The difference between good and great customer service

Great customer service doesn't happen overnight. It requires purposeful leadership, compelling brand values and a culture of customer connectedness throughout the organisation.

A quick look at some of last year's Contact Centre of the Year and Customer Service Institute of Australia award recipients confirms that customer service success is not an accident. Many of the winners share attitudes to strategy, technology and have adopted similar customer service practices. For any customer service focused organisation trying to cement its place in the market, a good place to start is by understanding the defining characteristics of Australia's top performing contact centres.

The way organisations do business with consumers has changed forever, thanks to the consumer power economy. Gone are the days when consumers could be captured, segmented, branded and tagged.  In case you've somehow missed the signs, we've embarked upon a new economy, where consumers have equal or more power in their relationship with product or services suppliers.  It is the consumer or aggregated consumers – not business – who dictate the terms and conditions of the purchase price, the experience and the overall relationship. 

Social media, online and mobile applications, and transparency of relationships are the facilitators of this new economy. They are the tools that have given consumers a taste for options, mobility, agility and flexibility. They have enabled the consumer to tap into the reassurance of their peers before committing their dollar or when seeking help from an organisation. What's more, growing familiarity with technology has helped to make consumers aware of the value of their personal data, and have led to individuals demanding the right to manage and maintain their own profiles. This has made the last few years a bit of a shock for most organisations and for their contact centres, which remain at the front line for dealing with these newly empowered, far more demanding consumers.  
 
Yet, while some contact centres are struggling to adapt to the new business environment, others – such as CommInsure, National Australia Bank, Telstra, American Express and HP Enterprise Services -- have leaped at the opportunity to redefine and reinvigorate their consumer relationships. These are just some the organisations that have shifted up a gear to make the most of every opportunity, and whose commitment to outstanding customer experience has been publicly recognised and awarded during the last 12 months. 
 
The foundation stone: strategy

When you take a look at the workings of Australia's most successful contact centres, one factor stands out. The contact centre doesn't exist in isolation and therefore, the contact centre strategy is invariably part of an enterprise customer service strategy.  

You can't run a contact centre without people 

Most contact centres agree that the way human resources is managed is crucial to the quality of customer experience. When contact centre HR is seen as part of the customer service strategy, it has the ability to influence and improve an organisation's performance in the key areas of customer satisfaction, productivity, employee engagement and revenue generation. 

But it's not enough simply to attract the right people or to maintain appropriate staffing levels. To retain staff, great contact centres lead in the adoption of flexible work arrangements. Most operate on the assumption that flexibility and salary are more important to staff than career planning, training or social activities. It's an approach that appears to be delivering dividends for the business. 
 
That's not to say training isn't important. To enhance the customer experience, leading contact centres invest in the region of 10 to 15 days of agent training per annum. They also maintain an ongoing program of quality monitoring. 
 
When it comes to workforce planning, common practices include forecasting at a 15 to 30 minute interval level, the use of actual rather than target shrinkage figures to calculate staffing requirements, and high levels of interdepartmental communication and planning. 

Build in options 

One effect of changing consumer habits has been a dramatic expansion in the number of communication channels used to engage contact centres.  People still want the ability to engage with their suppliers face-to-face, by voice or correspondence, but now they also expect to be able to interact online, using mobile apps or more recently, with video.  
 
Each of these channels may entail numerous options. If the consumer decides on a face-to-face visit, it could mean a trip to a store or a kiosk.  Voice contact can range from a telephone call with a live attendant, to dealing with an interactive voice response system or simply leaving a message.  Online options include web self-service, web chat, instant messaging, remote assist or co-browsing, and the list goes on.
 
It's hard to implement and manage them all, so which ones should you invest in and which ones aren't essential? The best contact centres usually offer at least five channels, if not more. The most frequently offered ones include: social networks, remote assist, online forums, web chat, click to call, and mobile device apps.
 
Know the business, now and into the future

Great customer service organisations are more likely have a strong analytics strategy in place. They use software to assist Finance and Employee Engagement management. They plan for future requirements and are willing to invest in technology to help them get to where they want to be.  
 
The “must have” traits

Over and above the business processes and practices, there are a few common organisational traits that seem to be deeply embedded in the psyche of award-winning contact centres. All display purposeful leadership, engaged employees, compelling brand values and a culture of customer connectedness throughout the organisation.  
 
The contact centre industry is in a state of transition. All players will take time to adapt to the new tools, rules and channels for consumer engagement. As you identify what's best for your organisation, look for inspiration to the contact centre leaders.  Read as much as you can, and talk to your peers about what works – and doesn't work – for them. Then plan and budget.  Above all, never lose sight of the business fundamentals that align your management, employees, products and customers.

Dr Catriona Wallace is the CEO and founder of Fifth Quadrant

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