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By: Debbie Howard

The Internet has made making a reservation or buying a product a breeze. But sooner or later, most customers will need to accomplish something which may be a bit more complicated, such as justifying an error on a bank statement, or resolving an errant billing situation that just won’t seem to stop otherwise. At that point, telephone contact is required, and in most cases, the customer must interface via a call center.

There are an estimated 125,000 call centers worldwide that help customers with questions across industries ranging from credit cards, financial services, telecommunications, healthcare and office products. A growing body of evidence is proving that such non-face-to-face interactions are increasingly important to companies in forging lasting relationships with their customers.

Specifically, studies from Europe, the Americas and Japan show that consumers who have good customer service experiences are up to 33 times more likely to conduct future business with a company. And on the reverse side, some 20% of consumers are likely to switch companies based on their latest interaction if it is negative.

The good news is that overall, it appears that call center effectiveness has improved in a number of industries over the past several years.

The 2009 CFI Group Contact Center Satisfaction Index (CCSI) indicated that “improved performance of customer service representatives” (CSRs) along with “improved issue resolution” is driving better satisfaction among customers these days.

The study was conducted among 2,200 U.S.-based participants across several industries. Performance varied by industry, with scores showing improvements for banking, cable and satellite TV and insurance companies, and showing declines for retail and government entities.

CSRs are apparently the key to customer satisfaction, regardless of study or country. However, most customers are greeted by Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) machines when they reach a contact center. The CCSI found that customers who had to interface with an IVR initially are less satisfied than those who reach a “real” CSR from the start.

Another key driver for customer satisfaction with call centers is “first call resolution.” The difference in satisfaction between those who got their issues resolved on the first call versus those who required 3 or more calls was dramatic, perhaps not unsurprisingly.

Still another factor in creating a positive customer experience is having a process that doesn’t require a customer to have to repeat their information over and over when they are referred onward to other CSRs. One-quarter of consumers asked to repeat their information say they will do less business with the company.

According to the most studies, CSR performance has improved across all measured areas, including courteousness, knowledge, ease of understanding, interest in helping and effectiveness in handling issues.
Some analysts have surmised that the poor economic environment may have contributed to improved delivery of service. Specifically, with higher unemployment, call enters may be benefiting from better qualified job applicants. At the same time, contact centers are reporting much lower turnover, creating a growing number of CSRs with greater depth of experience in helping customers resolve their issues.

For many consumers, their only communications with a particular company are via a contact center. This means that every single contact is an opportunity for enhancing the brand relationship in a positive manner, which in turn creates more loyalty among customers.

With all this in mind, it seems fair to say that many companies may be missing important opportunities to meet customer demands and thereby positively impact their bottom lines.

Debbie Howard is Chairman of CarterJMRN and President Emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 24th August2009

CarterJMRN is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients with consumers and businesses in Japan and beyond since 1989.

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