Work in a call center

CSRs (Customer Service Representative) are the voice of the company.

I was working for two different call centers in Lithuania in two different kind of roles for two very different clients. Coming from a high-tech engineering position with several years of experience, I was not the typical CSR.

The customers interact with CSRs before they make a purchase and occasionally also afterwards if they have a complaint or want to dispute something. Some customers interact with the CSRs face to face over the counter, some over the telephone when they call the customer service number. This article reveals some inside information about the life of a call center CSR, who is typically portrayed as a smiling female model with a headset on. Which is not too far from the truth, actually.

A typical Lithuanian CSR is young person who is fluent in some foreign languages. My awesome colleagues were an interesting mix of people: linguistic/philologist, economist, lawyer, IT-nerd, singer, composer, musician, mathematician, ex-housewife, artist, and a few foreign men married (or wishing to be married) to a Lithuanian. There is no way I could’ve ever met such people elsewhere and I am happy for meeting them.

It seems to be the trend among the big international companies to outsource customer service, helpdesk or back-office functions to Lithuania. And I have no difficulties to understand why; Lithuania has a sizable pool of smart, well educated and hungry-for-success individuals in the labor market; the foreign language call center job in an international company is a very good option salarywise. And the talent usually follows money. Yet the call centers suffer to deliver excellent service to the customers. Let’s dig more into the details and try to find out why.

In it’s very essence, the recipe for excellent customer service is simple. From the customers point of view, excellent customer service means that:

  1. He feels that his issue matters
  2. His issue gets solved in a professional and quick manner

Here the CEOs and sales reps of call centers would argue that they do deliver excellent service to the customers. I disagree. Fulfilling clients contractual requirements is only satisfactory, not excellent.

Call statistics

Two kinds of statistics are usually collected.

  1. Quality of the single call / customer service interaction
  2. Quantity and mass metrics of all the calls / customer service interactions

The quality statistics are gathered by listening to only a small number of calls. Typically less than five calls a month (out of hundreds/thousands) are evaluated by another human being, typically another CSR and the customer service quality is represented subjectively with a number.

The quantity statistics are a different story though. Typically every call length is measured and the daily/weekly/monthly Average Handling Time has a target value, which should not be exceeded. Usually these kind of targets are directly tied to individual CSRs financial bonus or public humiliation in front of his/her peers. Consequently it means, that the CSR _will_ meet the targets. Even if it means that he has to play the system by transferring calls to peers or giving the customer some lame excuse to call back again or just simply to hang up – all this to keep the call length statistics in his/her favour.

The quantity statistics play no role in providing excellent customer service. They are there to prove the client that the call center service provider is worth their price tag.

The CSRs ALWAYS know the true quality of their work. The question is how to motivate them to keep the quality up when they are getting stress both from management and the customers.

Management and communication

We could generalise that there are two ways to manage people:

  • Vertical model, where the approach is “command and control”
  • Horizontal model, where the approach is “communicate and collaborate”

Both call centers I worked in, were applying the vertical model. In practice this means lack of transparency, one-way communication with the management and disempowering the CSRs of any decisions.
The front line CSRs are the first to learn about bottlenecks and improvement potential when it comes to tools and processes, which are directly affecting the excellency of the customer service. If the management responds to these ideas with a shrug of a shoulder, these ideas are not pointed out again.

An example from real life: The call center had a new client, whose requests were not solved by the call center but forwarded back to clients own workgroups inbox. A few workgroups did not have any resources assigned to it yet (read: nobody reading that newly made inbox in the call centers system). I pointed this out to my manager who responded “Just leave it and somebody will fix it when they assign resources to read that inbox in our system”.

I couldn’t believe my ears. How can the call center ignore this obvious glitch in the system? The service requests and the service providers are all in place within the client, just the link between these two is being changed from call center A to call center B, not at once, but with two month time period where the service provider is connected to call center A and service requesters to call center B.

In all honesty, making a mistake is okay, everyone does them. But not willing to take responsibility, that is just unacceptable. You can imagine how much heat the CSRs got from the callers who could not understand why their issues were left unattended instead of the next-day answer they were used to with the previous call center.

In the horizontal management model the managers main purpose is to help the team to do their work, listening for feedback and taking responsibility for the tools.

In the vertical model, the managers main purpose is to ensure that the team reaches given targets, which could be seen as treating the symptoms, but not healing the disease. If one treats people as responsible adults, most of the time they act like responsible adults. If one treats people as irresponsible kids, they act like ones, too. And people don’t usually respond very well to being treated like machines. All employees have their individual hopes, motivations and reasons to work as a CSR, which is considered a low status profession.

During my time in two call centers, I witnessed many talented individuals getting frustrated because they were not given the chance to fully exploit their talents. And the others just didn’t care anymore.

Teamwork, transparency and frequent consistent communication are the key. Small details do matter – big time.

“Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” – Benjamin Franklin

Training, reference material and new clients

It takes a lot of resources to invest in training and reference material but it definitely pays off. Customer service centers have a high employee turnover and the new employees should be ready for independent work quite quickly. This is not rocket science. CSRs need common sense, soft skills and quick access to reference information. Reference information and training material should be accurate, readily accessible, well-organised and easy-to-read without contradicting or ambiguous data.

New client start-up is quite a challenge for any call center. Especially information gathering from the clients current service provider, be it in-house or external call center, can be quite a challenge as most probably they are not very motivated to train their successors, even if they were paid generously for it.

An example from real life: New client had sent trainer to train us on-site. After very good first impressions of being extremely skillful and communicative, the trainer mutated into a sloppy, tired, hangovery and non-attentive somewhere halfway through the training program. The training material suddenly became messy and contradicting. One CSR was not happy with the situation and complained about it with the result of that CSR being fired and no action taken on the trainer who was continuing to enjoy the Vilnius nightlife very much. Then, a different trainer came to train the 2nd batch of CSRs with somewhat different procedures and facts, often contradicting with the first training. This naturally resulted in huge number of complaints from the service requesters who got very different answers depending on the which of the two trainings the CSR had got. All this could’ve been taken care of beforehand.

Should I outsource my customer service to Lithuania?

I can assure you, in most cases you get at least the same customer service in Lithuania than you would get in Scandinavia, provided that you use your common sense and consider some important points:

  • Provide complete information and training to the call center and have transparent communication with them. Your success depends on it.
  • Empower the CSRs with more responsibility and authority. It takes the problem off of the manager’s desk and puts it squarely in the hands of the people who are best qualified to see it and solve it.
  • Try to have at least one native speaker in the CSR team. Make sure that the call center listens and respects his/her opinion. There are times when he/she will be needed to solve very complex issues or decipher the real meaning of the customers words.
  • The language is a challenge in the transition period when the customers are not yet used to getting service from non-native speakers.
  • Try to have a experienced, multi-lingual migration officer doing both grass-root level CSR work as well as paying attention to the procedures and work flows.

I would recommend contracting me for a short time, if you can afford. Then again, I don’t see how you could afford not to contract me.

Further reading:

Extraordinary bosses – inc.com

Rockstar employees

Evaluating employees – Keith Ferrazzi

posted: 12 October 18
under: Lifestyle