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Business, Featured - Written by on Sunday, January 27, 2008 22:55 - 13 Comments

Naumi Haque
Why call centers need Wikinomics

We were talking about call centers in the office last week and my colleague Alan made a very good observation: Why do call centers pay thousands of dollars to conduct consumer surveys, but ignore the feedback front-line call center employees get for free from irate customers?

Call center employees are probably the most underused resources in the enterprise. Most are college-educated individuals, but the collective brain power of this group is never used to its full potential. Not even close. Call center employees are rarely given the tools or autonomy needed to improve decision-making and customer service at the front-lines (basic CRM systems are not enough). Consider some of the possibilities: Wiki scripts, access to all cross-selling and up-selling channels, outlets to capture customer feedback, incentives that stress talk time and relationship-building over dials and traditional call resolution metrics, mentoring and collaborative call resolution, access to information that allows call center employees to build custom dashboards and reports, and mechanisms to impact product design based on customer feedback. Call centers really are the low-hanging fruit of Wikinomics.

Naumi’s Rant:

To highlight some of the possible opportunities, I’ll refer to my recent interaction with ‘Media Company X’, a provider of TV programming, Internet, and phone services. A couple of months ago I called them to try and add four sports channels to my cable package so I could get all of the NBA basketball games, including West-coast games. It seemed relatively simple, they’d unlock a few channels for me; I’d pay them a few bucks more per month. Oh, how silly I was. The Media Company X call center employee informed me that I could not simply add four channels; I had to get the entire sports bundle for $30 per month – but “it’s worth it,” the call center employee told me because I get all the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NASCAR channels in addition to the NBA games. I hate bundles. Plus I don’t watch football, baseball, hockey, or car racing on a never-ending elliptical track. I just wanted to be able to watch Steve Nash and the Suns. So much for mass customization; I declined the bundle.

Last week I got a call from an enthusiastic Media Company X call center employee selling me on a home phone plan. You’ll save hundreds of dollars she tells me, and all it will cost you is $15 a month! Backwards logic aside, I really have no need for a home phone. That’s so 1999. My wife and I both have cell phones, and can’t imagine how I would get value out of having another phone number limited to reaching me at a single location. However, I did want to spend money with Media Company X, as I told the girl. I’d even spend close to $15 a month. All I wanted was some basketball channels for my cable package (and maybe some other specialty channels; National Geographic channel perhaps, monkey’s are funny, right?). Turns out I was talking to the wrong person. Even though she was a Media Company X employee, she wasn’t calling from the TV division and wasn’t able to solve my problem.

So what did we learn from all this? First, customer choice is important. It’s vital that call center employees have the ability to sell the full gamut of offerings that are available to the customer, and unbundling services will further allow call center employees to give customers what they want. Second, scripts are bad. The service agent that called to sell me a home phone was clearly more interested in reading through the script than trying to learn what I wanted or how I use the services. Third, there needs to be some mechanism for capturing relationship data. Over the course of two conversations with Media Company X, I willingly spent 5-10 minutes of my time telling the company how they could better serve me, the customer. My guess is that little-to-none of that was captured in any meaningful way to help improve future offerings.


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Tony Baggio
Jan 28, 2008 13:08

I fully agree with your observation on how companies are not leveraging the information that front-line agents learn from speaking with customers. As the practice leader for Support Solutions at Socialtext, an enterprise wiki company, we have found that wiki’s are a great tool within the call center for many purposes.

Some of our customers use our wiki to capture the “voice of the customer” from front line agents and provide this feedback to product management. Others use the tool to capture new incidents and enable agents and others to collaborate to define resolutions quickly and efficiently to solve problems not yet known or resident in back-end knowledge bases. This assists greatly in reducing call handling times and increases the capacity of the call center since incidents are readily available for the agents to view and provide for their customers. This is a form of Knowledge Centered Support, capturing knowledge JIT.

We have also seen support groups embracing the concept of opening up the wiki to external customers to leverage the collective wisdom of their end users to contribute knowledge and help solve problems for the community.

Unfortunately, service and support groups tend to not be very open and guard their knowledge closely. This mind set needs to change as consumers today are more open and willing to be part of the solution!

Jan 28, 2008 16:55

Unfortunately “A la carte” programming is not quite as easy as it might seem. I’ve worked in the TV industry for many years so know from experience. The bottom line is we’d all want the premium channels and the others would go to rack and ruin… then the prices of the premium channels would escalate as they try to compensate from the loss of revenue from those 995 channels out of 1000 that you never watch.

Hagai Fleiman
Jan 29, 2008 12:03

I agree – its very surprising to see that few companies are giving front line call centre employees more authority and more tools to collaborate effectively. I also had a recent incident with a very large media company who couldn’t coordinate the installation of internet and cable at the same time even though this company is providing both services.

Having previously worked as a call centre data analyst for a company that has not yet adopted the wiki toolset and where front line call centre employees had to wait for formal reports to diagnose an issue instead of simply working together and sharing new knowledge effectively, I could see first hand the potential time savings and increased customer satisfaction that such collaboration would provide.

Jenn Durley
Jan 29, 2008 15:29

Responding to comment by j27srl:

I see your point…but I’m still not going to watch those other channels, even if I am forced to buy them.

This is an extremely interesting article and I strongly agree that customer service agents are a vastly untapped resource in most companies. I do think customer surveys are still important, since they hopefully capture feedback from both satisfied and unsatisfied customers.

Creating a wiki tool that CSR’s will use to capture ad hoc feedback from customers presents a challenge, since my experience is that selling agents in particular are very resistant to activities they see as “time sucks”. Anything that reduces their time available to sell, and therefore commissions, is unwelcomed. Something like the incident resolution wiki tool that Tony mentions would be a boon to many call centers, I’m sure!

Naumi Haque
Jan 30, 2008 18:36

Thanks Tony for the insights from Socialtext! It’s great to hear that at least some forward-thinking companies are starting to use wikis in call center environments.

J27srl, I agree this is difficult for the TV industry, but the fact is consumers are driving this change. By downloading only what they want online (via torrents and other services), consumers are bypassing the cable networks and getting very customizable experiences (see David Cameron’s post “Online piracy’s value is not that it’s free, but it’s flexible” http://www.wikinomics.com/blog/index.php/2007/12/18/online-piracys-value-is-not-that-it-is-free/). It’s an on-demand world. I guess where they’ve got me is with sports, because that is one of the few content pieces where downloading isn’t really an option – you have to watch it live, in real-time.

Jenn, great point about incentives. For commissioned sales reps, you’re right; time is money. Creating incentives around collaboration is always difficult, (but not impossible). I’m thinking something along the lines of ratings and points for contributions, relationship-building, and team performance. You run into the problem facing communities like the SAP Developer Network, where contributors are incented towards quantity of responses over quality, but I think this can be mitigated. Or maybe the model is broken. Perhaps the traditional notion of sales commissions is inappropriate in a world where contact center employees move up into the realm of knowledge workers.

Mike Dover
Jan 31, 2008 11:09

Re: I guess where they’ve got me is with sports, because that is one of the few content pieces where downloading isn’t really an option – you have to watch it live, in real-time.

I wonder if there should be a word for the specific anxiety you feel when you have recorded a sports event and want to make it home to view it before you hear anything about the score.

Apr 23, 2008 9:42

I had read Wikinomics last year and really appreciated the insights
and forward thinking it presented. I noticed, however, the book
focused on Web 2.0 experience along with how the power of
collaboration works in other industries, but being in the customer
service sector (namely Call Centres), I’m interested in your thoughts as to how Wikinomics will play out in this sector.

I have been in the Call Centre industry for the past 12 years and I
believe major changes are coming based on similar theories you have
outlined in Wikinomics. I’ve had a variety of analytical to Director
roles, specializing in how Call Centres are planned (based on customer
calling patterns, marketing plans, etc.), scheduling agents, and
managing to an expect service leve( eg. 80% of calls answered within
20 seconds.)

In having many conversation with others in the retail and Call Centre
industy, I would appreciate your thoughts…

shell smith
Jun 3, 2008 13:26

I have been waiting for someone to put all this together in a coherent article, because I have thought these things many times in a non-coherent way. Especially the fact that scripts are bad! Call centers could actually be a useful resource if they treated each call unique based on how the “vibe” of the conversation is going. I think these intelligent people get so stuck to the script, that they forget how to be intelligent people. I actually think this is a problem that has been bleeding to the customer service industry as well. I came across book that talks about things like this. My favorite topic -getting back to the basics. We need to ditch the automated computer system, and hire people that are perceptive into their customers needs.

Jun 16, 2008 14:59

I’ve seen a similar situation:

Big enterprise companies will hire new people (at low wage) and put them into the “lowest rank” position in the business. It used to be the mail room, but these days inevitably that “low ranked” position is the helpdesk or the customer service center. Employees work hard to get OUT of customer service and into a real job at a “higher ranked” position in the business.

The result is that the entire public impression of the business is based on the most junior employees who don’t enjoy the work they are doing and are getting low wages. Thus, management give these people strict scripts to work from and fire them at the drop of a hat, resulting in low morale and absolutely no incentive to attempt any real problem-solving.

It makes you wonder why the employees most critical to customer loyalty are also the worst treated, least experienced and least respected people in the business?

Naumi Haque
Jun 16, 2008 16:24

Good point Tel. I wonder what the world would look like if we started valuing relationship skills and customer service people were actually treated as vital assets to business success. I envision a much happier place where you actually want to engage with call centers; where feedback from frontline employees makes its way up the chain of command, as opposed to the other way around; and where the people you have access to in a business actually have the ability to serve you as opposed to simply offer you canned solutions. It’s kind of like the experience you get when you walk into a mom-and-pop shop.

Jun 17, 2008 9:51

Which is kind of why (whenever possible) I do walk into a mom-and-pop shop.

From a customer’s perspective, the big business option will usually win on price by a small margin, but once you factor in the headaches and the generally useless service, then the small business always wins. Probably there’s some exceptions to that rule, for banking I go with someone big (hoping to get safety, not service).

When you stumble into a mom-and-pop shop that can’t cut it (and it happens all the time), don’t panic, just go to the one next door, easy.

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Wikinomics in call centers part II
Jul 20, 2008 22:38

[...] 20th, 2008, 10:38pm In my previous post, “Why Call Centers Need Wikinomics,” I argued that call centers—the most underutilized resources in the enterprise—are the low [...]

Vcare Call Centers India (p) Ltd.
Nov 6, 2008 6:06

Hi Naumi Haque you have raised a very good point that is about the ignorance of feedback front-line call center employees get for free from irate customers. I guess if in call centers will start looking on this point then lot of query will get resolved and then customer satisfaction will increase.

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