12 min read

Call centers have a dark history. From being labeled “Electronic Sweatshops” to being compared to sophisticated prisons, call centers have suffered from stigma for decades – and some may argue, rightly so.

Development of technology through the 1960s and 70s meant call centers were transformed into places where managers could see, hear, and control every aspect of their staff’s work. Calls were recorded, handle times were reduced, bathroom breaks were timed. Literature from early monitoring systems describes “Total control made easy” as the goal for centers which were, quite literally, brutally efficient – often at the expense of their customers, not to mention their employees.

Around the end of the 80s, Jan Carlzon, then-CEO of Scandinavia Airlines published his book, Moments of Truth. It’s an account of how the airline changed its customer service model by paying close attention to the times their customers had contact with them, with the recognition that the thoughts and feelings of the customer in that ‘moment of truth’ can influence their buying behavior throughout their entire lifecycle with that company.

Moments of Truth was revolutionary as it promoted optimizing the quality of customer interactions, not their quantity, and accelerated the shift which placed quality customer service at the center of business operations – not as an inconvenient resource drain at the periphery of ‘real business’.

Thankfully, we’re now in a brave new world where the customer’s experience is regarded as a critical competitive differentiator for companies who have already maximized the quality, speed, and price of their product as much as they can. What’s more, companies are realizing that to stand out from the pack, improving employee experience and building a culture everyone wants to be a part of helps them to run businesses that are not just profitable and sustainable but ethical too.

But there are a lot of people – from call center managers, all the way up to the CEO – who are still operating working practices from the dark days of call center management, without recognizing the harm that these practices cause to modern day employees, customers, and even their own businesses. Read on to see if you recognize any of these.

If a customer screams in the woods and nobody hears them, did they ever make a sound?

It might sound like a no-brainer that when a customer has an issue with your product or service, you need to fix it for them – to keep their custom and to maintain your reputation.

But many 80s business practices took a myopic view of customer contact, treating it as a cost sink and a burden. Even today, some businesses seem to deliberately avoid contact with their customers, leaving their customers screaming for help with no way for them to be heard.

Larger companies especially are guilty of burying their contact number deep within their website, forcing customers to navigate through a myriad of FAQs and knowledge base articles before they can finally get to a phone number – if they can find it at all.

Lauren Freedman, e-commerce expert and president of market research firm the E-tailing Group, is outspoken in her criticism of this practice. “You should not have to kill yourself to find the number, it should be right there on the home page. It’s an opportunity for a company to say, ‘We believe in service.’”

Consider also that statistics from the White House Office of Consumer Affairs show that for every customer who complains, 26 will stay silent. So on top of this already worrying statistic, companies who try to deflect customer contact are robbing themselves of a goldmine of feedback from their customers. This feedback gives companies opportunity to improve their service and build trust with their customers, instead of damaging relationships with them and eventually driving them away.

You wouldn’t ignore your house if it was on fire. So if your customers are shouting for help – ignoring them isn’t going to solve the problem.

 

Where Targets and Ethics Collide

After escaping the depths of the recession of 1982, the USA bounced back and straight into the arms of consumerism. People wanted to spend money, and companies wanted to give them the products they needed. Sales became a big deal, and call centers sprang up to meet the demand.

Although salespeople have made economies thrive since the beginning of time, problems start occurring when sales targets become a company’s sole concern, pressuring their staff to sell things to people who don’t need them – or even worse, where selling to them could be actively harmful to their health and wellbeing.

A recent report from CBC demonstrated this all too well. It highlighted the pressures on Canadian contact center staff to sell at any cost – putting uninformed, vulnerable customers into debt, and forcing customers who don’t want to buy to repetitively say ‘no’ to reps who are scripted to challenge them several times.

A response from one of the banks in the report states that these employees are encouraged to act in a responsible way and that where concerns arise, an ethics hotline is available for any employees with concerns. Another bank stated that they take seriously “any suggestion of behavior not aligned with our values.”

And many companies, like this bank, tend to think that establishing a clear statement of values is enough in demonstrating what value-driven work looks like. But even one of the most unethical companies in the world, Enron, had a core values statement which sounds remarkably similar to that of many companies today:

  • Communication – We have an obligation to communicate.
  • Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated.
  • Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.
  • Excellence – We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do.

Corporate values didn’t work for Enron – and they’re still not working today. It’s just not enough for companies to develop values statements or codes of conduct, stick them up on posters around the office and assume that’s all the work that needs to be done. Corporate values and ethical thinking need to be worked into actual business processes and truly lived by everyone within an organization.

I once worked with a company who had this down to a T. The CEO and heads of departments talked about values alongside everything they did and it set the standard for making ethical work a part of every decision that was made.

What’s more, in every annual review cycle, staff were set goals not just in terms of the work they performed, but also measured in how much they embodied the behavioral traits that each value encompassed.

It’s not easy to pin down specific behaviors as evidence of holding certain values, but because of this a lot of great discussions were had around what ethical working really looked and sounded like – causing corporate values to transform from abstract ideas of ‘good work’ to agreed, concrete working practices.

 

Hanging on the Telephone

In the same way that technology in the 1980s fueled the ability for call center managers to mercilessly monitor their staff, IVR technology was snapped up too by companies wanting to get rid of traditional switchboard operators and transition to an automated model.

We’ve all been marooned on a terrible IVR with seemingly no way to speak to an actual human. And, on the whole, it’s safe to say that confusing options and having to press a bunch of buttons tends to make customers more angry than enamored with your company.

As a Brit, I dread any time I need to call the tax office, as I’m sure they break the record for highest number of complex layers of IVRs to get through. At my last count, they had eight. (I’d be interested, if slightly horrified, to hear of any more record-breaking IVR experiences you might have!) But layers upon layers of IVRs aren’t exactly unusual – in fact, one in five companies report having 5 or more layers in their IVR.

Speech recognition software built into IVRs can make matters even worse, leaving some customers (especially those with regional accents) wondering if the wildly off-the-mark responses they receive from them are a big joke that’s being played on them by a prank call show.

And those designing IVRs can be spectacularly insensitive to the needs of callers. I know of one company who designed an IVR with a few different options for callers with queries about their pension. One of the menu options was “Press three if you’d like to report someone who has died.” Several grieving relatives commented how cold and final it felt to navigate through an automated system and press a button to report that their husband, wife, mother or father had passed away.

IVRs are just one example of where companies implement automation to improve the customer experience but end up missing the mark. And as the march of technology continues, more companies will surely fall foul of implementing systems that hinder, rather than help their customers.

Although some might say that chatbots are becoming a big deal, automated systems, from bots to IVRs, will never completely replace real, human contact. No matter how much automated systems are dressed up to look like humans, it’s still very clear to customers that the majority of them tend to only be there for one purpose – to save money, because actual human staff are just plain expensive.

Of course, it would be amazing if we all lived in a world where great staff were plentiful and cheap and we didn’t have to worry about balancing efficiency and quality. But it’s not impossible to implement automated systems which enhance the customer experience by assessing individual process efficiency and use automation as a considered solution. Technology should always be used as an appropriate spot-treatment to drive process improvement, rather than applied with a wide brush for the sake of cost savings.

So get rid of all of those layers in your IVRs. If you want to use bots, fine, but don’t use them to totally replace the human touch that some customers really need. Human contact should always be a choice for companies who care about the customer experience.

 

Safeguarding and Championing Call Center Professionals

If you asked your average person on the street whether they would like to work in a call center, chances are that they would say no. The stigma attached to call center work is well-documented and sadly, persists even today – even though the nature of much of this work has significantly changed since the dark days of the 70s and 80s when contact center work was at its most cut-throat.

Now, around 75% of businesses view service as a competitive differentiator and, as a result, have transformed their strategies from quantity- to quality-focused models of call center provision, with benefits not only for customers but for contact center agents too.

Job design for these agents has become increasingly complex and workers in these roles need to employ an increasing amount of professional skills – from technological fluency, to pressured decision-making, to emotional intelligence, the demands on contact center agents are only increasing.

And when I talk about professional skills, I do mean skills like those in the traditional professions. Consider that in technical support roles, contact center staff often need to have the same in-depth knowledge of a product or piece of software as the engineers and programmers working behind the scenes. The emotional labor demands on other contact center roles are akin to those experienced by nurses and social workers.

Looking at nursing, regulators all over the world work to ensure that nurses are protected from the negative personal impacts of emotional work. And engineers go through rigorous training and certification to ensure they’re equipped with the skills they need to do their job well. But all too often in the contact center, staff aren’t given the time or consideration they need to adequately handle demanding or difficult interactions, become fluent with the latest technology, or develop awareness of the industry outside of their company. Continuous Professional Development isn’t part of typical contact center terminology, but it absolutely should be if you want the best and brightest to continue to support and develop your business for years to come.

It’s vital that in the face of changing contact center skillsets, managers are deeply attuned to the shifting needs of their agents and recognize them as skilled professionals with the same needs as any other professional worker. Just as customer service has been placed at the epicenter of modern business strategy, contact center agent development and wellbeing deserve to be placed at the epicenter of business concerns.

Contact center professionals aren’t deserving of the same low status as fast food workers any more. The world has long since changed. And today, we have not just the imperative, but the obligation – to them and to our businesses – to start treating them as legitimate professionals.

 

New Challenges for Modern Times

Over the last 50 years, contact center thought leaders, strategists and managers have slowly shaped contact centers into better places for our customers, agents, and businesses. Sure, there’s still a way to go – but all of the evidence shows that we’re getting there.

Now, with technology offering us new transformative options in customer service, we’re in a place of great opportunity and new challenges.

It’s up to us whether we use technology to make contact center interactions easier, timelier and more efficient for our customers and our agents, or whether we return to the dark days of contact center provision and push new innovations primarily as a cost reduction opportunity for businesses.

It’s clear though that all the changes which occurred in the last few decades happened because businesses started truly listening to their stakeholders and thinking more deeply about the impact of their actions – looking beyond business outcomes to consider the role of the contact center in the lives of their customers, the wellbeing of their employees, and their impact on society.

This ethical consideration will be a vital management skill in years to come to help us all to provide customer service which comes from a place that aims to truly do good – rather than just aiming to do the right thing because it’s good for business.

And the more we can deeply and objectively assess the good or the harm we have the potential to cause, the more we can be sure we’ll be steering our contact centers away from their darker days to become places which truly benefit everyone involved with our businesses.

Photo by Martin Wessely on Unsplash