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American Express Succeeds with Kinder, Gentler Call Center

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Last summer I wrote about the problem of high employee turnover in call centers, noting that part of the problem is the call center's largely deserved reputation as a white-collar sweatshop. Many companies stuff employees into cramped cubicles, monitor their every move and place more importance on call volumes rather than successful resolutions, making the work more stressful and repetitive than it needs to be. Oh, and employees generally aren't paid all that well.

 

But some companies are striving to improve the work environment at their call centers and reaping benefits in reduced costs and rising customer-service scores. One such company is credit card giant American Express, which is profiled in a Workforce Management article. (Free registration required.)

 

Yes, Amex boosted its call center compensation, though it did so largely by making it easier for agents to earn bonuses tied to customer-satisfaction scores rather than by simply raising salaries. But it also took away phone scripts and gave employees plenty of leeway to help customers solve their problems. An example offered in the article: If an American Express' small-business card holder calls in saying he has a conflict with a vendor, agents have the authority to set up a conference call to try to resolve the dispute. Empowered employees tend to be happier in their jobs and also solve more customer problems.

 

Unfortunately, empowering employees is not yet a common approach. When I interviewed him last summer, Strativity Group founder Lior Arussy told me just 39 percent of respondents to a Strativity Group survey said their employees had the tools and authority to solve customer problems.

 

In some other highlights of Amex's effort to improve service at its call centers by introducing a program called Relationship Care, the company:

  • Changed its metrics to emphasize customer satisfaction rather than number of calls handled a day. Last September I wrote about a similar shift in metrics at Dell call centers. When Dell told its agents to focus on solving customer problems rather than the length of time they spent on calls, the average time of a technical support call increased from 22 minutes to 32 minutes. But the number of incidents resolved on the first call rose from 44 percent to 65 percent. Though it took some time for the move to pay off, it ultimately did because total call volume fell. Customer-satisfaction scores also rose.
  • Shared responses from customer-feedback surveys with agents within five to seven days after a call. Agents access the feedback through a reporting system that shows their recent customer-satisfaction results, their aggregate results and how they stack up against peers. Agents' performance and pay are largely determined by how well they rate on the question: Would the customer recommend the company to a friend?
  • Shifted its recruiting focus from hires with prior call center experience to those with hospitality or other service industry backgrounds.
  • Changed the job title from customer care representative to customer care professional and gave agents business cards.
  • Created a clearer career path by introducing new categories so agents could advance through four levels instead of staying stuck in one.
  • Created a new program for low performers, which involves setting up incremental goals, offering coaching and providing additional training when necessary. Instead of most of those employees leaving, as in the past, more than half now stay with the company.

 

Among the positive results of the program, U.S. employee turnover fell by half from 2006 to 2009, and Amex has earned J.D. Power & Associates' top ranking for customer satisfaction among credit card issuers for four years in a row. Not only that, but Amex says Relationship Care conversations contribute to an average increase of 8 to 10 percent in card-member spending.

 

American Express isn't the only company that manages to motivate its call center employees. Thanks to lots of positive press and founder and CEO Tony Hsieh's book "Delivering Happiness," Zappos is the most famous example of a company that does so. I've also written about a BPO company called IQor, which recruits and retains call center employees by making them feel valued.

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