Hangin’ on the telephone?

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If you search the Internet for “customer experience”, you’ll find hundreds of articles telling you how to improve the service you offer. Some of these articles may be focused on the in-store experience, and many will discuss shopping online, but the chances are that very few will explain how to improve service over the telephone.

Yet almost all of us can easily recall a terrible customer service experience linked to a telephone call. These usually include being passed from agent to agent, having to give the same information several times to different people, or being held in a queue to the accompaniment of seemingly endless hold music. Ken Loach’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake, uses a depiction of a two-hour call on hold as a symbol for soulless, inefficient bureaucracy. It’s not an image that most organisations would aspire to.

There are a few ground rules that form the foundations of providing customers with a really positive telephone experience. They are simple but too often neglected, so here is a quick reminder so that you can make sure that your own organisation hasn’t forgotten what’s important where telephones are concerned.

1. Don’t keep people waiting

The most basic and most obvious rule of thumb is to answer calls quickly. The majority of customers using the telephone today are doing so because they genuinely need to speak to a service agent, not because it hasn’t occurred to them to look online. This may be because they can’t find what they are looking for on your website, or it may be because they have a query about a product, or simply because they don’t like using the Internet. Whatever the reason, simply playing a recorded message that suggests they visit a web address is unlikely to make them feel kindly towards you.

2. Use your technology – let one person handle many questions

Where possible, empower your team to handle different queries. Customers hate being passed from person to person, particularly if they are asked to provide all their personal information more than once. Too many companies have telephony systems that demand that customers type in long identification numbers when they dial in, only to repeat the request as soon as the call is answered by a human. If you have taken the trouble to install data capture software, use it! And it’s worth installing the right systems to allow any of your service team to accept payments. If someone has called in to enquire about a product or service and wishes to purchase it, it can be incredibly frustrating to experience an additional stage in the process. Nobody wants to risk getting lost in the process of a transfer, and it can be disconcerting to suddenly find oneself in communication with a machine rather than a person.

3. Earn their trust

Trust and loyalty are often spoken about in the context of customer service. Almost all brands want to be seen to have integrity, to be honest and to earn the loyalty of their customers. When it comes to your customers’ money, however, trust takes on a new level of significance. If someone is paying you over the phone you have not only a moral, legal and regulatory obligation to keep their data safe but it’s also vital to maintaining your reputation. Don’t make your customers read their card details aloud over the phone – it’s old fashioned and it’s not safe. It’s also likely to cause you a lot of regulatory headaches, particularly if you record your calls. What’s more, the repercussions of a data breach are serious; both financially and in terms of damage to your reputation. Make sure your telephone payment security really works.

The telephone is still alive and well but in too many cases it doesn’t receive the same level of attention that we lavish on other channels. When we strike the right balance between technology and humans, the telephone is an opportunity to offer your customers a level of service that can be far higher than the interface powered by the most sophisticated online shopping algorithms. Make sure that your technology is doing its job – directing the customer to the right place, capturing their details once and once only, keeping data completely safe and leaving your service team to focus on what they do best.

About Tim Critchley

Tim is CEO of Semafone and is an experienced director of technology start-ups.  He spent 6 years with database marketing specialist, Conduit Communications before co-founding Pogo Technology, an innovative start-up that launched one of the first web-browsing handheld devices in the UK through Carphone Warehouse. Prior to joining Semafone, Tim was chief operating officer at KnowledgePool Group, the UK's leading provider of managed learning services where he helped complete a successful turnaround in 3 years. Tim graduated from the London School of Economics and has an MBA from Manchester Business School.

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