Editor’s note: Oscar Dominguez is president of Customer Care Solutions. Ed Gagnon is president of Customer Service Solutions.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s Monday morning in the call center, and as usual, calls are holding, call volume per hour is heavier than forecasted, and basically, the center is receiving more calls than it is able to handle.

Like many Mondays (and Fridays), several staff have called in sick, the calls are backing up, and the customers are becoming irate and often hanging up. Supervisors pace the floor and managers quickly move from meeting to meeting, looking at the overhead reader boards with an interested but detached demeanor.

From the call center’s inception, high absenteeism and double-digit employee turnover have taken their toll on service levels, employee morale, and customer satisfaction; this Monday is no exception. The usual pressure to clear call queues is on, and once again, management needs to pull off a miracle. What has caused call centers to reach this breaking point?

From Employees to Robots

Over the last 20 years, call center technology has focused on gaining efficiency and reducing operating cost. Much of the efficiency gains have been achieved through assembly line processes – which sacrifice much of the human contact involved. Here, customer requests enter the “assembly line” after exiting an automated self-service technology, which has compartmentalized the different types of customer calls according to a predetermined set of choices.

The representative receives the information passed by the technology via Computer Telephony Integration (CTI). Customer Relationship Management (CRM) information appears on the screen or in the form of a “whisper” message prompted by a caller ID-driven application. Routing logic from the Automated Call Distributor matches representatives to the call based on yet another predetermined set of choices. This assembly line continues as the call reaches the customer service representative, who is being used as a human data collection robot. From here, technology moves this information to different parts of the company where pieces are “picked up” by processing personnel (human data interpretation robots), and the task is repeated again and again. It’s efficient, but it’s not the most fulfilling job to be in the role of a robot.

From Customers to Contacts

As corporations have reached for the financial rewards that come from lower operating costs, they’ve often forgotten a critical tenet of business: take care of the customer, and the customer will take care of you. Over the last 20 years, we have seen customer service centers change to contact centers. We have now reached the point where we reject the idea that the foundational element in customer service is a customer; instead, it’s a contact.

From Organizational to Transactional Benefits

While the call center industry has achieved significant results in reducing overall operating costs and improving process efficiency through automation, new problem areas have emerged. When evaluating efficiency and cost savings, it is myopic to neglect factors such as number of repeat calls, which are often overlooked in the accounting. To understand this phenomenon, we can look at cost per transaction or cost per call. The number of contacts per customer served continues to increase as processes become more efficient, and the increase in contacts per customer decreases the average cost per contact of the operation. So it looks like the call center has become more efficient, but ironically it also needs to hire more agents in order to keep up with the increased workload – i.e., the increased number of contacts. This is the difference between transactional efficiency and organizational efficiency. The organization’s ultimate goal is overall efficiency. But instead, they’ve created efficiencies in the transaction that can actually lead to higher overall organizational costs by creating multiple contacts per customer, when one-call resolution is much more efficient.

Refocus on True Costs and Customer Loyalty

As we move forward, technology continues to shape the way we service customers and the way that processes are being designed. It is essential that technology design and implementation teams not only focus on automation and efficiency but also consider the impact to customer loyalty and a broader view of the overall operating cost (employee turnover, customer acquisition costs, repeat calls, etc.).

When you consider that overall organizational costs drive true costs-per-transaction, design teams should look for ways that technology can foster and create opportunities to increase agent’s ownership for the customer’s needs and concerns so that repeat calls and customer dissatisfaction can be avoided. Design customer service systems with the idea that information should be easy to access and to understand, and that information should empower the representative rather than limit and constrain their ability to “fully” serve the customer. This can best be accomplished by focusing on designing and implementing important information loops geared to energize and empower customer service representatives. This type of a technology-enabled customer service environment promotes job enrichment though increased agent empowerment, accountability, and knowledge.

The vision for the future is to use technology as an enabler to create a customer service environment where agents manage a business portfolio of customers who they have helped. This vision has engaged, energized and credible staff who can provide accurate and pertinent information, when and how the customer wants to receive it. In this new environment, efficiency is viewed in the context of overall cost and is not permitted to sacrifice employee empowerment, job enrichment, and customer satisfaction. These new technology design principles will move the pendulum away from speed to “process the contact” to a new perspective that is more focused on effectiveness, long-term profitability and return on investment.

Oscar Dominguez, President of Customer Care Solutions, Inc., a customer service center consultancy, has 25+ years experience in the call center world. Oscar can be reached at (704)489-9001 or at Oscar@consultingresults.com.

Ed Gagnon is president of Customer Service Solutions, Inc., which specializes in customer retention and growth strategies, training and research. He can be reached at (704) 553-7525 or Ed.Gagnon@cssamerica.com.