Empower customer service teams for a better experience

Empowering customer service teams


Customer service teams need to be so much more than passive ‘call takers’ if you want to give customers exceptional service.

“Well, why the *&^(%$ is your system so *&^&&^ing slow?”

That was pretty much the customer’s opening line. And the call got worse from there. “It’s always like this,” said Charlotte. “Every time we send out a price rise email we get hit.” Charlotte had had enough already and it was only 9.15am. A bright, enthusiastic graduate, she confessed later over a coffee that she simply couldn’t carry on doing the job she’d fought so hard to get. “It’s just the constant rudeness and aggression,” she explained.

Yes, everyone has a bad day now and then and we can all make allowances. But slowly, over the last few years, the norm for customer behaviour has become worse. Call centre teams need protection from – and help dealing with – those customers who now make a regular case of being over-demanding, unpleasant and unreasonable.

Teams deserve empowerment

Customer services teams take a lot of flak. They’re always in the front line. They’re the ones customers turn to when there’s a problem – and they fix them – often for no thanks, or worse. They’re working when everyone else is in the pub or on holiday. We need to acknowledge that, actually, they’re proper heroes. That means customers need to realise – and where necessary be told – that they aren’t verbal punchbags.

We also need to acknowledge that it can’t go on like this. We need better customers – or at least, ways to make customers realise they can’t go on speaking to other human beings like this.

What’s the cost of NOT empowering your teams?

The cost is too great to ignore it for much longer. There is a clear argument from basic humanity. It is simply unacceptable to treat other human beings like punchbags because of the job they do. But there’s a sound business case too. With call centres losing 22% of their staff in 2014 at a cost of £7.5k in addition to their salary to replace each team member, we can’t afford to go on like this. That’s £165,000 wasted every year in a 100 seat call centre.

Getting board support for your team

I believe so: customers are people after all. Researching this article, I was given an example where a rude and frequent (vexatious) complainer was told by the CEO of a small business that, given the regularity and nature of their complaints, it was probably wrong to offer them a service with which they were so obviously unhappy. The result? When the customer later had very genuine cause for complaint, they were polite, respectful and grateful when the issue was speedily corrected.

And that’s why, on top of effective and relevant skills training, call centre teams need to have top cover from their managers – and boards if necessary – to be able to say ‘No, I’m afraid you’re being rude, Mr Customer. I’m just as entitled to respect as you, so I’m ending the call.” Yes, the customer will call back, probably more incandescent, but if managers consistently explain that they won’t be looked after until they’re civil, they’ll have to learn.

Giving the initiative back to your teams

But none of this is any use unless we empower customer service teams and treat them like they matter.

“Empowerment” is an overused word – so what does it really mean? It’s about giving teams the power they need to get the job done. First, look at the rulebook in your call centre. Ask the team which rules are useful and which get in the way of doing a great job. Then rip up the rules that get in the way. The process of doing this is, in itself, a powerful way to increase engagement and empowerment.

1. What about scripts and standard responses? Yes, they have a use and a place, but not as the default. They have a nasty habit of turning the team into a bunch of automatons who simply recite lines without engaging. Talk to your compliance team – what are the key points you must tell a customer?

2. Do those points have to be delivered in the same (often Robocoppy) words, or can you still be compliant by helping customers understand the spirit of the words? It’s a thorny area, but making the team sound like human beings on the phone is a great way to help customers treat them like humans.

3. How far can you let agents take ownership of an issue from start to finish? If other departments are involved, it’s worth putting together a focus group with one person from each department to be responsible for customer experience. Meet regularly, talk and iron out the problems. It’s amazing how often other departments won’t even realise there’s a problem and will be eager to fix it.

4. Then there’s listening. How far does the business listen to customer-facing teams? It’s daft not to. They’re probably THE best source of management information in the business. After all, they’re where customers come first when there’s a problem. So they know the issues with your products, with service and what irritates customers about your processes. Ask them – and listen to and act on the answers. It shows the team that they matter in a very practical way.

All this is about changing the balance of power between the customer and the agent – and between the agent and the business. The message is coming through clearly from the customer teams we work with – no matter what, we need to do something. Not only is the current way of working broken, but the industry’s lost enough good people.

Don’t our unsung customer heroes deserve better?

With many thanks to Lucy Auchincloss and Colette Porter for their help in researching and writing this article.  If you’re looking for more on the subject, here’s an excellent Harvard Business Review article.

If you’re looking at ways to empower your customer-facing teams, we’d love to listen and give you some ideas. Get in touch.

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Mark McArthur-Christie

I'm managing director at Rubuss. We work in taking operational customer communication and turning it from an overhead into a business asset.