Stop Thinking of Your Call Center as a Cost Center
Today’s podcast guest, Blake Morgan, started as a conference organizer in the call center world, so it’s hardly surprising that her views on customer experience dig into the call center.
But, as she stresses in our interview and in her new book, More is More: How The Best Companies Work Harder And Go Farther To Create Knock Your Socks Off Customer Experiences, there’s a lot more to delivering great customer experiences than having great staff in the call center.
The “call center” itself is no longer even an accurate term; a shrinking number of customers want to make phone calls. Instead, we talk about “contact centers”, which handle email, phones, social media, even text messages now.
Nevertheless, some key elements of the call center model are still important. Specifically:
1. Recognize that your contact center is every bit as important (if not more so) than your sales and marketing departments.
Your contact center reps may be the first people your potential customers ever speak to.
They may also be the last, especially if things have gone wrong, and your reps don’t have the skills, knowledge or freedom to make them better.
2. Not just anyone should work in a call center.
It is skilled work, which takes a lot of finesse to get right. Not everybody can cope with all the criticism from customers, nor with the high pressure, fast paced demands.
Hire carefully for your contact centers, and train well.
3. On the flipside, everyone senior should spend time working in customer service.
If they don’t, it will be hard for them to stop thinking of their customer service staff as “overhead” or “expenses” instead of what they really are: an investment in long-term, profitable customer relationships.
4. Pay your contact center staff well.
It has always struck me as bizarre that the people who probably have the biggest impact on long-term customer satisfaction get paid among the worst in many organizations.
As a result, call center turnover rates are huge: 30 – 45% .
Given how hard it is to find people with the right personality, and the time it takes to train them well, it makes way more sense to pay them better and keep them than to put up with the devastating costs of turnover.
Mentioned in this Episode
Other Articles & Interviews about Call Centers and Contact Centers
How to Convince Top Execs That Your Call Center Is Worth It – Interview with Jim Rembach, of Beyond Morale
What Happens to the Call Center when People Stop Calling? – Interview with Kevin Krempulec , then VP and General Manager responsible for Canada of contact center technology firm, Genesys
Episode 111 – Get Your Call Center Out of the Basement!
Posted on 10/10/2017
[Transcription starts at 00:00:38]
TEMA: Today’s guest is Blake Morgan, who is the author of a new book called More Is More: How the Best Companies Go Farther and Work Harder to Create Knock-Your-Socks-Off Customer Experiences. Blake got her start doing call center related conferences and now teaches in the executive education program at Rutgers, writes for Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, and the American Marketing Association. She is a fellow podcaster and hosts the Modern Customer podcast and a weekly customer experience video series on YouTube. She’s worked with companies like Intel, Verizon Wireless, and many others.
00:01:23 In our interview, and in her book, she discusses many of the elements that go into creating great customer experience. It takes more than just great contact center staff. It takes a team effort, and it involves everything from designing great products or services in the first place, through to great employee experience, good use of technology, reward systems, and openness to innovation.
00:01:49 Before we get started with that interview, I just wanted to mention a few things that are coming up. One is, if you happen to be in the Edmonton/Alberta area, LitFest, Canada’s original nonfiction festival runs from October 12th to 22nd, and there is a huge range of authors coming in covering all sorts of topics from political ones like Michael Adams, the polester, talking about whether a Trump scenario could happen here, through to personal memoirs and everything you can imagine in between. If you’re interested in nonfiction, check out LitFestAlberta.org, and you can find the full agenda.
00:02:31 Second, I’ve got a couple of interesting talks coming up over the next few weeks. I will be speaking at UX Camp in Edmonton on October 21st. The actual full event runs the 20th and 21st. I’ll be talking about getting buy-in for user experience improvements. If you’re interested in coming to that, you can get tickets for UX Camp on Eventbrite. Just search for UX Camp Edmonton or UX Camp YEG.
00:03:00 I will also be presenting at the Disrupt HR conference on November 1st. Tickets for that are also available on Eventbrite. The title of that talk is PeopleShocked: We Need Better Bosses Now More Than Ever, and so that’s what I’ll be talking about at that event. I hope I’ll see you at one or all of those things. In the meantime, let’s get on with today’s podcast episode with Blake Morgan.
[Interview starts at 00:03:31]
TEMA: Let’s rock and roll. Tell me about yourself, Blake.
BLAKE: Well, Tema, I am a customer experience futurist, keynote speaker, and author now with my new book. It’s called More Is More, and it’s about how to gain a competitive advantage through customer experience.
TEMA: Congratulations on the book.
BLAKE: Thank you! It’s exciting to have a book out.
TEMA: Tell me a bit about your background with customer experience.
BLAKE: I got into this industry about ten years ago. It sort of haphazardly happened, like most good things in life. I had set out to become a powerful publisher lady, like you would see in the Devil Wears Prada. I moved to New York City and had my whole life planned.
Of course that didn’t work because the print industry was dying, and so I had an unpaid internship at a magazine, and I ended up getting a job at a conference company. One of the big conference focuses was call centers. You probably heard of Call Center Week.
BLAKE: Yeah, so I eventually became the face of the online brand for this event series and had a hand in podcasting. My boss said, “Blake, you are now the face of our brand,” so I did a lot of public stuff: blogging, podcasting, videos. But I also was entrenched in contact center content.
BLAKE: Really fell in love with it, so in between then and now I’ve had a series of different jobs. I worked at Intel, the Fortune 100 chipmaker, and leading social customer service. But one day I thought to myself, “You know what, Blake? Customer service is interesting, but you know what’s even more exciting and expansive? It’s customer experience.”
BLAKE: And so I started obsessing over this topic, and I podcasted and wrote about it for Forbes and obsessed over it. Here I am. I’ve got a book out, and I’m in love with the topic. I find it so interesting, and so that’s my story of how I got here.
TEMA: That’s interesting. Actually, I just spoke at CX Week in Canada, which is run by the Call Center Week people; so I understand that background a little. I’m curious about what you see as changes happening in the call center world.
BLAKE: Changes in the call center world, clearly the changes are reflecting what’s happening in larger society. People don’t really love to use the phone as much as they did. The younger generations really like a text message. They like messaging apps. Now companies are scrambling to figure out how they can engage these customers on their preferred channels.
00:06:18 Some people say that the phone isn’t going away, but I do believe that we’re going to be using phone less and less and less, as these new generations prefer the digital channels. And so of course that will impact the contact center. Also now our technology has gotten better. While machine learning and artificial intelligence is definitely not perfect and can’t really comprehend people in the way that a person could, these technologies are allowing us to do various things and will improve our ability for machines to understand what is the need of the customer.
TEMA: Yes. How far do you think we are away from the point where, let’s say, 80% of contact center work will be replaced by machines?
BLAKE: I am not of the camp where I believe that machines will basically destroy the workforce. I believe that we still need people to direct these machines, to make them better, improve the experiences, and also people will be focusing on high touch customer experiences because, at the end of the day, we’re all still people. We all still crave meaningful interactions, attention.
00:07:34 When I go shopping, for example, I don’t want to go up to a kiosk to see what clothes look best for my figure. One of my favorite things is going to Nordstrom, going up to the salesperson, and saying, “Okay. Look. You can see me here. What clothes do you have that will make me feel fabulous?”
BLAKE: They bring you a bunch of pieces, and they’ll give you feedback on what looks good, or they’ll tailor the clothes for you right there. I don’t want a machine doing that. I want a person. The more personal interactions I have with that store, with that salesperson at Nordstrom, the better I’m going to feel.
00:08:12 I really do believe that, in certain environments and industries, that human interaction will not go away. But you know today we have so much self-service, and it’s just wonky. It doesn’t work well. I’m hoping that all this technology will improve the self-service stuff, the small stuff, small potatoes, so companies can work on enriching the relationships they have and interactions in a way that customers actually want rather than simply filling out tax forms.
TEMA: Right. I mean that’s the point that I certainly make in PeopleShock, which is, as the amount that’s left for the human interaction becomes smaller, it becomes exponentially more important. You’ve got to get that right; otherwise, why would I bother going to a store if I’m not getting anything better than I’d get from a computer? I think you’re bang-on there.
00:09:03 Let’s talk a bit about some of the challenges of actually implementing programs within companies that make for good, ongoing customer experience. What sort of structures do you see internally that seem to work best?
BLAKE: I think that the structures work best when you have leadership that is aligned, that understands the value of the customer relationship where you have the C-suite all working in tandem with one another. Most companies view the contact center as “that place” in the basement. Uh, the contact–
00:09:40 They don’t really know what goes on there. They definitely don’t know what the customer experience is like.
BLAKE: In the best companies, you have the most important person at the company deep in the trenches, obsessed with the customer experience, knows the customer journey, works on the phones, checks email from customers. This is Jeff Bezos, and he’s a great example. He forces his executive team. I shouldn’t say “forces.” He gives them the opportunity to work in the contact center–
TEMA: Mandated opportunity.
BLAKE: –so that they all know; that they all know what it’s like for the customer. These are what the best companies are doing. It’s just this obsession with every piece of it.
TEMA: Why do you think so many companies don’t take their contact center seriously? That mystifies me because I agree with you; those are the people interacting daily with customers. They hold some of the most important information in any company. Yet, so many companies, as you say, it’s just this little group in the basement. Why do you think that is?
BLAKE: I think that a lot of people are just blind, in a way, to the realities. They view advertising as a money maker. I put up and ad. A customer sees it, or prospect, and then they go and buy something from me. They see sales and marketing as investments, as something that they’ll get a return from.
00:11:05 Then the contact center is seen as a cost center, but really that makes no sense because marketers spend millions of dollars to get the eyeballs and ears of customers. The contact center is literally the place where customers make contact with your brand. Yet that is the most under-resourced department in the entire company. It doesn’t make sense, and we need to basically wake all of these executives up to the truth that the place where we focus on customer relationships is forgotten, is being left behind. It’s a missed opportunity for them.
00:11:41 It really all boils down to cash. Executives feel like you’re either making money for this company or you’re saving money for this company. If you’re not doing one of those two things, very black and white, then what are you doing? But in reality, it’s much more complicated and nuanced than that.
00:12:00 The real issue is that those are the metrics within the company. That the priories reflect the metrics, so are you saving or making the company money? That’s not a way to run a company. That’s a CEO that holds the company to quarterly profits.
BLAKE: The board as well, so again it all boils down to priorities and metrics. But people need to be thoughtful about what shapes those priorities and be not short termed, but think of the long-term game.
TEMA: Well, and the metrics, I think, is something particularly in the call center world or call center world that has held a lot of organizations back because, if they’re judging them on how quickly they resolve a problem for a customer, that encourages them to just ditch problems and not really solve them, but get the customer off the phone quickly. Yet there still seem to be a lot of companies that are measuring people in that way. Do you see that changing?
BLAKE: Oh, yeah. I think the average handle time, the amount of time you have the person on the phone, trying to get those numbers down, I think companies that actually get it somewhat have not used that metric in a long time. I think they’re probably tracking it, but they’re not measuring and managing by it.
BLAKE: Zappos is basically the company that has pioneered this concept where the longest call they ever had, I think it was like nine or ten hours with a customer–
BLAKE: –in the call center because those agents are having fun with customers, making all kinds of recommendations, playing therapist a little bit to the customer. That’s what these companies are missing is that customers crave human connection. When they call you to fix their problem, it’s not just about the problem. That customer has a whole life that they’re bringing to that phone call. That’s an opportunity to be there for the customer at a point of need.
00:13:52 If you’re still talking about butts in seats and average handle time and how much is this going to cost me, I think it’s time for a cold shower for those executives.
TEMA: What are some of the ways to attract and retain people then who have those right attitudes? Let’s say you’ve decided, yeah, you get that your contact center should be a place where you build stronger ties with customers. How do you find the right kind of people to work in that environment?
BLAKE: I’m a believer that you don’t need to hire people who necessarily have Ivy League degrees or who have worked at Disney. You need people who are intuitive, who work hard, who know what to do when the manager isn’t looking, and have that work ethic and integrity. You can train them to use a CRM system or to use social customer service. But it’s hard to find good people who have the right mindset because not everyone should work in customer service.
00:14:53 People who have a lot of integrity who can honestly incur negative feedback and negative emotions and not let it ruin their life, you need those kinds of people because it is hard. You do incur a lot of negativity all day, and so you need people who have a good work ethic, who have integrity, who have intuition, and not necessarily someone who has the perfect résumé.
TEMA: Mm-hmm. Have you seen any particularly good ways of identifying and hiring such people beyond just interviews?
BLAKE: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think that’s a contact center specific question, like, where do you find great people? I actually think a lot of great people know other great people. You can ask your employees if they have any referrals and then offer compensation for that.
00:15:43 I would look for people also within the company who just simply know your products really well. I think you should pay your contact center people really well. If you have an engineer — I speak from experience working in a Fortune 100 company. We had an engineer who was actually a baby boomer who we pulled in to help launch the social customer service strategy. He knew our products better than anyone. And so you need people who don’t necessarily know the channels. He wasn’t a social media customer service aficionado, but he definitely knew our products in and out, and that can be really helpful.
TEMA: Mm-hmm. Yeah. In terms of developing and monitoring to make sure you’re providing consistently great customer experience, one of the challenges that a lot of organizations face is there are silos. Yet, to create a smooth customer experience, all these departments need to talk to each other and things need to flow smoothly among them. What are your thoughts on how one should structure an organization to create an environment where it isn’t all broken down by silos? I mean in a small company that’s fairly easy, but when you get bigger and you’ve got a bunch of different departments handling specialized functions, that becomes more challenging. How do you deal with that challenge?
BLAKE: I think it takes a great driver to be accountable at the top of the company. I had this idea to create a chief omnichannel officer where you have one person literally just in charge of making sure what you’re talking about isn’t happening, so somebody who ensures that there’s collaboration across all of the different groups because that’s the challenge right now. At the top, there’s no one person that is in charge of integration among all these disparate groups. That’s why the customer has such a siloed, disjointed experience. If we start at the top with someone responsible for driving a cross-channel customer experience, that person can get all these groups talking, get all of the vendors working together to integrate the technology that needs to happen, and there’s someone who is accountable who has budget and resources and influence to be able to do that.
TEMA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Now, from what I’ve seen, there are a lot of companies giving lip service to customer experience now, but the budgets aren’t necessarily following. How much do you think this is really penetrating the consciousness of big companies, particularly those that are judged quarterly, publicly traded companies?
BLAKE: If you make decisions based on fear, you’re never going to be as successful as you want to be. I think the companies that aren’t afraid of what people think — Jamie Diamond is a fun example from Chase. He has said, “Don’t pay attention to quarterly profits,” and he says a lot of really bold things. Like he just said that Bitcoin is total nonsense, angering a lot of people. He makes these bold statements, but look how successful his company is.
00:18:51 I think that the CEOs that are able to tell the board, “We’re not going to worry about quarterly profits. We’re going to play the long-term game,” are able to have better long-term financial performance. A lot of what I’ve seen, and I’ve talked to other industry leaders who agree; and Charlene Lee, for example, she believes that founder CEOs, so CEOs that were also the founders of the company, are bold enough and brave enough to tell the board, “We are not going to focus on quarterly profits,” and they make decisions based on what they think is the right thing to do.
00:19:29 Examples are Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Reed Hastings from Netflix. Founder CEOs really are brave and bold, able to not be concerned, and are willing to be misunderstood. In fact, that’s a quote from Jeff Bezos: “You have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”
TEMA: Mm-hmm. Actually, it’s interesting because one of the things that I’ve heard a lot, I’ve worked a lot with startups and companies that have grown and then gone public. I hear so often from the CEOs of those companies they wished they’d never gone public for that very reason of the board pressure being conflicting with what they, as the founder, believe is the right thing to do. I think part of the challenge is we’ve got to get to the point where investors realize that it matters more than what happens each quarter.
00:20:23 Anyway, so what do you see as being ways to get buy-in within senior levels of an organization?
BLAKE: I think you have to be a great listener. You have to go to the different stakeholders and find out what they care about, what motivates them. Then find a way to bridge what you’re doing with what they want. It’s kind of like being a politician. I did this at a company where I would go and meet with people, listen to them, and get groups together who were responsible for different pieces; for example, social media.
00:21:00 I think, to be a great change agent, you have to be almost like a great politician. You have to be willing to block and tackle for the customer. But you also need to know how to make friends and not enemies. A lot of people struggle to do that. It’s really hard because you have to constantly see the big picture because you’re going to be hit with a lot of “nos,” a lot of “What are you [thinking]? This is crazy. We never did things like this before.” You need to be willing to overlook that and be a politician.
TEMA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Do you think it’s realistic to think that a large company that’s not currently customer focused can actually turn around? When I’ve researched it, it’s really hard to find examples of turnarounds. We have companies like Disney and Nordstrom that were always customer obsessed. But taking a company that wasn’t and making it a customer success seems to be really, really rare.
BLAKE: Yeah. I think that it takes a commitment to bringing in new ideas and fresh ideas. A lot of big companies, they now have innovation hubs. For example, Xerox has PARC. Amazon has Lab126. I think Disney has one, AT&T, like all of these companies. AT&T has The Foundry. All of these big companies have innovation labs. When they acquire startups, it’s a great idea for them to bring in those fresh eyes and have conversations about what future generations are looking for in a product or service and don’t sit and rest on your laurels. You have to be out there seeing what’s going on in society.
00:22:42 A lot of the best companies today have fluid identities and fluid, basically, shapes where, for example, Amazon one day is selling books. The next day it’s providing hosting services. The list goes on. Now they’re acquiring grocery stores and meal delivery, so the best companies today are more fluid, and they don’t limit themselves by how they’ve been in the past.
TEMA: Hmm. For sure. Things are changing so quickly that you really can’t do that. Where do you see customer experience moving forward? What do you think is going to be changing that industry over the next few years?
BLAKE: It’s exciting to see a lot more attention and focus, even on the phrase “customer experience,” a lot more content about it and information. I think what we’ll see in the future is more CEOs that take it seriously, that delegate it to someone to drive and lead it, whether that’s the CMO or the chief operating officer or hiring a chief experience officer. We’ll see more attention paid to this discipline. Part of that is the contact center, but it’s the entire way the company is run as well because customer experience is not simply just shaped by the contact center.
00:23:59 I think that’s the one misnomer or mistake that I keep hearing even today. For my book, I was interviewed so many times. Everyone wants to simply talk about the call center. The customer experience does not just happen in the call center, in the contact center. It happens much, much earlier. That’s what my book is about, More Is More. I think there’ll be more attention and awareness about this whole discipline, and I’m excited to be part of that conversation because I find it so fun, interesting, and new.
TEMA: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. If you were somebody in a company and were trying to persuade your senior leadership to take this issue seriously and to invest in customer experience, what approaches would you recommend that such people take to try and start the conversation and get buy-in?
BLAKE: I think it starts to bring in the leaders that are responsible for each piece of the customer experience. I have in my book a framework called DO MORE, and each module is owned by a different leader. DO MORE:
The first piece is D: Design something special. A product must be good.
O: Offers a strong employee experience.
M: Modernize with technology.
List goes on. I’m not going to name every piece for you, but I’ll send you the framework so you can share it with your listeners. Every piece is owned by one senior leader, so you get all these leaders together to talk about, are we measuring our people by customer experience, by metrics that we think are smart, that encourage the right type of behavior? It’s about getting those senior people in the room together to work together to create a company that is built upon a strong mission and strong values that reflect the customer experience that the company wants to see.
TEMA: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you very much for your time, Blake. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.
BLAKE: Thank you, Tema. It’s really been fun. Thanks for having me.
TEMA: I normally record these podcast interviews a few weeks before I actually go back and edit them, so sometimes I’m struck by different things when I listen to them again. Two things really struck me from this interview. One is, I wonder if Blake is right that most companies aren’t using metrics like average handle time any more – how long a call center rep is on the phone. I certainly hope so. I’ll link in the show notes to information about that ten hour Zappos call that she referred to.
00:26:37 The second thing is, although it’s really exciting to see big companies, even some pretty traditional ones, setting up innovation labs, I wonder whether they’re actually going to manage to change traditional cultures in large, bureaucratic organizations or whether the folks in those innovation labs will just be stuck on the fringes forever. Certainly companies that aren’t open to innovation are not going to last for long in our fast changing era. I mean it’s hard to imagine that something that’s become so central in our world, such as Facebook, is just old enough to have a bar mitzvah now; just turned 13. Airbnb hasn’t even hit double-digits. It was founded in 2008. Uber wasn’t founded until 2009. Things that have totally transformed entire industries are still less than a decade old, so change is happening so quickly that organizations really, really have to be innovative. I think this is going to pose huge, huge problems for big, traditional organizations.
00:27:47 Also in the show notes, I will of course have links to Blake’s DO MORE framework.
[00:29:04 end of audio file]