Friday 9 November 2012

You hate call centers

Do you like calling a call center? Who would you rather call a bank’s call center or one of its branches? Or would you rather visit a branch in person?

More and more organisations are using call centers as their main contact point for their customers. Cellphone network providers, banks, insurance companies and parastatals have all started to make us call them rather than calling their branches and offices.

In principle there’s nothing wrong with it. In principle, a call center staffed by highly trained, knowledgeable and likeable people could deliver excellent service. In principle.

But what do consumers think about this? Has anyone ever asked them?

They have now.

We did. We hit the streets last week and asked just over 200 normal people what they thought about call centers, whether they preferred them to calling specific branches or whether they preferred to pop into a branch when they had a question.

The 200 people we questioned seemed like a fairly normal group. They were an equal mix of men and women and had an average age of just over 30. We questioned them at a major shopping center so we can assume they were the sort of people who go shopping, spend some money and travel a bit. They were just like you and me. I think their feelings were probably representative of the general population.

20% of them thought the service they got from call centers was either good or excellent. 46% thought it was either bad or terrible. This compared to 50% who thought the service in branches was good or better, 20% who thought it was bad or terrible. You could say that the general feeling was that call centers were less than half as good as branches.

So why didn’t people like them? What was their complaint? That’s simple. It wasn’t that call center staff were discourteous or unfriendly. There were no problems with their product knowledge or ability to help. There was one reason above all others that made people dislike calling call centers.


65% of the people we questioned said that call centers were too slow to answer their call. 40% of them said there were times when they couldn’t get through at all.

Anyone who’s called certain call centers will know this. I once drove my kids to school and one of them called his cellphone network provider’s call center with a question. We left home at 6:20am and when I dropped him at school 45 minutes later he was still on hold. I’ve heard of people who’ve waited for more than an hour to get an answer. I called a call center last week to ask which network provider I should roam with when I’m next overseas. I called three times and eventually gave up because each time I got through and asked my question I was then cut off. I know I’m not the only person with this experience.

As a result of this I’m not surprised by the responses we got to the last question we asked. How would you prefer to speak to a supplier? By calling their call center, calling your local branch or by visiting in person?

A mere 13% said they prefer the call center. The rest were equally divided between calling or visiting a branch. I think that’s a good indication of how poorly perceived call centers are. 87% of people would rather avoid them. 43% of consumers would rather waste their time travelling to a branch, queuing in person and then, after they’ve been served, travelling back to their home or office rather than go through the struggle of waiting in an electronic queue to get an answer. That’s a poor state of affairs.

So why is it so bad? Why do people wait so long to get through, assuming that they’re not cut off beforehand? The answer is simple.

The companies you deal with are desperate to save money. Having your own call center, or hiring an external company to do it for you, is an expensive business. By far the most expensive element is staffing, the people who actually sit there answering your call and the first temptation for a company that wants to save money is to cut back on the staffing levels they have in their call center.

I know of a major company that has an outsourced call center. Within the last year they’ve cut back on the number of people answering their call center phone number by 40% in order to save costs. With fewer people to answer the phone the ones that are left must work much faster when they speak to customers and the time before being answered is going to get much, much longer. That’s exactly what’s happened. My source says that callers are now waiting longer than ever before they get an answer. Presumably a huge proportion of then don’t even make it because they’ve got lives to lead and simply give up.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with call centers. In principle they can give decent service. In principle they can be the quickest way to get the service you need. In principle they can be the very best way to keep a company’s customers informed and happy. In principle.

In practice it’s different. Some companies think they can save money by using call centers but all that really does is leave their customer unhappy, frustrated and likely to switch to the competition.

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