Sunday, September 20, 2009

Edmonton Call Center Frustration

Last December I watched with interest as Edmonton launched a new call center, 311, with ambitions to improve service response. The target at the time was to respond to 80% of the calls within 25 seconds. But in the first six months, the average time waiting for an operator was two minutes. ($10-million phone service source of frustration By Frank Landry, City Hall Bureau, Edmonton Sun)

The idea was a good one. What went wrong?

I am most concerned that the "fix" quoted in the article is to hire more operators and add Interactive Voice Response. Beware of techie fixes, especially if the problem is not fully understood. Those of you who know me will agree; I like gadgets. Especially if they make my job easier and faster. But gadgets aren't always the solution. For instance, I have resisted the urge to buy a food dehydrator, a showtime rotisserie, and an electric meat slicer. A girl has only so much counter space.

So if buying a new gadget is not the solution, what could the call center do to improve it's service? First of all, the agency needs to find out why it takes so long for an operator to conclude the call. I suspect they have many of the problems experienced by Alberta Treasury Branches (ATB) when they decided to improve their call center operations. ATB is now a "best practice" model on how to improve the customer experience.

Here is a quote from the Customer relationship management systems handbook
By Duane E. Sharp (2003) (P 152, 153)

"ATB’s cumbersome contact center system lacked the functionality to service customers quickly. Often, customers who thought they were phoning a local branch office had their calls redirected to the centralized contact center, where the customer’s transaction history was unknown. To find the answers the customer needed, the contact center representative would have to bring up any one of several different screens, a laborious, time-consuming process….[now] when a call comes into the contact center, a profile of the customer will pop up, giving the representative information about who the customer is, the customer’s address, a full listing of the customer’s holdings, and a description of the customer’s last contact with the bank."

I would respectfully suggest that the city would do better to hold off on the purchase of the interactive software, learn more about the business of responding to city calls and the number of screens their operators must flip through, learn more from the best practice models like ATB, and then come up with solutions.

I'll throw in one more plug for the Fish! philosophy. Here is an article by John Christensen on the implementation of Fish! at Sprint's call center, "A Call for Change".

Call centers are important. Call centers are where front-line interaction with the customer happens. The customer's opinion of your offerings are made here. Set aside the statistics for a moment, as summaries and statistics may mask the cause. Executive should take a day off and sit in and listen in at the call center. How does the public really feel about your agency?

If this is where customer relations are made or broken, why would you put any barriers, such as automated response, between the caller and you? As I learned from, the smart guys such as Wal-Mart, E-Bay and Amazon give the customer a smooth experience. Doors of entry are wide open and there are no barriers between customer and product.