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Call Centres And Customer Service

Having been on both sides of the fence as well as being in the back office where things are planned and implemented, I’m fairly well placed to talk about ways to improve Call Centres’ service to customers.

The work of Dr W Edwards Deming emphasises the concept of quality as being the real driving force behind excellent service, whether it’s in manufacturing or service provision. Too many organisations are driven by the idea of getting the most out of employees the quickest and for the cheapest price possible. Call centres (or contact centres or whatever other trendy names there are for such places) are an ideal example.

The majority of us will have had to deal with call centres at some point in our day to day affairs. Banks, credit card companies, local authorities, utilities, ISPs, and support lines are invariably users of the call centre concept. Now a sensibly planned, well implemented call centre which is manned by staff who aren’t slavishly bound to follow a script and who are allowed to use their brains and take ownership of issues seems to be a rare thing.

Let’s look at the actual process of dealing with a call centre.

Managing the customer’s expectation deserves a post on its own, so will get one in the coming weeks.  Here we’re looking at the point where the customer has decided to phone a company’s call centre.

One: Picking up the phone and dialling a number. The majority of call centres I’ve dealt with over the last couple of years have used 0844 or 0845 numbers. These are supposed to be charged at local rates. A number of companies use 0870 numbers, which are (or were until recently) charged at national call rates. Many people object to the use of 0870 numbers because they spend time on hold and paying to be on hold. Witness the popularity of the saynoto0870 website. Some enlightened companies use free phone numbers.

Point of annoyance: If the call centre uses an 0870 or non local charge number.

Two: the number dialled, the call is often answered by an answering system. This is where I have some professional experience, and have even been the voice answering the call! Planning out how calls should be answered and directed should follow one simple rule: KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid! Many companies do not and this further irritates the customer.

The simplest and best way for calls to be answered is a short greeting – “Hello, thank you for calling [company name].” followed by “ Please press 1 for [department name]” et cetera, ending with “Please press 0 or hold for the operator”. The menu options chosen may not apply to some callers. A caller might not be using a touch tone phone. I love antique phones and they are not touch tone. To route the call to an operator after a set time with no input is only polite. An answering system that goes “I’m sorry, we didn’t hear your choice” endlessly achieves nothing other than an annoyed customer.

Some companies use long greetings – “Welcome to [company name], part of the [company group]. Did you know you can access our website at double u double u double u dot company name dot com to access a full range of services?” before going to the available options.

Some companies bamboozle the customer with legalese announcements or data protection announcements – I’m talking about car insurance companies in particular here.

Keep It Simple Stupid means just that. Let the operative discuss those issues with the customer. By doing these things wrong, the customer isn’t being made to feel welcome and that they are receiving a quality service. They are just getting bored and irritated further. If they become confused by a War And Peace length greeting they will just press a button to try and speak to someone. Call goes to an operative in the wrong section, they have to put the caller on hold then forward them, thus making a confused customer even more irritated.

Some companies are large and so would need a few button presses to get to the right group of call handlers. That in itself isn’t a problem for one off calls. If a customer is often calling to chase up an issue (I speak from personal experience here) then surely it’s better for customer service if they are given a direct number to reach that group of call handlers.

Point of annoyance: Boring the customer with long menu options

Point of annoyance: Confusing the customer with long menu options and gobbledegook messages

Point of annoyance: Not giving the customer a direct number to reach call handlers in a complex menu set

Point of annoyance: Not having an operator option

Three: On hold.

Not all calls go through to an operative straight away, so in this case calls are put on hold and in a queue. How these calls are treated and affect a customer’s perception of a company. While working on a project I spent nearly 30% of my working life on hold. That’s a sore backside, a crocked elbow and a load of boredom I didn’t need.

Ideally a queue will tell you what position you are at in the queue and an estimated wait time. Ideally it should do this every 60 seconds and when you move up a position in the queue. It’s not difficult. What a queue system should not do is any or all of the following.

Points of annoyance:

Repeat irritating messages saying how important your call is every 20 seconds. Whoever called these messages “comfort” messages was obviously having a laugh at customers’ expense.

Repeat irritating messages saying how your call will be answered “As soon as possible” – “As soon as possible” means RIGHT NOW. The correct English usage is “As soon as an operative becomes available”.

Tell customers how they can log on to the company’s website to get the same service. Not everyone is happy dealing with some issues online; accept that and deal with it

Play irritating hold music. If I want to hear crap then I’ll tune into Radio 1 thank you very much.


I have a simple rule: I will not stay on hold for more than 10 minutes for anyone. Some companies offer a callback. Great idea in theory but in practice it doesn’t always work that well. One company I requested a callback no later than end of business that day (the call was at 0920) did not call me back for two days. Ideally if your company is getting a high volume of calls and hold times of more than ten minutes then you should offer a callback facility which guarantees a response within a set time.

Point of annoyance: Failing to call a customer back when offering a callback facility

So by this time the call may have yet to be answered and the customer, having encountered any, some or all of the points of annoyance, is not a happy customer. This makes the person taking the call critical to the whole process. Good service here may go a long way to reassuring the customer that they are appreciated and that they are receiving a quality service.

Four: The call is answered

This is where the whole process resolves the customer’s issue and fulfils their expectation or else it falls apart and leaves the customer very annoyed and looking for alternative providers of whatever service the company offers.

There are many things that go to make excellent service when talking over the phone. Line quality, voice quality, voice tone, not sticking drone like to a script and ensuring that all the customer’s needs are met to name but a few. Some or all of these aspects are where so many companies fail in dealing with customers.

Line quality is crucial to the conversation. If a customer has to repeat things three times each to an operative or the operative has to do the same for the customer then excellent service will never happen. The same is true with voice quality. Both of these are often failings of a number of outsourced call centres.

Voice tone should be easy to control. However, listen carefully and you can often tell when operatives are reading from a script. If I want to see puppets I’ve got Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds on video somewhere here, thank you very much. When you restrict staff to working from a script you turn them into puppets instead of flexible, intelligent people offering a flexible service.

Banks, large computer companies and internet service providers do this a lot. I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone to Internet Service Provider support people who insist on going through their script even though I’ve told them I’ve worked in IT for 10 years, done all the checks and tests they’re about to ask me to do and thing still aren’t working and that’s why I’m phoning them. Here the conversation should go “Hi Jamie, I see you’re having problems connecting. Have you done the checks and tests we recommend to our customers or would you like me to go through them with you?” Ideally it should say somewhere on my customer notes “he’s quite PC and net aware ‘cos he’s a support tech himself” so the operative can adjust the level of his call accordingly.

That was something I did when supporting colleagues. Often the PC knowledge level varied dramatically so it made sense to ask “have you done such and such or would you like me to go through that with you?” It’s not rocket science. So I’m not patronising knowledgeable colleagues with “Click start, click settings, click control panel…” when they already know where to look and have looked and equally I am not talking technobabble to colleagues who have never clicked the settings option in their lives.

Point of annoyance: Anything that affects voice quality – whether it’s poor line quality or indistinguishable accent on the other end of the phone

Point of annoyance: Operatives sticking to a script and refusing to deviate from it, inflexible operatives who fail to provide what is needed by the customer and who fail to recognise when they should pass the call to their supervisor

Point of annoyance: Anything other than a professional, courteous tone from the operative

I can cite a recent experience here. When querying a number of calls from a phone number which sounded very much like a scam – an automated voice saying “We’re calling from your bank, please enter your account number now – which turned out to be from her bank, my partner ended up dealing with an operative in an outsourced call centre. His tone was at first patronising to her then became aggressive and finally offensive which left her in tears.

It was at this point that I intervened and gave him a dose of his own medicine. He refused to deviate from his script and only relented when I politely but very firmly questioned his ethics and insisted that he give me his name and that of his supervisor, whom he would bring to the phone immediately for a formal complaint to be made. If he did not then we would go straight to the local branch and terminate all accounts held with the bank.

The supervisor, to his credit, listened to what I had to say and the issue was resolved amicably, with an apology from him and a formal complaint made against the operative. It should never have reached this stage in the first place. Sticking drone like to a script achieves nothing for the customer or excellent service. The operative should have remained professional, polite and non-aggressive. Then when he realised that he would not be able to provide what was required, he should have told his supervisor to take over. He did not and I had to get involved. Upset my partner and you upset me. My partner is now seriously considering changing banks.

Another recent experience which was less than satisfactory but nothing as offensive as that just mentioned happened when I had cause to phone a council. I wanted to talk to their Payroll and HR departments about documents that were being incorrectly sent to where I live. The call centre operative (at the council buildings) said “All our HR and Payroll is outsourced, the only advice I can give you is destroy any more documents that come .” In these days of identity theft that’s not the best answer the operative could have given. But the operative was working from a script and was unable to take ownership of the issue.

I fed back via the council’s website that I was unhappy with the way the call had been handled and received an e-mail back from the person who dealt with the HR and payroll contract. We talked on the phone, the issue was resolved and she apologised for the way my initial call had been handled, especially given the confidential nature of the documents concerned. She made sure that all the call centre staff, especially the manager (who really should have been asked about who I needed to speak to in the first place) knew that there are contacts at that council who can deal with HR and Payroll issues.

This is the first time I have mentioned the word “manager” in this piece. Of the many managers and leaders I have had the pleasure of working with and alongside, most of the least impressive have been the call centre managers. Quality and obsession with finishing the call as quickly as possible are not good bedfellows; this is a fact some seem to overlook. An issue it would take me 6 minutes to go through with one colleague could take up to three times as long with another colleague because of differences between the two colleagues.

As my grandfather used to say: “Son, if you’re going to do something, make sure you do it well. If you rush it then it won’t be done well.”

Five: Going back over what the customer requires to ensure excellent service is received, then an appropriate and pleasant valediction.

It’s not rocket science. I’m sure I say that a lot in this blog. But it’s not. The operative should ensure that what was asked for has been provided and that all is well. But it shouldn’t be done in a scripted way, and so often sounds scripted and insincere. Corporate culture and the idea of getting things done as quickly as possible has led to call centres being seen as the modern day equivalent of the slave trade, Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management in action: one right way for everything to be done.

The best service I have received from call centres has come from those which do not insist on one set way of doing everything, ones which allow peoples’ individuality and character to show through. Those are the organisations who value the people they employ and understand that their customers are people as well.

In conclusion, the goal of handling as many calls as possible as quickly and as cheaply as possible may seem a praiseworthy objective but it is often done at the expense of quality service for the customer. Quality customer service is a major part of ensuring good customer relations and customer retention. The many points of annoyance mentioned here can be avoided by sensible planning , good resource allocation and continual monitoring of performance of the entire system, from stages one to five. Remember, it’s not all about how quickly customers can be served but how well.

Remember also that in this age bad news travels faster than good news.

Published inManagementphones