Customers are demanding greater product quality in tough times

At the end of October 2011, Customer Relationship Metrics published its quarterly Real-time Customer Experience Benchmarking Report to business partners.  One of the more interesting findings that emerged from analysis of the benchmarking data was a relatively unexplained spike in problem-related calls to contact centers that provide support to the automotive, appliance, and electronics industries after the point of sale.  The percentage of calls in which the customer is calling because of a (perceived) problem is a Key Indicator about the customer experience and operational costs for our business partners, especially in benchmarking, because it speaks to the relative level of challenge inherent in the calls handled by the call center, and therefore the call center’s opportunity to perform, delight, resolve, and retain customers during that time period.  An increase of the magnitude seen in the figure below represents a significant “hardening” in doing business for our partners.

Analysis of unstructured customer comments in the Survey Calibration process revealed two primary drivers to this trend:

  1. Economic hardship is causing customers to seek to repair instead of replace products.
  2. There is a growing perception on the part of customers that things are no longer “made to last.”

The drive to repair

An article entitled  “Many Are Repairing, Rather Than Replacing, Their Appliances and Electronics” published in The Ledger on September 24th of this year reported a shifting in the tide of Americans repairing  rather than replacing  appliances, and our real-time customer experience data certainly supports that claim.  In times of economic hardship, people focused on stretching their dollars are more likely to repair their products for a fraction of the replacement cost.  While this is great news for repair shops and technicians, it creates a myriad of challenges for call centers from more challenging, lengthy, technical conversations with do-it-yourselfers to increased demand for parts and higher call volume and wait times.

The typical call center solutions of increasing (technical) training and increasing staffing will help alleviate some of these challenges.  But understanding what customers expect when they’ve already waited longer than they’d like to speak to an agent will help as well.  The regression analysis below is based on a three-month time frame in which the business partner’s call center operated within the set Average Speed of Answer (ASA) goal.  This regression analysis indicates that the behaviors or skills most valued by customers (in declining order of importance) are gaining the customer’s confidence in the information presented and quickly understanding the reason for the call.

The following regression analysis was generated for the same call center during a two-month period during which ASA exceeded goal by approximately 30%.   Note the dramatic shift in customer priorities.  When wait time exceeded customer tolerance, the agent’s ability to quickly understand the reason for the call (and communicate this understanding) became, by far, the largest driver of the customers’ satisfaction with the call center agent.  The importance of all other agent skills dropped off, as the one skill that pointed to the efficiency of the remainder of the call emerged as key.

So at what point on the wait-time-continuum do call center agents need to shift their approach to customers?  The answer will be different for every industry and business partner.   By “marrying” customer experience analytics to the wait time they experienced, you can determine the point in (wait) time at which customer experience and brand loyalty begins to significantly degrade.

Transforming Customer Experience Data into Actions

What would you do if presented with this data?  ‘Nothing’ or ‘waiting’ are the wrong answers.  Here are three things the top performing call center leaders would do:

Immediately take this information and share it with Marketing, Sales, and Supply Chain.  Why?  There are several things that can be done to address the additional cost to operate which may include:

      1. A change in advertising messaging.
      2. Different or additional communication via email or website.
      3. A new improved version.
      4. Validation to push an up-sale.
      5. Creating new products.
      6. A change in extended warranty positioning

Repurpose and make the different customer drivers part of the focus for agent training and coaching.  Giving agents more relevant and customer-directed coaching will:

      1. Position them to serve the caller more effectively.
      2. Control the length of calls by permitting adjustments in “required tasks”.
      3. Engage the agents in more thinking rather than simply repeating.
      4. Enhance loyalty.

Change KPIs based on newly discovered data.  Keeping the same goals and tactical plans while ignoring these differences is not reflective of strong leadership skills.  The parameters for obtaining success as defined only with the previous insights are no longer valid.  Leadership requires the application of the analytics into predictive models to be ACTIVE instead of Reactive.

 Not made to last

In addition to the increased call volume, handle time and resulting lower service levels, call centers providing product support also have to contend with the growing customer perception that things are no longer made to last.  To some degree, customers may be right in their perception.  The global search for cheaper labor that took us to China also resulted in the push to take out product costs with lower-quality parts that result in shorter life spans for products, in order to lower costs to purchase.  Once again, you get what you pay for.  According to the 23rd annual portrait of the U.S. appliance industry, one can expect the following lifespan out of appliances:

So a customer who purchased a refrigerator for $900 15 years ago is operating under unrealistic expectations when they call their manufacturer irate and demanding special consideration.  Arm your agents with industry average and statistics and even Consumer Reports figures (assuming your organization ranks well) so that they be more effective in their conversations with consumers.  Managing customer expectations is a practice that should be conducted throughout the lifespan of your relationship with your clients, but is best done at the onset of that relationship.

 

Resources:

http://www.theledger.com/article/20110924/NEWS/109245005?p=1&tc=pg

http://jimappliances.com/appliance-life-expectancy/

2 Responses to Customers are demanding greater product quality in tough times

  • Normally I don’t read post on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up forced me to do it! Your writing style amazed me. Thanks, quite nice article.

    • alatimer

      Thank you for the wonderful compliment! I’m passionate about what I do here at Customer Relationship Metrics and I’m glad that comes through in my writing!
      - Carmit

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