Call Centers: A Friendly Touch

Dismal customer relations has been the standard at call centers for decades. Callers get put on hold, only to be routed to representatives who have no expertise in the problem at hand. Businesses, however, are beginning to realize that this unhappy situation is costing them money--£250 million for every £1 billion in annual revenue, according to London-based corporate analysts Data Vantage. The reason: customers tend not to buy products over the phone when they're having a bad experience. What's more, 55 percent of callers just hang up when they're getting the run-around. By contrast, a company with high-satisfaction phone services pulls in 30 to 40 percent more revenue during calls than its counterparts, according to Siemens research.

Companies such as Barclays, Siemens, Prudential and Powergen have begun to invest in new technology to make call centers more like the local shops or chatty door-to-door salesmen of yore. Barclays' Gadbrook Park Call Center, which opened last year and was named best European call center by the industry magazine Call Center Focus, based its customer-service model on Ritz-Carlton's. "We've replicated what a five-star hotel chain would deliver with bespoke service," says director Rob Hawthorn.

Technology is key. Calls are answered 90 percent of the time in 20 seconds. Intelligent call-routing systems will predict when a repeat caller might need an expert computer software engineer, for example, and have the caller skip the small talk and go straight to the experts. Each caller is automatically routed to the same small team of reps that he always speaks to. Thanks to windows that pop up when the call comes in, the call-center team member has all sorts of facts at his command. He knows the news and weather in the caller's area, and some personal facts--the caller's marital status, where he took the kids on vacation, his travel habits. That makes it easier to sell new products. Lost your ATM card? Perhaps you'd like a new one that awards frequent-flier miles ...

It's not all about technology, of course. Local accents are considered important, too. That's partly why Prudential, Powergen and some other firms have pulled their call centers out of India and brought them closer to their customers. Barclays credits its regional-feel call centers with playing a role in its recent rise in market share. It's an old-fashioned lesson: being friendly to customers pays off.