A CNN.com headline once caught my hopeful attention: “Coming soon: Call centers that don’t suck.”
Wow, I thought to myself, what new innovation might spare me from ever again having the horrific experience I’m now having with Comcast?
My Internet had been intermittently down for more than three weeks due to an unusual wiring issue in my Foster City, California neighborhood, and my out-of-the-ordinary problem did not compute on Comcast’s customer service apparatus. I was shuffled between agents in Guadalajara, Livermore, Sacramento, Walnut Creek, Philadelphia, and Denver. The account notes on my problem were many pages long . . . and I yelled some of the meanest words I’ve ever uttered at even Comcast's most earnest helpers.
My call center frustration does not stem simply from a product or service breakdown. Most consumers, including me, understand that products sometimes break down. Nor is my issue with the ineffectual Comcast CRM software that fails to correctly communicate my issues between the different people (technical and customer service staff members) that are needed to solve my problem.
I expect such failures. If my problem is within the mean, I’ll probably find resolution in the notes on a web site. It is when my problem is unusual that I need to speak with an able generalist empowered to think beyond the script. If the notes don’t address my problem, CRM software in the hands of a narrowly-focused person almost certainly is not going to be any more helpful.
My problem is a people issue.
Comcast has not been able to put me in touch with a person who can take ownership of my problem and resolve it. Call centers cannot produce such people. I am now nearly irreconcilable. I am exhausted from having to retell my story over and over, and I’m increasingly impatient with the scripted responses. Every call is more frustrating than the previous one. I now hate the agents before my conversation with them starts . . . and they hate me.
So what is the amazing innovation that inspired the bold CNN headline? It seems that IBM now is offering a “better” software solution to address the perennial call center problem of matching a customer with the right agent. It is called Real-Time Analytics Matching Platform (RAMP), and it is expected to improve upon the channeling of customers who hit the right prompts to an agent who knows a customer’s product. The new software will channel the customer to an agent who “knows” both the product and the customer. An international business person who uses an iPhone, for example, will be channeled differently than the graduate student who uses the same model iPhone. Presumably these two people will get a better experience by connecting with agents who specialize in their very different issues or at least connecting to agents who read from more specialized scripts.
It is, of course, a ridiculous notion that such software will address the systemic issues with the call center experience. Call centersaren’t horrible because customers are channeled to the wrong agents or scripts. They are awful to deal with because the relationship between the caller and the agent is inherently perverse: It is brutally transactional in every sense.
This is true whether the parties are interacting across nearby counties, across different states, or across different continents. It is true whether they share an accent and the same cultural identity or if they find each other’s accents very foreign.
The issue is quite simply that there is no intrinsic satisfaction in helping each other, because there is no lasting relationship. At a really great company, the agent might care about the product and service, but the agent can’t care about the caller. That’s why the call must be recorded. The call might start out polite so long as the caller experiences timely resolution. But, except for a desire for quick resolution on an immediate problem, there is no social incentive to treat the agent well.
No software will solve this problem.
Call centers are not going away, of course. They will always play a role in handling large volumes of similar issues. But the model will always focus on software and increased specialization, the very things that make them frustrating when the problem does not match the algorithm.
At that point, you will always want to hit the eject button. You don’t want to speak with a specialist. You want to speak with a generalist, the kind of person who works at a professional services organization. A high percentage of the individuals who comprise the call center workforce – the same agents who in their current environment may seem like automatons – can thrive in a learning organization where they are allowed to take ownership of customer problems.
An increasing number of firms like Prialto are finding they can tap into the same workforce that call centers recruit from, but for far more meaningful work. The best of these firms deploy a managed service solution. Unlike Online marketplaces like Elance or oDesk that treat global talent as a commodity to be traded, these managed services firms are working to develop that same talent so that individual knowledge workers from around the world may take broad ownership over client issues.
There is great demand for these services among small businesses that need an affordable and flexible workforce to whom they can delegate duties that are critical but not core to their business. The most talented employees within the call centers – those who want to help you, but are not afforded the tools to do so – are leaving the high volume, low margin call center environment for the authentic relationships offered by these new professional service firms.
Deprived of such talent, the call centers will rely ever more on increasingly clever scripts and software to drive customers to solutions, and that’s exactly why they will continue to be an unsatisfying experience for both agent and caller.
My Comcast Internet is still ridiculously unreliable and it has become clear that none of the company’s call center agents will be able to coordinate a resolution.
I’ve finally taken extraordinary measures to get my issue in front of a person who has a social incentive to help. I’ve tracked down and gotten in touch with Comcast’s general counsel and several of the corporation's senior vice presidents, as I’ve learned that they are fellow alums from my university. These folks will make the same amount of money this year irrespective of whether my broken internet is fixed. My calls to them are not recorded and our email exchanges probably are not monitored.
However, they do have a social motivation to resolve my issue. They presumably care about their reputations among their academic cohorts.
I’ve also chased down Comcast trucks in my neighborhood and gotten to know the repair guys who live in my area. Again, the ongoing relationship – the fact that we might run into each other at the grocery store – is a healthy incentive for us to work together in a reasonable way.
Many believe that the call center experience is bad because of either poor technology or the geographic distance between caller and agent. Neither assumption is correct. Technology can greatly enhance a service, but it will always remain underutilized or ineffective without people thoughtfully driving it. People -- regardless of their locale and relative physical distance -- can work well with each other so long as they have ongoing relationships and appropriate social contexts and motivations.
I’m not holding my breath for the day outlier issues like my current wiring problem will be better handled by Comcast’s call centers. They never will, even when buttressed by the newest and fanciest RAMP-like software. Issues requiring dynamic follow through are best handled by inspired knowledge workers in a learning organization who have the ability to form a lasting, cooperative relationship with the people they are charged with helping.
There are tremendous numbers of talented individuals around the world ready to join such organizations. And since they are increasingly loathe to work in high-volume call centers, I’m holding on to my Comcast corporate contacts and focusing more on politely forming relationships with the repair men I meet in my neighborhood.