Looking to cut costs? Don’t do it with software.

I don’t watch much public television, but a program caught my eye a couple weeks ago about a company called Zappos, their company culture and in particular the call center.   The program discussed how they threw out their scripting, tossed the wall boards of endless performance statistics and decided to focus on one thing:   customer service.   They don’t care how much time an agent spends on a call and they replaced pointless rules and procedures with agent empowerment, ownership, and pride.   Zappos does monitor their agents for quality, but the scoring isn’t rigid and really boils down to one metric:  How well they "Wow’ed" their customer.   They also give their agents a broad range of abilities, from checking order status,  to approving refunds.  This they said, cuts down on the number of transfers and enables agents to simply solve problems.     It might surprise you, but  Zappos claims they don’t even pay that well.  They don’t hire from a more sophisticated and expensive pool of candidates or even care if the candidate has experience.  They simply look for great attitudes.

As I listened to this story, it actually made me a little angry because I started to think about virtually every company I’ve contacted in the last 6 months and how absolutely horrible the service was.   You know the drill.  You need to talk to a real person but are still forced to bounce around an IVR that ultimately doesn’t have an option for what you want.  You finally wait for an agent, typing in your account number, only to be asked for it again by the responding agent who barely speaks your language.  The scripts to which the agent is bound offers you no assistance, so you go on hold, you get transferred and after about 30 minutes of this you start to wonder if your call is really that important.  I start to wonder if maybe that is what the company is hoping for.   That is, to wear me down to the point that I don’t care anymore.  Mission accomplished.

One such call I recently made was to resolve an issue with Expedia.  They owed me nearly $1000 so I wasn’t going to give up easily.  There was really no dispute of this issue, but the process of receiving the refund was nevertheless complicated.  After going through the aforementioned drill on each call, their solution was for me  to call them back the next day, or during different hours…  Repeatedly.   In my mind I could see the countless hours that were spent planning out their horrible IVR, CRM application, scripting interface, and the myriad of other cost saving measures they had put between me and the agent.  After the fourth time , I suggested that rather than me call them, they could simply work on my case and call me when they had the problem fixed.   Silence…  I could almost hear the gears turning.  "Us call the customer?  We don’t have a process for that.  Clearly this person has no idea how this works."   I was told they could only work my case while I was on the line.  I persisted.   I finally convinced a supervisor to make an exception and they did eventually resolve my issue and sent me an email when it was finished.  With technology today you wouldn’t think an excpetion would have to be made to create a case for me, assign it to someone and then contact me when it was done.

It’s not like Expedia is the Wal-Mart of travel.  I mean their rates are reasonable but they’re not blowing the competition away with their prices.   Other than a convenient website, it seems the only thing Expedia really has to offer is customer service.   It is clear to me, however, when it comes to customer service; the focus for Expedia is in cost cutting rather than actually helping their customer.  I bet Zappos would have solved my problem the first time.   Who do you suppose would have spent less money on my case and which one would be more likely to have a return customer?

Of course software does have a place in the call center.   IVR’s, when used in moderation, are great at directing calls.   You pretty much have to have an ACD although I’m not  sure you need 50 specialized queues or a highly segmented workforce classified by skills to be an effective call center.   There are nice tools for predicting call volumes that tie into agent scheduling and the IP based PBX does have clear architectural cost advantages.   So I’m not saying there is no ROI in software or that it can’t save you money.  Just don’t overdo it.   Hiring people with good problem solving skills and a good attitude and then letting them do their job will save you far more than that new software feature that promises to cut workforce (as well as your customer base) by 10%.    I think for a call center it is more healthy to look at software as a way of solving problems rather than cutting costs.   If you focus on solving problems, specifically your customers, you will probably find the results will actually show up on your bottom line rather than on your wall board.

-Todd Zerbe