Effective Customer Service Can be the Key to Small Business Growth

Effective Customer Service Can be the Key to Small Business Growth

If you're a small business that's successfully weathering the COVID-19 storm - congratulations! Now, what's your growth strategy?

The work is never done for small businesses, is it? Margins are usually too thin to ever take your eye off the ball. This means small businesses need to constantly focus on areas like promotions, suppliers, customer satisfaction, product quality, and, yes, thinking about your growth strategy in the midst of a pandemic.

Solid, sustainable business growth is typically the result of informed planning and well-executed strategies. A growth strategy might include plans to open another location, target new consumer groups, or offer new products and services. Plans for growth often focus on gaining new customers, but small businesses should also target ways to sell more to existing customers, a concept known as "share of wallet."

Additionally, companies can't sustain growth if they experience high customer turnover. By one estimate, it costs 25% more to acquire new customers than retain existing ones. Additionally, satisfied customers spend 1.4 times more than dissatisfied ones and they are more likely to recommend a business that provides great experiences to friends and family. Clearly, growth plans also need to include steps for protecting and satisfying the existing customer base.

A sometimes overlooked tool for increasing share of wallet and decreasing customer churn is effective customer service. Every small business provides customer service, whether it's face-to-face in a store front or handled by a call center. It's just a cost of doing business, right? Actually, no. It's much more than that. Organizations should use every one of these customer touchpoints to solidify relationships and introduce customers to products or services that can fill an unmet need or want.

What is "effective" customer service?

There are three predominant factors that make a customer service interaction successful:

  • Effectiveness - was the issue resolved accurately and competently on the first attempt?
  • Ease of use - was the organization easy to deal with or did they make the customer jump through extra hoops?
  • Emotion - how did the customer feel about the interaction?

In the context of contact center interactions, effectiveness is typically measured by a first contact resolution (FCR) rate. Just as the name implies, this is a measure of the percentage of contacts that are "one and done," a quality that customers value. FCR is typically dependent on the skill and empowerment of customer service agents - competent, empowered agents produce higher FCR.

Effectiveness can also be measured and enhanced through a robust quality management program. Regular, meaningful quality reviews are an important component of ensuring agents are developed and processes are streamlined, ultimately leading to optimized first call resolution rates.

Example of effective customer service

Example of Effective Customer Service

Let's say you order a side table from Company A. You're a long-time customer because you like the quality of this small business's furniture. Unfortunately, when the side table arrives the top is badly damaged. You take a picture of the damage and email it to the company. Before you get a response, you remember something you forgot to include in the email, so you call customer service. The phone agent accesses your email to review the details, orders a replacement table, and schedules an appointment for a shipping company to pick up the damaged table. She also let's you know that they now carry mirrors that match the dresser you bought two years ago, so you order that, too. Two days later, the shipping company picks up the end table and a week later your new table and mirror arrive.

The whole phone interaction lasts about six minutes because the agent knows the company's return policies and has ready access to the systems she needs. Because the interaction was effective, the company not only strengthens their relationship with you, but they also sell you additional products. This is the power of effective customer service.

Agents are the key to delivering effective customer service

Customer service agents are at the forefront of delivering effective customer service. When upset or frustrated customers contact businesses, they just want their problems solved or their questions answered now so they can be done with it. Connecting them to unskilled agents or ones who aren't empowered with the right policies or tools could be disastrous for customer loyalty. In fact, a PWC study revealed that one out of three consumers would leave a brand they love after just one bad experience. Customers are becoming more demanding and they expect their issues to be resolved quickly and accurately.

Problems agents face

Call center agent is presented with a challenge.

Unfortunately, sometimes agents can't meet these demands because they aren't sufficiently developed, supported, and empowered. A majority of agents are motivated to help customers and organizations meet their goals, yet, according to one study, 85% of them feel like they’re ineffective at assisting customers. Here are some of the common problems that prevent agents from delivering effective customer service:

Problem #1 - Training

Agents typically receive training when they're first hired and then may nest for a period of time before they go solo. After that, training can be inconsistent. Experienced agents may receive training on new products or attend group refresher training when widespread issues are identified, but these types of training efforts aren't specific to each employee's performance. Agents that don't receive regular, targeted development aren't as proficient as they could be and might not be completely aligned on customer experience objectives.

What holds organizations back from providing ongoing training? Many times it's due to labor costs. But it can also be difficult to pinpoint each agent's specific training needs. Customizing training plans is important because it makes them relevant and effective. Most contact centers have quality assurance programs that are supposed to help solve this problem by identifying specific development opportunities. But they commonly rely on a sampling process that may not capture an agent's true strengths and weaknesses. Having an incomplete picture of agent performance will result in suboptimal development.

Solution. Contact centers that use industry leading quality management applications can avoid most of these problems by automating the monitoring process. In fact, the right software can review 100% of contacts from every channel and flag ones needing follow up. This ensures agents receive quality scores that more accurately reflect their work.

Additionally, this approach helps supervisors more effectively identify agent-specific training needs. Instead of taking a shotgun approach or coaching agents on the wrong topics, leaders can focus on relevant and meaningful development that will positively impact performance results. Better-developed agents will deliver better customer experiences.

More information: Watch our recorded webinar, How and Why to Engage Your Agents in Quality Management, for further insights.

Problem #2 - Complexity

Too often, agents are required to navigate multiple, unintegrated systems when handling customer contacts. For example, they may need to look up a caller's customer ID in the CRM system, then look up order information in the order management system, access the ticketing system to request a refund, and then go back to the CRM application to log call notes. All the systems likely have their own log-in processes (ie, no single sign-on) and the agent probably has multiple open Windows that she toggles through as she tries to assist customers.

Under this type of scenario, the tools that are supposed to be helping agents are actually hindering them from providing effective customer service. Disparate systems increase complexity and the possibility of error, plus if an agent forgets one of her passwords, FCR will suffer.

Consider this analogy. In the mid-1990s, before universal remotes were common, having a multimedia TV experience was a complex undertaking. I had a friend who took a 2x4 and velcroed four different remotes on it - one each for the TV, cable box, VCR, and stereo. It took some wizardry to play a video tape with the audio coming from the stereo speakers, and only my friend knew how to set it up, often with some initial trial and error because he sometimes forgot how to do it.

Requiring agents to work with multiple, disparate systems is kind of like handing them my friend's remote-covered 2x4. It takes special knowledge just to navigate through all the different tools and sometimes they just might forget how to do it, eating up the caller's time while they figure it out.

Solution. To solve this problem, agents should have a unified desktop that integrates all relevant systems into a single interface. In other words, give them a "universal remote."

Woman is excited about CRM integration.

A unified desktop puts all relevant systems and customer data at an agent's fingertips. Having easy access to information such as purchase and contact history (enabled by CRM integrations) gives agents the context they need to personalize interactions and deliver effective customer service.

Additionally, unified agent desktops commonly provide a single point of access for handling contacts from multiple channels. For example, if an agent supports phone, email, and chat, she doesn't need to go into three separate systems. Everything she needs is provided in one interface. And, depending on the technology, she may be able to perform experience-enhancing tasks like elevating a chat session to a phone call in order to ensure the customer's issue is resolved in one contact.

If technology is a distraction rather than a helpful tool, agents will have difficulty providing effective customer service. Agents shouldn't have to be experts at navigating a complicated spiderweb of internal systems. Rather, their focus should be on delivering exceptional CX and resolving customer issues. A unified desktop allows them to do this.

More information: To see a unified agent desktop in action watch our demo video.

Problem #3 - Utilization

Agent utilization is something every well-run contact center worries about multiple times every day. When agents are underutilized, meaning the contact volume is too low to keep agents busy, it's an inefficient use of labor dollars and can put the budget in jeopardy. Conversely, when there aren't enough agents to sufficiently handle volume, it makes it difficult for the overwhelmed agents to provide effective customer service.

Several factors can contribute to over- or underutilization. The first possible point of failure is the forecast. Forecasts predict contact volume by day part based on volume history. Forecasting can be a complex task and if a contact center doesn't use sound practices, the foundational forecast can be shaky.

The second potential point of failure is scheduling. Good scheduling practices need to consider several factors, such as forecasted volume, agent preferences, expected absenteeism, and more. But even if forecasts and schedules are solid, sometimes things just happen – maybe one of your products goes viral and drives unanticipated volume, or perhaps a lot of agents call in because of a blizzard. Contact centers need to have good workforce management practices, including the ability to quickly adjust .when things don't go according to plan.

Regardless of the cause, being understaffed will have a negative effect on the customer experience, especially for those customers who use phone support. They'll sit in queue longer, more of them will abandon their calls because they don't want to wait, and those that get through to an agent will likely be rushed through the interaction because the agent feels the pressure of a backed up queue.

Solution. Many small call centers use spreadsheets as tools to support forecasting and scheduling. That may work well for small, simple operations, but as businesses grow and customer demands force complexity into the service model, call centers may outgrow spreadsheets. Workforce management software can take over when spreadsheets fall short.

Workforce management applications automate and add accuracy to forecasting, scheduling, and intraday adjustments. They can quickly build forecasts based on historical volume, apply several different predictive algorithms, account for future volume-driving events, and facilitate "what-if" scenarios. These capabilities result in better forecasts that help contact centers avoid understaffing.

Additionally, sophisticated scheduling capabilities ensure the right number of agents are scheduled during the right times of day across all supported channels. Plus, features like shift swapping and automated time off requests give agents more control over their schedules, which is good for agent satisfaction.

Finally, when life doesn't go according to plan, the best workforce management software can recalculate forecasts on the fly and adjust schedules accordingly. Ultimately, workforce management applications improve planning so that contact centers are optimally staffed. This will increase the likelihood that agents will be able to take the time they need to effectively resolve customer inquiries on the first contact.

Problem #4 - Performance feedback

NICE inConatct performance feedback fro agents

Contact centers are data-rich environments. Just about everything is measured - from volume to handle times to first contact resolution - and metrics can often be drilled down to the agent level. When used for agent development, these metrics can be powerful tools for increasing the effectiveness of customer service. However, too often, agents don't have ready access to their own performance statistics.

A commonly used saying asserts "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it." But what if you measure it and don't manage it? Or manage it well? That's what can happen when agents don't have visibility to their performance results. Attempts to improve performance can fall short of their potential.

Solution. Performance management applications can get metrics into the hands of those who can make a direct impact on aggregate results - the agents. Many performance management tools use dashboards, deployed to the agent desktop, that graphically represent key metrics for easy identification of trends and target shortfalls. Agent dashboards can also provide team results for further benchmarking and to motivate agents to collectively hit targets.

Some performance management solutions also automate performance planning for agents who need focused development. The system can recommend action steps and if it has gamification capabilities, agents can receive rewards for hitting interim and final targets. The automation of some of these administrative tasks also provides supervisors with more time to spend on value-added coaching and development, ultimately making their team more proficient at delivering effective customer service.

Problem #5 - Operational reporting

Agents aren't the only ones who may have difficulty viewing performance data. Sometimes supervisors can't access the data they need to manage operations, especially if they're working with outdated call center software. Legacy systems may capture the data, but sometimes it's hard to get to it. Additionally, creating new or modifying existing reports may require scarce IT resources or vendor involvement (at a cost). And sometimes the data that is accessible isn't real-time.

The lack of timely, easily accessible operational data is clearly a problem in a fast-paced environment where data is often the key to operational success. When supervisors can't access agent-level metrics, like FCR rates, they can't pinpoint who or what to focus on to improve overall results.

Solution. Modern contact center software packages typically include a multitude of out-of-the-box reports that reflect contact center reporting best practices. The standard reports often include drill down capabilities  so that supervisors can see the agent-level details required for targeted improvement efforts. And if none of the out-of-the-box reports suits a particular need, end-users should be able to create their own reports, no IT or vendor involvement required.

Benefits and summary

Call center agents use NICE inContact CXone

All of this is really about equipping agents to deliver effective customer service. This will allow small businesses to protect their customer base so they can experience meaningful growth. This approach requires agents to receive regular, targeted development to hone their skills. Additionally, agents need to have access to performance data and integrated systems that facilitate the goal of resolving customer issues in a single contact. Finally, being sufficiently staffed, due to better forecasting and scheduling, will ensure agents have the time they need to satisfy customers.

It won't help your business if you're pulling in new customers through the front door while losing the same number of existing customers out the back door. That's not growth, it's just replacement. To experience sustainable growth, shut that back door by taking care of your customer base with effective service.

This is the first of a three part series. Coming up next - learn more about how ease of use fuels higher customer satisfaction. Until then you can review the blog post that serves as the basis for this series - The Small Businesses Imperative for Proactive Customer Service.