Empathy and empowerment are becoming the new goals for retail contact centres as they evolve to keep up with more customer-centric businesses. Joanna Perry finds out what part IT is playing.

Call answering times and average handling times have traditionally been the two main measures of success for many contact centres. Efficiency was seen as everything. However, this is beginning to change as customers take the upper hand in their relationships with retailers. Now, the emphasis is turning to customer service And, although technology was a driving force in creating greater efficiency at contact centres, it is also supporting this service-focused evolution.

US online shoe retailer Zappos.com is one example of a company that has revolutionised the way it serves customers from a distance. However, there are more subtle ways to bring in some of these changes without completely abandoning the received wisdom on how contact centres should be run.

Philip Michell, consulting director of Vertex, which provides outsourced contact centre services to several well-known UK retailers, says that to provide consumers with a satisfactory level of service through a contact centre, customer service staff must be trained and resourced so that they can handle issues appropriately and not just recite a script.

He explains that establishing who is the best person to deal with a particular customer has been achieved through skills-based routing traditionally. Vertex believes it has improved this process by increasing the skills and knowledge all staff have, so that the customer is passed between fewer people before reaching a member of staff who can help them.

Staff use a Google toolbar to search the company’s own knowledge base to give them information at their fingertips. With this in mind, the company is also moving away from providing scripts for customer advisers to follow, because it wants to encourage staff to use the knowledge tool to provide customers with the appropriate information.

The information in the knowledge base comes from two sources – the retailer and the group of customer advisers who work on the retailer’s account. If the advisers can’t answer a customer’s question using the knowledge base, part of the resolution is for them to add the answer to the knowledge base once they find out what it is.

Michell adds that the company is adopting technology to do probability analysis, so advisers are able to work out who the customer is when they ring. He explains that caller line ID, account information and publicly available information can all be used to try to match a customer to the best adviser the first time. He says that this creates a better customer experience, even if the customer has to wait slightly longer for their call to be answered.

This is a big change from some of the metrics normally used to judge success in the industry. Michell says: “Measuring abandoned calls is still appropriate, but how quickly calls are answered is less important.”

Otto UK head of risk management Andy Bolton has implemented an outbound automated message system to remind customers to pay their bills on time (Retail Week, July 11). He says that customers prefer not to speak to a person about late payments, so Otto will consider using a similar automated message system to contact customers about overdue bills once the success of the reminder message system has been reviewed fully.
The retailer recognises that different types of customers may prefer a different approach to being contacted. So for its Oli.co.uk brand – where customers tend to be younger and more fashion-conscious compared with some of its other brands – it is testing the success of sending SMS messages to mobile phones.

Michell adds that a contact centre’s tactics for handling customer calls may need to be different at different times. He explains how routing can assist with this. “If a 70-year-old customer rings up and there is a 60-year-old adviser available, you wouldn’t want those two talking during a peak period, because you wouldn’t want extended call times. At other times, that’s exactly what you want to help a customer through the sales process.”

Similar to Zappos, Michell believes that giving advisers freedom to make decisions on how to solve customers’ problems case by case can enhance customer service and doesn’t need to cost the retailer more. He explains: “When you take the shackles away from advisers, they tend to treat the money they give away like it’s their own, so they give away less.”

In order to empathise with the customer, there is an increasing focus on giving customer service staff access to what the customer is doing at that moment. Michell explains that many account management and CRM tools only show what has happened to a customer, rather than the relationship between the retailer and customer at that point. Again, he believes that technology can help address this. Vertex is using a tool that presents the customer adviser with all the information as it comes in, such as an e-mail the customer has sent that still needs to be resolved.

Personalised content

At online retailer Figleaves, call centre staff will also have a more complete view of each customer once a new e-commerce platform from ATG is implemented. Figleaves online merchandising director Catherine Hall explains that the platform will allow content on the site to be personalised for known customers. She says: “The call centre will have the same view of the customer – what their past search history has been, etc.”

Figleaves is also planning to introduce Click-to-Chat and Click-to-Call tools on its site. Hall believes that these are good ways for customers to get their important questions about checkout answered quickly. Likewise, Figleaves’ call centre staff will be able to see if a customer has used the web site’s help pages or sizing pages frequently and then proactively ask them if they need more help.

She agrees that these types of services have been more successful on US e-commerce sites, but adds that “UK customers are very quickly becoming more demanding”. This will lead to a change in culture for Figleaves’ call centre, as customer service staff take on more of a sales role. Hall says: “We will make sure that our call centre staff have a much greater knowledge of the product and ATG will give them recommendations for up-selling and cross-selling.”

Vertex is also trialling software that makes outbound calls to known customers if they put something in their basket on a retailer’s web site, but don’t complete the sale. Michell admits that this must be done carefully, or it could damage a retailer’s brand.

The customer contact business used to be about lowering the cost of customer enquiries – whether that meant customers could only ask a retailer questions via e-mail, or that their call would be terminated if they took up too much of an adviser’s time.

This new thinking recognises the simple fact that looking after customers is more profitable in the long term.

Zappos: a different take on call centres

US online shoe retailer Zappos.com is one example of a retailer that has embarked on a paradigm shift in customer service.

The company was founded on the premise that 30 per cent of all retail sales would move online eventually and, to capture this market, it needed to focus on selection and service. The issue of selection is approached in a straightforward way – 4 million pairs of shoes are offered through the site.

When it comes to customer service, however, it has taken a more novel approach. Every new employee hired at its corporate office is required to spend four weeks answering phones at its call centre before they start their actual job. Zappos believes that customer service isn’t just a department - it is the entire company.

The retailer is also famous for offering new starters at its call centre a US$1,000 (£501) bonus, plus their wages, as an incentive to quit their job after a week’s work to test their commitment to the company and its culture. Call centre employees are allowed to make decisions and work free from the reigns of scripts or time limits on calls.

This strategy has lead to excellent word-of-mouth referrals. The site itself and the wider internet are full of stories of exceptional customer service. For instance, when one customer contacted the company to say there was a delay in returning some products because of a death in the family, the customer service agent is reported to have arranged a free pick up of the products and sent flowers.

Other stories include products sent overnight as an express delivery for free because they were for a special occasion and call centre staff helping customers find products elsewhere on the web when they couldn’t be bought through Zappos.

The company also publishes its customer service number on every page of its site, unlike many other online retailers who discourage customers from calling them.

Proof that the company has struck a chord with its customers would seem to come from its sales. Since its foundation in 1999, it has become an US$840 million (£420.74 billion) a year company and expects to top the US$1 billion (£500.9 million) mark this year.