Selling in the Call Center Is a New Paradigm

Posted: September 1, 2005 in CRM

A number of trends are coming together to suggest that selling in the call center is going to be an important issue for many companies. First there is the insatiable demand for top line revenue growth every company faces and in an economic expansion that’s an especially potent driver. Then there is the issue of organic growth which can complicate issue number one. And finally, this environment is driving a renewed interest in the customer. Let me explain.

The idea of top line revenue growth is one that needs little or no explanation to anyone with a pulse. But the way top line growth has been achieved has changed lately. For many years organizations have grown accustomed to the revenue jolt that comes with successfully entering new markets and coming up with new categories of product or service.

Through much of the 1990’s and early part of this decade when growth occurred it was because vendors were out conquering whole new markets. People were buying their first wireless phones, ERP or CRM systems, iPods, or whatever. Market share was of paramount importance and growth was frequently achieved through new transactions; people paid attention to attrition rates too but with so much new territory to cover there was always enough new business coming in to cover the attrition. That’s not so true any more.

We are in an era where there is no “new, new thing” and we’re reduced to growing business the old fashioned way – organically – which means selling a second or third product or service to a customer. Getting to that hat-trick requires paying attention to the details and actually creating a relationship with a customer that goes beyond the initial transaction. There’s actually a whole school of thought on this topic which has been most recently elucidated by Peppers and Rogers in their book, “Return on Customer”.

Basically in an era of organic growth one of the most important assets a company has is its customer base; just like one of a farmer’s most important assets is his land and that brings us to the idea of selling in the call center. The call center is where you can most consistently touch your customers; it’s the place where the relationship is made or broken and the place where loyalty is defined.
We all know that building loyalty and through it repeat business is the way to generate revenue growth in an organic growth era. This revenue is frequently the most prized because it comes with greatly reduced cost of sales and therefore increased margin. Selling into your customer base is like passing on a price increase without anyone knowing about it.

All the preceding is good but according to research we conducted earlier this year, most of our call center thinking is still centered on getting people off the phone fast. We use metrics like call duration, time in queue, percentage of first call resolution and that old chestnut, customer satisfaction.

It still surprises many of us that satisfied customers don’t buy more and sometimes leave for another vendor’s offer. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone. When you conduct a satisfaction survey you get exactly what you asked for. In this scenario when a customer gives an opinion on satisfaction it is an opinion about the most recent transaction and it can be boiled down to whether or not the person feels he or she got equivalent value for what he or she spent. That’s it. Organizations that attach any loyalty significance to such an interaction are whistling past the graveyard in the dark. But back to our survey.

According to our data, people in charge of call centers and of generating new revenue from them, are not very sure of how to get to this nirvana. In what looks like basic human nature, they’re attempting to add selling onto the basic set of requirements already on their call center agents. Some are setting goals without incentives, others are evaluating results without setting goals and sometimes without incentives. It won’t work and I suspect it won’t last long either.

Making the switch from service only to service and selling is not simple but it can be done if we keep a few things in mind. First, customer service people are human and they respond to the same stimuli others do. That means setting realistic goals and incentivizing their attainment. Second, nothing that’s random in selling works very well, so just like outside sales representatives, people in the call center need training and coaching and for the sake of the managers as well as the representatives, there has to be a process everyone can agree on.

Back in May I visited a call center operated by Coca Cola Enterprises in Tampa. It was a model facility that had already implemented the suggestions above. What was most interesting to me is that the facility was started from zero two years ago by people with no experience with call center activity. They did it by asking reasonable questions, setting goals, and generally avoiding blindly accepting common knowledge. Any organization ought to be able to emulate that.

So, what did you think?

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