Providing Exceptional Customer Service During an Economic Downturn

Providing exceptional customer service is always an important initiative for companies and is especially important during a period of economic downturn. But how can you provide that "Five Star" service when you are being asked to cut back on budgets and heavily reduce agent head count, all while selling more.

The bottom line is that anything less than a great customer experience can be detrimental to your organization. During tough economic times, existing customers are more critical than ever. Your company will likely start cutting Marketing, Sales and PR budgets generating fewer new customers. This means that retaining your existing customers is more important than ever.

If your company is like most, you are working on your 2009 budgets. In today's economy, many executives start by cutting what they feel are the "nice to haves" and far too often, the customer experience programs are cut. This stems from the fact that many executives do not understand the linkage of delighted customers to retention, growth and margins. It is my belief that cutting the customer experience budget will generally be detrimental to an organization that is assuming that such an action does not result in some customer reaction. A reduction in your customer service quality will only frustrate your customers and may result in a decision to take their business elsewhere.

Unfortunately, some companies will go out of business leaving their customers looking for other sources. Surviving companies will be faced with tougher competition that may exacerbate the steps needed to maintain their business such as lowering prices or offering additional value at no added price. These surviving companies will have to differentiate themselves from their competitors. One way to do this - stellar customer service.

So, the question of the day. How do I continue to provide my targeted customer experience in this economic environment? To maintain, or improve, the level of service that your business has provided, you might consider the following key strategies:

1. Raise executive team awareness on the value of providing exceptional service.
Did you know that a 1% increase in customer satisfaction for a typical company could mean as much as a $1,000,000 increase in revenue? What happens when that customer satisfaction number goes down? That's right. Your company will start losing revenue.

2. Provide regular feedback to your agents.
Invest in a good quality monitoring program. Providing regular improvement feedback to your agents leads to a better experience for your customers. According to Erin Pauley-Ackman, Senior Manager of Customer Operations at Covad, with the combined services of agent evaluations and customer surveys, they increased customer satisfaction by 19%, first call resolution by 29% and total problem resolution by 18%. They credit their quality monitoring program with moving their business to new performance levels.

The feedback you provide your agents can also result in incremental cost savings and increased revenue. For example, your quality evaluation program can uncover ways to reduce average handle time and first call resolution, improve selling skills and reduce the time it takes to train agents. We have also found that regular feedback motivates agents and improves agent attrition, further reducing your recruiting and training costs.

According to Mark Steinweg, Corporate Director of Carlson Leisure Travel Services, by simply increasing the frequency of monitoring and coaching, they significantly increased the revenue generated on calls and reduced average handle time at the same time.

3. If you are faced with cutting headcount, consider outsourcing your QA program or further leveraging your outsourced team.

No matter how hard you try, you may be faced with the daunting task to cut-back on employees. According to figures released by the Labor Department, the number of people continuing to draw unemployment benefits jumped to 3.84 million in late October, the highest level since February 1983.

Before cutting agent positions, consider outsourcing your QA program. When you outsource your QA program, the vendor can do the heavy-lifting of listening and evaluating the calls, emails and chat sessions. Vendors like HyperQuality will provide the quality evaluations and feedback directly to your agents and supervisors for much less than a traditional in-house quality assurance program. With this solution, the supervisors can spend their valuable time coaching and training agents and can also be leveraged to handle rising call volumes when needed.

According to a recent survey by TechWeb Research, three-quarters of companies say that they have successfully transformed a business process they have outsourced. The survey further found that the leading driver for outsourcing is to decrease costs.

If you must cut agent positions, consider an Interactive Voice Response system, a more cost-effective home-based agent model, and Speech Recognition which can handle more of the customer interaction with automation.

4. Automate as many manual workflows as possible.
There are numerous processes in the call center that, when done manually, are very cost and labor intensive. Processes like roster management; calibration sessions, auditing, and escalations can all be automated through low-cost software solutions.

5. Manage by the numbers.
It is imperative that you have a strong reporting system in place. You will need a solution that allows you to easily understand what is happening in your call center and how to make changes that will impact your customer experience.

So, the bottom line? Tools, processes and above all others - effective coaching to front line personnel - all contribute to solving the riddle of doing more, and better, with less.

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