While mail was the communication of yesterday and the internet still the medium of tomorow, the good old phone is still the medium for business communication. Internet and multimedia is used for all sorts of propaganda but we are still used to grab the phone for direct contact. But they have become factories where customers are annoying and need to get rid of as soon as possible. The magic is gone.

Every phone call is a direct contact for a business with a customer. Your customer. When you don’t have a shop or showroom where they walk into, it is the only way to talk with them. And once you have them on the line you can simply ask them how they are doing, if they need any help or are just looking around… It is a great way to not only help customers with problems. It’s also the perfect opportunity for every business to show your services and your goods. Perfect selling is not persuading people to buy a product they don’t want. It’s making sure that they get to see what you have, showing the things they might want, and if they aren’t sure about that, offering something, a demonstration or a price discount just for them, making sure that they would want it. Helping them shopping. Tell me what you need and I will see how I can fulfil those needs…. And because of bigger and more competitors you might think that business would prefer to provide a good service to their customers, but most of the time in callcenters you see exactly the opposite. Callcenter agents are trained to use a script, ask the same questions in the same order to be sure they don’t forget anything. But hey, when I call a business I don’t have your script. I don’t know what your questions are and I want to have a conversation about my problem or whatever I want. Many business have scripted the ‘business proposal’ at the end of their script. The agents have to tell you about some good deal they have for you. But every call I had with a business I had to say something like this at the end of the conversation: ‘no thank you… like I said no thank you…. No I don’t want your fuckin’ upsell thank you….’ And that is because every time because of the script they didn’t find out what my needs are. They didn’t get to know me, ending up in an offer that would be great for the company but completely not for me. And it is also not like on the market or in a real shop where you could negotiate about any proposal… “No I am not interested in your whole proposal, however I like ‘this part’. Can we make a deal about that?” If you own a business you know perfectly what I mean. It’s negotiating into something that’s good for both parties. You don’t even have to try that when talking to a callcenter agent. Either you take the offer you hear, or you have to say no three times before they stop telling about it. It’s like being in a shop and the owner only wants to show it’s masterpiece. Their main product, and the rest in the shop doesn’t matter. Buy this or get out…. And don’t even think about calling with two or three questions. Or when having a problem that involves more than one department. You end up in a loop that you will not be able to get out of….

Callcenters are booming business. No more offices to visit. Just a phone number. And the person you get on the phone might be everywhere on the planet. Many American companies closed their callcenters in the U.S. and opened new ones in India where they found millions of cheap English speaking workers. In Europe many callcenters went to Ireland. The result of that is that calls can indeed be handled cheaper, but someone in the Philippines has a very different view of the world than someone in the U.S.A. And therefore sales, upselling and cross-selling, are being scripted and dropping drastically because of the difference in reference, perspective of their world. What’s hot in Los Angeles might be not in Manila. And what’s hot in Manila might be long gone or never heard of in New York. Cutting down on costs isn’t everything. Cutting down on wages by taking that to India or Thailand might be the worst thing to do if that results in loosing understanding of your customers. When your product is good, people are willing to pay for that. Imagine having a cable tv company with customer service that’s a lot better than all the competitors. When people call your company with a problem they know it’s solved without any ongoing problems. I can asure you people are willing to pay a couple of dollars per month extra for that. Without any questions asked. Or your company sells car insurances. But your company is known for its fast and correct help when customers need it. I definitely would go for that, and pay for that. We know that service costs money. And not everyone wants to go for that, some people just want cheap, but just as much customers just want to be taken serious. We want to be taken serious if we pay for a product, any product. I don’t call a customer service to say how I like the product. I call when I have a problem that needs to be solved. When it doesn’t get solved I tell all my friends about my bad experience. But when I had this amazing experience, when my car insurance helped me out so perfectly, I tell my friends friends to go there next time they need to insurance a car, even if its more expensive. It’s worth the extra money….

Also most people go for the average price if they want something. Check it by yourself. You go into a store and you know you are not going to buy the cheapest camera, but also not the most expensive one. You go for a perfect one that is about the average. Then check how much companies already know this and put an over the top expensive camera at the end of the line. Some professional thing that no one would buy in their store, but it raises the average price. If your company has the lowest price for gas or electricity, mobile phone, internet or cable tv, then I can assure you that most people will hesitate buying your product. Everyone knows that if your price is below that of all the others, then you must get your profit some other way. Humans are capable of thinking so we get the feeling that there’s something that’s not told when your product is the cheapest. It might be a perfect thing to raise your price until you are below average. Discount-shoppers can go to your competitors. You want the ‘average’ people as your customer. That also means that your service has to be better than that of your competitors. Entertainer do this as well. It is fact that the magicians with a higher rate get more performances than their cheapest colleagues. So this is the part I don’t understand lately with all the commercials and advertising. Many companies state they are the cheapest in their field. When I am grocery shopping I look for the perfect balance in price and quality. Most of the time I don’t choose the cheapest product. When I buy something for the first time I simply don’t buy the cheapest, and I would be crazy if I buy the most expensive one…

For business contacts in call centres there’s a golden rule, called the 80/20: 80% of all calls are about 20% of the problems that could occur. So 4 out of 5 questions involve the same 20% of answers. This makes these questions very easy to transport to a callcenter somewhere else on the planet. You can train people very easy to answer these couple of questions. But what about the other questions? Where do these end up? These end up as an order, task or email to some sort of backoffice. It’s these questions, these calls, that could make the difference. Just imagine how nice it would be calling up a company, getting a callcenter agent on the line who notices that he or she can’t solve this problem, and hearing him say: “I will put you through to a colleague of mine who has more skills and will be able to solve this problem for you…” And then indeed you get a person on the line who knows how to solve your problem and does it straight away. Recalculating, making it right…. Having a human on the line who understands your problem. The backoffice not being a bunch of people who are not reachable but real human beings that you can talk with. A backoffice made of people who are capable of talking to their customers, who listen to what the problem is, and who assures you he or she will solve everything right away. Someone who listens to your situation and notices that the company has products or rules that could actually help you out to avoid further problems. In hard times it’s very often more smart to keep people attached to you by offering them a cheaper deal till better times arrive. A customer lost is hard to get back. Imagine having a callcenter in your city for those 20% of the questions. Redirected from India back to Europe or the U.S….

We say we love and need our customers, and yet we make them get lost in a maze of options the moment they call. “For a question about your bill press one…. For a technical problem press two……. For a change in your products press 8….” And then another menu, and another…. How cool would it be if you call a company and you get an actual human being on the line. And that person asks how he/she can help you. That person listens and decides where to connect you to. Just like a receptionist. But here’s the thing: this ‘receptionist’ also listens to the story. If the caller is frustrated the agent can simply listen and if necessary calm the caller down just enough to do the first rescuing and saving this customer. Also it seems to be a rule nowadays that your problem is not a problem for the company. You call because you are not satisfied with the product or service. That is why you call. That is why I call them. I don’t call just to say how satisfied I am as a customer. I am calling because I want something or have an issue that needs to be solved. And my problem never seems to be in the so called script of the agents. And then all of a sudden I myself seem to be the problem. I don’t fit in the script. So what I want or need can’t be done. And the script doesn’t give an alternative. Now it depends on the thinking of the agent on how to solve the problem. And remember that 1 in 5 calls is about 20% of the answers. The people calling with one of these questions are the ones that need more attention than the others. Or more precise, they need more thinking, more knowledge to get to a right solution. What they don’t need is to be locked away in some sort of digital order for some sort of backoffice in some sort of other country. You can make a difference with these calls. Seeing it as an opportunity to make them even better fans of your products. Things go wrong. People get wrong products, bills are wrong all the time. Everyone accepts that. No one minds if somewhere in your business something went wrong. But when it is a mistake and when it has to be corrected, people want the same service, the same smile as when they bought your product. And when they call and they talk with someone who can make things right, they are more than willing to listen when you show them the rest of your shop over the phone.

And what I don’t understand is why in callcenters you can’t just see what the company did with/for this customer. The moment you send out 50,000 bills you can be pretty sure that some of those will give you a call. In every callcenter I have been to the agents can look in the history of the customer. But nowhere could they see a history of the company towards this customer. A second history that simply states when bills were sent or a brochure about a new product was sent. When they got an email, or an sms, or if they are connected to the company via Twitter or Facebook…. As a troubleshooter for some large companies this was one of the things I talked about. And some created this kind of history button. With this you can anticipate on what the customer wants from your agent when he/she calls. And you can see the relation between this person and your business. No company had a sort of timeline filled with when the company did something and when the customer called. If you could create a timeline of every customer then it would become more easy to understand and predict future behaviore. If a certain action of your company gets a certain reaction from a certain group of people then you can predict what will happen the next time.

And nowadays every large company had a department that keeps track of what is said about the company on multimedia. If a person complains about them on Twitter, these people will try to get in contact with them and will work on damage control by listening and fixing the problem. But what these companies don’t do is checking who these customers are connected with, what their hobby’s are and how they are connected with other customers.

Many social psychologists like Malcolm Gladwell explained about the tipping point, and how certain people in the crowd are being seen as example. I call them the ambassadors. They know everything about your products and are enthusiastic with telling everyone how good your stuff is. And while there is a department that tries to find the customers who are not satisfied, there is NO company that has a department which searches for their best ambassadors. These are the people who you could concentrate on when you have a new product. These customers could do so much free publicity. There are customers who are so enthusiastic that they keep track of your goods on forums. Large companies for cable and computers have lots of fansites and independent forums where other users can talk about their experiences. Sometimes positive, but also the negative ones. The negative ones get the attention of your special department, while the ambassadors hear nothing from you. These are the ones that could walk in your store, ask a lot of questions, can be very annoying, but these are the ones who buy your stuff! Why not let them help you with your magic? In my opinion every large company should have two extra companies, one that does nothing else than connecting people with people. And one that focuses on your ambassadors. Most of the time the ambassadors are also the ones that the connection department keeps track of.

Why is this connection department so important? Well if you have a customer who is complaining and you notice that a lot of friends respond on Facebook that he or she can better switch to your competitor, then you know that you have some more people to focus your smiles on. When you are trying to get this one customer happy by solving their problem, then why not take that extra step by subtly letting his/her friends know the problem is solved? Why not simply ask their friends why they prefer your competitor? If they all tell you the same thing then it’s something that you better change in your company or product….. And when you follow the ambassadors, then you can help him with helping you. Send samples, unasked. Just keep in low contact. And connect that with Twitter, Facebook and other multimedia. ‘Jim has tested our latest product for you!’ Besides that, you could have a popup of the customer with personal information gathered from the internet, including a photo. Connecting with your customer. If they have a twitter account, you can place their tweets besides your product information.

The ambassadors are the ones that you should treasure. When you have a new product and plan to have a presentation, I think it could be very wise to invite your biggest fans as well. Offer them the opportunity to touch your product. Make photographs of them with your new stuff and with your president or some hot chick for eyecandy that just demands to be shared…

What I also find amazing is that in no company the agents can mention the ‘energy’ of the caller. Is the caller upset or angry? Is it a happy talker or very serious? If the caller always reacts angry then you know you don’t have to put her on a list for outbound calling. You can better spend your time on the people who seem to be reasonable every call. Maybe have a traffic light in the program, and after every call have the agent click on one of the lights. The average will be shown on the screen next time this person calls.

And what other things does this person mention? If this person can’t pay the bill now and wants an installment or deferral for it, then you could simply ask a bit more about that. Lost his job? A student? Does the bill always come at the wrong time of the month?

If a person called 5 times in a year, have an alarm going off somewhere and have a team check the reason. If all were complaints, you know you can better do some damage controll somewhere. And if this person is after refunds every time, and therefore costing you more than you earn, then why not write a letter about how you will probably never be able to satisfy him/her and therefore will end the contract? It is business, you win some and sometimes it’s much better to loose some.

Malcolm Gladwell explains in one of his book the rule of 150. This rule basically states that when a company gets more than approximately 150 employees, it gets almost impossible to know who they are and where they work. Your brain can’t remember all that information. This would mean that your callcenter department has a much better flow and energy when it stays below 150 workers in total. When it grows larger than that, most companies make the horrible mistake of setting a certain group of people apart. There might be agents with different skills, some who also handle emails, some who handle outbound calls… And what you see all the time is that one of these groups is set apart from the rest. Every social psychologist can state that it is a much, much better decision to divide all groups and make two teams in which everything can be done. You can better divide your customers. Make it a north and south or have each have different states or provinces. And this is where that ‘receptionist’ comes in pretty handy. Asking the address and then putting through to the right group that handles the area you as a customer life in. And then your problem stays with the same maximum 150 people. It would be such an improvement if you made teams in your company. Teams of callcenter agents for inbound and outbound, backoffice, billing, technique…. All in one team. Every time like a city on its own. Maybe once a week have all the backoffice people come together for an hour and discuss the challenges all teams have. Or even better, have an instant messaging system in your own intranet network. Your own ‘twitter’-like messaging service where every employee can place messages on about things that occur. When you notice something with 3 customers there’s a big chance something is happening with more customers. Place it on the board and have others have a look at it. Make use of the social media.

The magic has gone. Companies aren’t interested anymore in the other people of the family. A simple thing like sending a birthday card on the birthday of the kids. Sending an sms to all mobile phone numbers of your customers, wishing them a happy new year…. (There are several ways of making that legally possible). And the same with email. The thing is in callcenters the customers can’t walk into a store. So make the store come to them. Use the Multi media, use the networks everyone uses and combine your product info with that of your customer. That is where the future lies in the callcenter business. It doesn’t cost much, it just takes some creative thinking…. Getting ready for customer service 2.0!