Why neutral customer emotions are so important to contact centre success
So much emphasis is placed on trying to evoke positive emotions in your customers. But when it comes to the contact centre, is a neutral emotional state the best you should hope for?
Back in 2012, Adelaide-based businessman Andrew Khan called the contact centre at Australian airline, Qantas to confirm some details ahead of a flight he was due to take to New York.
He was kept on hold for a grand total of 15 hours 40 minutes and one second.
Such was the absurdity of the time that lapsed, his story made news around the globe. In one interview, Khan described a range of negative emotions during the call, from frustration to dissatisfaction, disillusion and anger. He tried to take his mind off the experience; reading books, having a snooze, surfing the net. However, eventually he admitted defeat and dropped the call.
"I hung up in the end simply because I had had enough," he told the Daily Telegraph.
Calling a contact centre is an emotive experience at the best of times, let alone when you’re kept waiting to speak to an advisor for an insurmountable period.
From a contact centre agent’s perspective, customer emotion is a key component of the day job. Emotional intelligence is fine-tuned into many agents’ training. And numerous metrics now attempt to quantify the emotion outcome of their customer interactions – for instance, Net Emotional Value (NEV), an NPS-style system that’s designed to encourage customers to sum up their feelings in one word that’s then determined to be ‘positive’, ‘negative’ or ‘neutral’.
With NEV, neutral emotions are discarded; instead a score applied as result of subtracting the number of negative words used from positive. Yet, the importance of a neutral emotion – especially at the first point of contact – should not be overlooked.
“So much emphasis is placed on this idea that brands should be ‘wowing’ customers with everything they do,” says Phil Davitt, head of sales at contact centre technology provider, NewVoiceMedia. “However, when it comes to the contact centre there are so many factors that predetermine a customer’s emotional state prior to them picking up a phone and calling a brand.
“It might be that the customer’s query relates to a defective product so they’re probably already in a state of frustration. Or it might be their demographic. Millennials have stated they would rather go to the dentist than call a contact centre. If I pick up my smartphone and decide to contact a brand, I want Twitter, live chat, messaging apps. If I can’t get those channels, I’m already annoyed before I’ve even spoken to someone.
“So I’d say that setting your systems up to try and aim for a customer to be in a neutral emotional state when they call your contact centre is arguably where businesses should be aiming. The agent is far more likely to shift that position to a positive emotion than if they are in a negative state at first point of contact.”
Channels of emotion
Ensuring customer contact channels meet a customers’ desired expectations is a requirement many brands are currently struggling to meet.
As Davitt explained, channel choices rise and fall in importance depending on the demographic.
61% of customers will change how they contact an organisation depending on the task at hand, according to research from BT Global. 52% will still pick up the phone and expect instant access to a (human) employee when they are in a moment of crisis.
However, comparatively, 73% like the autonomy that self-service tools offer them when trying to perform tasks such as updating their personal information with a brand.
For brands that can’t match the requirements, customers are becoming less forgiving. In the last four years, the number of customers who changed suppliers as a result of bad customer service experience has risen from 59% to 89%.
“Contacting a brand is so often about ease,” states Davitt.
“The danger of not having the right channels is obvious, but it’s also about not having connected channels – you don’t want to email a company, then call them and them not have a paper trail or know who you are. That’s an experience that exacerbates negative emotion. I shouldn’t be the one telling a brand where I am in my customer journey.”
A strategy for neutrality
Ensuring a neutrally emotive customer may seem like an inadequate result, given the amount of reengineering that might be required to make your contact channels fit for purpose. But it’s a necessity, with customer expectations on the rise.
“Historically, in contact centres there can be division between service employees and the rest,” Davitt adds. “A customer doesn’t see that though – they expect a united business. If the web chat team doesn’t talk to the Twitter team and the Twitter team doesn’t talk to the phone team….that’s creating frustration amongst your customers and they’re far more likely to feel negative emotions towards you as a result.”
Davitt believes the key to ensuring contact channel success is a two-part strategy – getting the right channel mix, and centralising customer data.
In the case of the channel mix, NewVoiceMedia’s whitepaper Transitioning to an Omni-Channel Contact Centre offers some practical guidance:
- Understand customer preference. If running a B2B customer service operation, conduct a survey. If B2C, identify customer demographics and pay attention to customers’ ages, which strongly influence channel preference. Try a survey if possible.
- Study your competitor’s channels. They may have a clearer understanding of customer preference than your operation. Submit a request and see how long they take to respond. Did they answer your question? How much effort did it take? How did it make you feel?
- Gather the historical activity of your current channels. If you cannot get a year’s worth of data, aim for a month. If you cannot get a month, get a week.
- When looking at these statistics ask yourself, “Was this channel properly promoted and managed?” This might require you to consider how the channel was launched, or if customers decided the channel was useless.
When it comes to the second part of the strategy – centralising data, Davitt says there can be no compromise: “It’s about the business having a customer contact strategy; it doesn’t matter what CRM you’re using, it needs to be centralised and should have all information related to the customer in that one central hub.
“It’s OK to have one system for live chat, one for Twitter, one for phone; but there really has to be one CRM binding them together. If you don’t have that, you’re just creating disconnect and frustration with the customer, as well as silos in your business.”
Ultimately, speed of response will determine how likely a customer is to arrive at a call centre in a neutral emotional state. According to a 2018 SuperOffice study, customers expect a resolution to a customer service query across any channel within one hour. Despite this, the average response time for customer service requests (across all channels) is 12 hours and 10 minutes. The expectations are that this will decrease exponentially as more brands are able to resolve how they design their channels for customers and resolve issues around data flow.
At this point, Davitt concludes, businesses should be considering a more predictive approach to ensuring customer emotions remain neutral during service queries: “It’s about analysing WHY people reach out on different channels. If you’ve only got a recording on a phone call, or a couple of clicks on your website, you may have a one or two layers of detail around the context of the call.
“But if you’ve got their entire history of interaction with you in your CRM, then you have an entire transcript analysed, coded, examined and you suddenly get into the realm of being able to truly understand their requirements and start to predict things about them, and when certain channels are most likely to need more attention, that sort of thing.
“Billing is a great example. Using things like Einstein analytics, sales force data, billing data, why a customer calls; you might be able to soften the blow of a bill by putting a communication to customers warning them 7 days before the bill goes out. 98% of people are calling because they have a problem with that bill on a billing date, therefore you can start making decisions to improve that customer’s journey as you can predict the reasons they might contact after certain key events, and soften the likelihood of them being in a heightened emotional state.”
Following his marathon 15-hour wait on hold with Qantas, Andrew Khan bravely tried ringing the airline again and finally managed to get through.
He was offered an apology and a reimbursement for any cost incurred during his previous record-breaking call, however his emotional state was unsalvageable, resulting in not just an unhappy customer but a negative media story to boot.
What might the airline have given to have had that customer arrive at their contact centre in a neutral state?
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Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.