For many organizations, service centers are necessary evils that eat budget dollars while adding little value. Because they are viewed as overhead, many service centers (a.k.a. call centers, help desks, etc.) are outsourced to reduce costs. But that may not guarantee that you'll save money, and worse, it can alienate customers by presenting as your public face service-center staffers who may have insufficient product knowledge, language capabilities or civility.
Savvy organizations value service centers as revenue generators . That doesn't just mean that they have staffers take orders in addition to answering questions. It means that they also expect staffers to be strong brand advocates who have personal experience with the products. These organizations treat their service centers as primary customer contact points. Their operations align with the assertion in the book Marketing Metrics , by Paul Farris et al, that "customer satisfaction provides a leading indicator of consumer purchase intentions and loyalty." Thus, every customer interaction becomes an opportunity to improve customer perceptions and relationships.
Skullcandy, L.L. Bean and a few other organizations have taken this philosophy to heart. L.L. Bean's Carolyn Beem describes the retailer's service center as "an integral part of the business and the brand. It is a revenue generator and the face of the brand."
L.L. Bean and Skullcandy recruit service-center staffers creatively. L.L. Bean sends recruitment emails to customers. Skullcandy announces jobs on Facebook and Twitter. Both methods generate numerous applications. Hiring choices are based more on customer-service orientation than product knowledge: Candidates must show an ability to handle difficult customer interactions, such as rude refund requests, unreasonable product replacement demands and convoluted product questions, while remaining calm and respectful.
Skullcandy augments its small, in-house service-center team with "brand experts," who are customers hired part time to handle chat lines. Brand experts are paid a competitive wage, but most find recognition to be more important. Successful answers to customer queries earn the experts points that can be redeemed for new or limited-edition products. A leader board displays point status, garnering the best experts peer (and management) recognition. Passionate experts often research thorny issues so that they can send follow-up emails with additional information or improved solutions.
Like most service centers, Skullcandy's and L.L. Bean's operations measure "talk time," but rather than encourage staffers to end conversations as quickly as possible, they view service-center calls as opportunities to educate their customers and sell additional products. Neither company uses scripted responses. And whereas it's common in many service centers for staffers to handle seven callers at once, Skullcandy's brand experts chat with two or three online customers simultaneously, and L.L. Bean's staffers interact with just one each.
Matching the customer service excellence found at L.L. Bean, Skullcandy and some other companies requires changing the service desk's mission, processes, metrics and rewards. That's not easy, or inexpensive. But the resulting increases in customer satisfaction, loyalty and support are well worth it. Stronger customer focus can also have a significant positive impact on both internal and external perceptions of IT -- and that's invaluable.
IT shops can benefit from adopting, adapting or morphing creative approaches into their service centers. Challenge your staffers to think of other innovations, tailored to the needs of your customers, your products and your IT organization's success.
Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners, which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com .
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