • Diminished vision and mobility, which may create obstacles to dialing, following phone prompts, and writing or reading notes.
  • Strokes, accents, or even ill fitting dentures, which may complicate even the simplest verbal communications.
  • Memory loss, dementia, and age-related attention disorders, which may cause a caller to lose the thread of conversation, forget to ask important questions, become frustrated and angry, repeat themselves, or even fall asleep in the course of a call.
  • Loneliness and isolation, which may cause callers to engage in lengthy discussions. For those living alone, the telephone is their essential connection to community.
  • Social or cultural norms, which may lead the caller to avoid discussing problems directly.

Frustrating as they are to the older people themselves, these problems also create daily challenges to unprepared telephone operators or call center agents at the other end of the connection. That makes the capacity to learn and practice effective communication techniques one of the most important skills for all telephone service personnel.

Based on nearly two decades of experience answering more than 15 million calls, many from the elderly, The Beryl Companies has learned the four most essential ingredients to communicating with seniors over the phone:

  1. Anyone who talks to older people on the telephone must remember that patience is an essential tool. Patience means listening carefully, empathetically, not rushing the speaker or jumping to conclusions, and never finishing the caller’s sentences for them. It means reducing distractions and keeping track of what is said during the call. Patience also means not interrupting; the smallest interruption may prevent the caller from completing or returning to their original thought.
  2. Effective communication relies on careful, thoughtful speech. This involves not only taking more time, speaking slowly, and enunciating clearly, but also paying special attention to vocal quality. If an elderly caller is agitated, their voice may rise in pitch and volume. Unconsciously mirroring that tone or being drawn into the caller’s agitation can quickly turn a helpful call into a confrontation.
  3. Eliciting complete and accurate information from an older caller may require special probing skills. Questions may need to be asked, rephrased, and asked again, and the answers paraphrased and reconfirmed. Callers also need to be queried whether they have any lingering questions or concerns before the call is ended.
  4. While respect is an essential component of all telephone service, with older callers, additional measures of respect include using titles such as Dr., Mr., and Mrs., is particularly important. At the same time, be careful to avoid patronizing language or tone. It can be picked up quickly and not appreciated.

Call centers can do their part to aid in the communication process by providing their call center agents with special training specifically focused on speaking with seniors. Through increasing awareness of the nuances inherent in telephone communication with this audience, these agents (at Beryl we call them “call advisors”) can heighten their sensitivities, enhance their skills, and keep their own stress level down. Most important, they can be much better prepared to be of true service the next time the phone rings and an elderly person’s voice is on the other end.

At the same time, older callers can do their part to assure a more productive phone conversation as well. Much of it comes down to simply planning ahead. Here are six suggestions for call center agents to share with their elderly callers:

  1. If possible, make important calls in the morning, when sleepiness is less of a problem
  2. Write down questions before placing the call.
  3. Employ whatever aids are available such as eyeglasses, magnifying devices, hearing aids, and amplified telephone headsets.
  4. Reduce background noise and distractions; a TV or radio may interfere with both hearing and concentration.
  5. Take notes during the call and ask for copies of important instructions by fax or mail.
  6. Finally, if understanding or being understood is a problem, ask for help from a family member or caregiver.

Today’s impressive communication devices provide for instantaneous contact anywhere on the planet, but they don’t assure perfect understanding and don’t guarantee good communication. If an older person has difficulty communicating or following instructions, their lack of compliance is not intentional, nor does it indicate a lack of intelligence. If both parties to the call observe a few measures of planning, patience, and respect, the phone can be the conduit for a productive and satisfying exchange of information. Ultimately, isn’t that what everyone on both ends of the line is seeking?

Barry Spiegelman is co-founder and Chief Customer Officer of The Beryl Companies, which, since 1984, has provided a comprehensive range of outsourced call-center solutions to more than 500 businesses nationwide.

[From the Spring 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Strategies for Handling Irate Callers

By Nancy Friedman

If your job entails taking calls from unhappy, irate callers, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Many of us are vulnerable to outbursts from callers who are already going through an emotional, stressful time. Handling these calls takes time and training, but it can be accomplished effectively. Here are some service recovery techniques for turning unhappy callers into satisfied ones.

Understand the Source of the Anger: Realize that angry callers are not unhappy with you, just the situation. Don’t take a caller’s hostility personally. You are the lightning rod, not the target. You can do a great deal to diffuse a caller’s anger before you even pick up the phone. How? By smiling before you answer that call. A smile can really be “heard” over the phone. It’s difficult to be rude to someone who’s warm and friendly.

Use the ASAP Technique: Here is my ASAP technique for handling irate callers:

  • Acknowledge the person’s feelings and apologize for the inconvenience the caller has encountered. Make an effort to be sincere. In today’s impersonal society, it’s incredibly rare to hear the words “I’m sorry that happened. Let me get the ball rolling to fix it.” You’ll probably spend about 80 percent of your time massaging the caller’s feelings and 20 percent actually solving the problem.
  • Sympathize and empathize with the caller. Phrases like, “I can understand why you’re upset,” help soothe ruffled feathers. Pretend it is you calling. Then get busy solving the caller’s problem.
  • Accept 100 percent responsibility for the call. This is probably the toughest part. Chances are you had nothing to do with the problem. However, it is your job to accept responsibility and initiate a solution.
  • Prepare to help. Begin by reintroducing yourself. Callers don’t usually remember your name. State that you will be able to help. Use the caller’s name, if possible, which helps diffuse the anger. A willing attitude is essential because if the caller senses insincerity or indifference, he will stay angry. It’s exasperating to file a complaint with someone who obviously doesn’t care.

No Excuses: Never make an excuse to a complaining caller. No one wants to hear, “The computer is down,” or “I’m the only one here.” That is your problem, not the caller’s. When you give an excuse, the caller hears, “I’m not going to help you now.”

Escalating a Call: Sometimes you are not able to solve the problem on the spot. Many times you need more information from another department. Perhaps the call needs to be handled by another person. Although these are legitimate courses of action, they usually upset your caller again.

If you need more information, explain that to your caller. Ask him if he is able to hold while you obtain it, or if he would prefer a call back. Avoid untrue phrases like, “Hold on a sec.” Nothing takes a second. If you need to transfer a caller, let him know the name of the person to whom he or she will be speaking. Give a reason why you are bringing in a third party. “Joe, Mrs. Smith in our claims department is the real expert in resolving your type of problem. Let me transfer you directly to her.”

Swear Stopper Technique: Unfortunately, there are callers who are firmly convinced that abusive language is their only recourse. Try my “swear stopper” technique. Say to the caller in a firm, but pleasant voice, “Excuse me, I can help you with your problem, but I’m not able to handle your abusive language.”

By using this wording, you are taking control of the conversation. Then immediately start asking questions that will help solve the problem. This helps you stay in control of the conversation. Try using these techniques and see how quickly you start handling complaint calls more effectively. Then see how good you feel about yourself; you’ll be doing your job better than ever before!

Nancy Friedman is a keynote speaker at chamber and association conferences as well as corporate gatherings. Call 314-291-1012 for more information.

[From the Winter 2004 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

The Six Cardinal Rules of Customer Service

By Nancy Friedman

International Customer Service Week was October 6. That’s good, but we like to celebrate customer service all year long. Here are the Telephone Doctor’s “Six Cardinal Rules of Customer Service.” Any one of these tips will enhance your customer service reputation.

  1. People before paperwork: How many times have you stood and waited while someone tallied up a batch of figures or counted a pile of money? Then, only after they were done were you asked, “Now, how can I help you?” How many times have you waited while someone “fiddled” with something or wrote up a note, before he or she acknowledged you? Paper can wait. People should not. Paper won’t walk away, but the customer might. Drop what you’re doing and pay immediate attention to the customer.
  2. Don’t be too busy to be nice: In most interviews, managers and owners hear something like this from the applicant: “I love to be busy. If I’m not busy I get bored and unhappy.” Then we hire them and one of the first things we hear is the complaint, “Wow, I am so busy.” Well, being busy does not give you carte blanche to be rude. Let’s not be too busy to be nice. It’s not worth it.
  3. Rushing threatens customers: Whether it’s on the telephone or in person, avoid rushing people. Make each experience a great one. Remember, one word answers make you sound cold and unfriendly. Slow down. Stop rushing people. It threatens them.
  4. Don’t use military language on civilians: Simply put, company jargon should stay within your company. Mistakes and miscommunications thrive on company jargon. You’ll be far more familiar and comfortable with the terms and abbreviations than your customer will. Some companies seem to have words and abbreviations that would make the CIA green with envy. Use simple, easy to understand words with the customer. They’ll appreciate your thoughtfulness.
  5. Be friendly before you know who it is: Have you ever been a customer and been treated in a rather average, maybe even below average, manner? Later, when they realized you were a friend of the boss or someone other than an “average” customer, they brightened up? Why wait to be friendly? Why discriminate? If you’re friendly before you know who it is, you’ll make a good impression. When you’re friendly before you know who it is, you’re delivering the same great service to everyone. That’s the way it should be. Don’t discriminate.
  6. “There ya go,” is not “Thank you.” “Uh huh,” is not “You’re welcome.” Count for one day, how many times people forget to say, “Thank you,” and “You’re welcome,” to you. “There ya go,” just doesn’t hack it. When customers spend money, they want to hear a big smiling, “Thank you, we appreciate your business.” When we, as customers say, “Thank you,” we don’t want to be grunted at with the old, “Uh-huh.” Speak clearly. “You’re welcome,” is a wonderful phrase. Please use it more often, and don’t be a grunter. When your customer tells you, “Thank you,” give a great big smiling “You’re welcome,” right back at them.

Nancy Friedman is a keynote speaker at association conferences and corporate gatherings. She is also the author of four best selling books on Customer Service. Contact her at 314-291-1012 .

[From the Fall 2003 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

Seven Steps to Service Recovery

By Nancy Friedman, Telephone Doctor

Almost anyone who’s been in a customer service position has had to talk to an irate caller or been in an unpleasant situation. Even though it may not be our fault, we still need to know how to recover the situation. Here are seven steps to service recovery that will help make your day a better one!

  1. It is your responsibility: If you have answered the phone on behalf of the client, you have indeed accepted 100% responsibility. At least that’s what the caller believes. So get off the “it’s not my fault” syndrome and get on with the “what can I do for you?” position.
  2. “I’m sorry” does work: Every once in a while, I hear from a CSR who tells me they don’t feel they should say “I’m sorry” when it wasn’t their fault. Well, as stated above, in the caller’s mind, it is your fault. Saying you’re sorry won’t fix the problem, but it definitely does help to quickly defuse it. Try it; you’ll see.
  3. Empathize immediately: When someone is angry or frustrated, the one thing they need is someone who agrees with them, or at least makes them feel like they’re being understood. Be careful, though: “I know how you feel” is not a good thing to say unless you have been through exactly what they have experienced. Instead try, “That’s got to be so frustrating” or “What an unfortunate situation.”
  4. Immediate action is necessary: Don’t make a client wait for good service. Take their calls right away; return calls as soon as possible. Send out materials the same day, if possible. That’s recovery. Remember the Telephone Doctor’s motto: “It should never take two people to give good customer service.”
  5. Ask what would make them happy: In a few rare cases, the client can be very difficult. If you have tried what you considered “everything,” simply ask the client: “What can I do to make you happy, Mr. Jones?” In most cases, it may be something you’re able to do. You just may not have thought of it. So go ahead and ask them.
  6. Understand the true meaning of service recovery: Service recovery is not just fixing the problem. It’s making sure it won’t happen again. It’s listening to the client and taking the extra steps needed . It’s going above and beyond.
  7. Follow Up: After you feel the problem has been fixed, follow up. Once you’ve made the client happy, make an additional phone call a day or so later. Be sure to ask them: “Have we fixed everything for you?” “What else can we do for you?” Be sure they’re satisfied. When you hear “Thanks, you’ve done a great job; I appreciate it,” you’ll know you’ve achieved service recovery!

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor®, a training company specializing in customer service and telephone skills. She is a frequent keynote speaker at association conference and is the author of four best selling books. Call 314-291-1012 for more information.

[From the Summer 2003 issue of AnswerStat magazine]