How to create customer interaction standards in seven steps

Despite self-service and chat-bots, live calls with telephone operators still exist.  Specialized companies sell ready-made solutions for telephony, call algorithms, control metrics, offer recruitment services and agents training – all “turnkey”. However, consumers get tired of friendly voices reading out prepared scripts. Agents find it increasingly difficult to keep their customers’ attention. Managers are asking how to motivate agents. Business units with their products and back-office teams with their SLAs complain that front line staff do not know how to sell and talk to customers.

In order to achieve real excellence call centres need “customer communication standards”.  In this article, I share my step by step approach, which has nothing to do with technology but focuses on communication and human touch.

The article is addressed to business leaders and change managers.

1. Start from company values

The standards for a particular business unit are essentially an extension of a company’s mission, its values and customer promise. Not at all businesses, and not all customers enjoy service of the highest quality. May one of the reasons be related to the way the world is divided by inequalities and worldviews? In my country, Russia, for example, even official media and advertising campaigns actually promote intolerance.  Therefore, in the office, business leaders cannot expect all employees to treat others as they would like to be treated. Still, basic human values cannot be ignored.  The following statements are to be adapted to the reality of your company:

  • every employee and every customer is respected,
  • the company promises to provide quality products and good service to customers
  • the company promises good working conditions to employees
  • the company collects and acts on feedback from customers and employees.

2. First ethical guidelines, then technical regulations

Rules cannot demand emotional engagement. Your hired telephone agent may consider themselves a patriot and an educated person, and at the same time not notice manifestations of racism, nationalism and other “-isms” in themselves. The management of the company should make it clear: in one’s thoughts, an employee can detest and curse the rich, bad debtors , migrants, stubborn older people or sexual minorities … but at the workplace, they must follow the rules, talk to each person politely and show respect.

Ethical attitudes must set up a framework for all other requirements, including technical.

3. Taking inspiration from universal values, define the goals you would like to achieve using the new standards

As an example from a large telemarketing centrе, which I worked with, they had a situation where agents were demotivated from customers not wanting to listen to them, so supervisors were keen to help them find an appropriate style of communication. After listening to several recordings together with the agents, we concluded that fast speaking with almost no pauses (AHT, AHT!) and the lack of spontaneous reaction from the agents to comments, criticisms or jokes created the impression that customers were being “talked at”.

In defining the goals, the project team involved employees in the discussion, and goals such as “we want our customers to like us”, “we want to know the product better”, “we want to raise the prestige of the agent’s work” were eagerly put forward.

4. Analyse feedback and identify little things that annoy customers

Imagine you are on the phone with a bank or a service centre, and you can hear other people’s conversations or sounds of someone playing a computer game.  Or – the agent you are speaking with repeats your name at the beginning of every new phrase – apparently, they were told it would be more polite this way but it does not sound right. Or, the customer said that it was not convenient to talk, the agent cheerfully assured that it was a matter of thirty seconds, and the conversation has lasted for five minutes already. Or the “smile in the voice” is so intense that the voice sounds unnatural. Do you doubt it’s necessary to tend to such trifle things? Please do not doubt  it.  It is.

5. Deep dive into the material, convince company leaders/project sponsor to join

It is useful to collect agents’ own opinions about what makes customers happy or upset, but it is even more useful to get your own experience through a deep-dive, shadowing agents and listening to live conversations on the line, taking notes (the latter is a must, otherwise you will forget details and be left with only a general impression, and you will need examples). So that agents are not stressed in vain, you should make it clear that you are a project colleague collecting material and not someone who will penalise them for making a mistake.

If you are a project manager and you invite senior management to deep dive, they might show reluctance – don’t we have any other problems besides how agents intonate their scripts? Do insist that they get a feel. Quote critical comments, play some recorded conversations. It would be great if business leaders spend at least half an hour in a live environment, next to the agents.

6. Write the text of the standards/rules

Having dived into the material you can then provide the project team with a list of pain points and solutions. If, along the way, you have identified a list of pain points and necessary improvements as for processes and technology, pass the list to other relevant teams.  Focus on your findings about human aspect of interaction – the solutions  will form the bulk of the text of the future standards.

For example, let us take the following feedback from a customer: “A young man talked to me in such a voice that I could just see him sitting in an armchair, legs on the table, as if I was disturbing him with my call…”.

This comment inspired us to draft the following:

“It is easier to sound respectful to customers when you are sitting upright. Correct posture helps your breathing and also helps your voice sound clearer. Make sure you take a short  break every 45 minutes and move around at your desk doing simple exercises, that will maintain your concentration”.

Ask operators to add their own suggestions to the draft text. Discuss each rule, try to apply it to the analysis of specific calls, to make the wording clear. Collection opinions anonymously.  If staff are involved in creating the rules, they will be committed to use them.

7. Think about what the company will give its employees in exchange for new demands

Often the conversation about “what’s good and what’s bad” leads to a broader discussions: on agents’ working conditions, completeness and timeliness of information they receive , interaction between departments, corporate culture etc. If agents say that the product they are supposed to sell has no value for consumers – then contact product managers and discuss the issue. Return to agents with the results of the discussion .

Putting forward new requirements together with new standards, the company needs to give something in return. For example, in one call centre where a “new standards” project was underway, there existed a strict dress code, and the strictness of it was one of the pain points agents communicated.  The project team convinced the management to waive rigid requirements and suggested a lighter version of the dress code, offering, on the way, several entertaining presentations “right way to dress – wrong way to dress”. The agents compared the changes to a “breath of fresh air”, and they welcomed the new standards.  Conduct a survey among agents to find out what can be improved. If it is an office environment – is there enough drinking water? Fresh air? is there a quiet, silent place to go to, during a break? If agents work from home – what can the employer improve for them?

When standards are created, the criteria for their implementation are specified in the procedures and checklists of the quality control team, it is important not to stop.  In order to ensure that posters on the walls and “memos” at work stations do not become memories of an interesting project, the standards need to be further discussed in connection with new work situations. Supervisors can organise “focus days”, campaigns, five-minute breaks to share good customer feedback (motivation and gamification are subjects for another article).

To finish, I will say a couple of words on so-called critical errors, which are: (a) knowingly sharing false information, (b) deviation from basic call regulations/algorithm, (c) skipping legally required warnings. Such mistakes are made either by new agents who are not yet used to be focussed, or, on the contrary, by those “burnt out” and ready to quit.  My experience shows that where a reasonable, authentic code of interaction with customers exists, the number of critical errors, as well as staff turnover, decreases.