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The Ethnography of Experience

From Call Center to Experience Center: The Elevation of Marginalized Work

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One of the nice things about teaching college for a living, especially at a business school, is that it provides you with a ready focus group whenever you need one. Cut to my class immediately following the CallMiner LISTEN2019 conference. One of the overarching takeaways I got from the conference, beyond the stunning views, great food, and warm company, was the range of industries that were there to talk about their work on the phones. Hearing their stories, and the type of challenges they face, gave me a newfound appreciation for ‘phone work’, or more generally being the point of contact for customers.

Proceed with caution

Proceed with caution

This thought led me to wonder about how people generally view contact center jobs. Asking my students, the results were not surprising. Phrases like “high pressure,” “low pay,” “stressful,” “annoying,” “accents,” and “pushy” were given as description of contact centers. Perhaps there is truth to many of these points. Dealing with complaints, collections, and in the case of the Christian Broadcast Network repeated prayer requests, can indeed be stressful. Trying to close a sale, get payment for a bill, offer a customer a deal can all sound (or be) pushy. And the pay may not be that great either. Glassdoor puts a Call Center Representative in Boston at making between $27.4k-44.8k per year. That’s not going to get you very far in Boston.

At the same time, other descriptors for contact center jobs given by students did not match what I was hearing at the conference. Phrases like “low skill”, “lower education,” “dead end,” and “scripted” did not reflect the evolving competence required to do the job well. In an era of advanced analytics, improvisational conversations, and omnichannel communications, skill and savvy is required. While the barrier to entry into a contact center job might be low, the requirements to stay and be successful are increasing.

Sorry. Not sorry.

Sorry. Not sorry.

When talking to contact center supervisors and C-level executives, the one message that was clear was to stay competitive as a business, the skills and experiences of their contact center workers had to change. No longer could they rely on just putting bodies in chairs and giving them scripts to read. Rather, they needed to coach up and facilitate professional development in a wider range of areas. Contact center staff need to become a combination of sales persons, data analysts, and therapists. Being present for a phone call in order to respond with appropriate emotion while integrating information from a variety of screens is a far cry from repeating what ‘the computer says.’

Companies also are realizing that the cost of attrition is higher than the cost of retention. In order to drive customer experience you need to start with employee experience. Take for example Mike Small’s (CEO – Americas, Sitel Group) talk on their new initiative “My Associate Experience”, or MAX. Sitel knows that to stay competitive and innovative, the collective wisdom and knowledge of all their associates is necessary. It doesn’t hurt that the founders of the company also ‘worked the phones’ and know that ‘phone work’ is knowledge work.

Or take Marge Jackson’s (SVP – National Call Center Sales, Comcast Cable) talk on how Comcast is using the CallMIner to create their own Voice Analytics program. In an industry worth billions of dollars, what the representatives in her contact centers do matters directly to the company’s bottom line. With Call Center Sales delivering 40% of Comcast’s customer connections and company revenue, they cannot afford the old call center model of work.

Taken together, the LISTEN2019 conference made clear that the ‘call center’ needs to become the experience center since this is the environment in which customer experiences are made. Companies need to provide the tools and training for experience center staff to succeed and thrive. There needs to be a larger focus on building successful employee experiences to drive valuable customer experiences. And technology like CallMiner (and their partners) is going to be play a pivotal role in driving that transformation. Rather than the call center being a marginalized part of the organization, the future is going to see a shift to positioning it as a strategic asset of innovative potential.

To stay competitive and have a staff that can perform, you need the conversational training and analytical dashboard to empower your call canter workers to not just do the job, but to engage in the moments they have with customers.

Gary David
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