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Consultant’s blog: Call centre meltdown questions whether an employee survey could have given me seven hours of my life back

Opinion piece by one of Insync’s Research Project Managers

Having recently changed mobile phone provider I optimistically began a fixed price contract happily envisaging what I’d do with all my saved dollars – big mistake! The very first bill I received was wrong, but not to be deterred I made five phone calls to rectify it and continued happily dialling.

The second bill arrived – this was also wrong, the miscalculation had been compounded by the attempted rectification of the previous error. My support calls to the telco’s customer call centre started again.

The third month the bill was again wrong. By this time I’d lost any interest in the modest savings the new call plan had promised and simply wanted the seven hours, over 22 customer support phone calls, of my life back.

I’m not alone in this awful customer service experience, a recent radio item indicated that it’s not unusual for customers to spend up to seven hours resolving similar types of issues. While I felt frustrated and let down by the organisation I began to ask: “am I the real victim here?” “are staff feeling peeved too?”

I began to think about how Insync’s Alignment and Engagement Survey, which is an employee survey, and how it could have been used in this scenario to increase employee engagement.

Insync’s Alignment and Engagement Survey is an academically validated tool designed to make organisations more effective. The framework measures employees’ opinions on factors (factors are issues) which impact their alignment with the overall organisational goals and strategies. This staff survey enables pin-pointing of areas which could be targeted to improve performance. The engagement element of this employee survey then identifies key drivers which can be leveraged to increase employee engagement.

It’s well known that throughout Australia and in other regions call centres have notoriously high staff turnover; employers attempt to buy staff loyalty with prize draws and retention bonuses, but this alone is insufficient. Simply look at the number of recruitment ads in any newspaper at any given time, combine this with the off-shoring of call centres; not only as a cost cutting measure but because these jobs can attract and retain more people in other countries.

After this awful experience, I began to ask myself: “why do these call centres have such high staff turnover compared with other industries?” and “why is staff loyalty so low with great swathes of people exiting on a daily basis?” All this is particularly surprising to me during a time of economic uncertainty which generally anchors staff retention.

As market leaders, Telstra’s total customer base soared more than 16% to $12.2 million in the year to June 2011; despite David Thodey’s acknowledgment that Optus and Vodafone would be aiming to poach customers he claims that if there is a price war “…it will continue to be very focussed on why people come to us – which is because of coverage of the network, the strength of the network, the great wireless speeds…”

As a customer perhaps I should have gone to Telstra; these offerings all sound enticing but for all their investment in systems I wonder: “have these types of organisations equalled investment in their people?” and “do they stop and give their employees a say”. In my extensive experience in consulting to organisations on improvement initiatives, I believe that ultimately increasing employee engagement will help to increase staff retention which would improve customer service, customer satisfaction and increase profits.

Let me break this down in terms of “team effectiveness”, a factor measured in our Alignment and Engagement Survey. On the first five calls I was dealt with by a different call centre employee on each occasion; apparently it was impossible to speak with the same person but detailed notes would be made against my account. Fine in theory, the reality was that the team could not operate effectively as insufficient details had been recorded, requiring repeated explanations of the same problem. The result: this lack of team effectiveness took up staff time and cost the organisation money.

Now, let’s look at the role of “investment in systems”, a factor measured in our Alignment and Engagement Survey. The so called “state-of-the-art IVR” failed to provide the options relating to my calls, ultimately I had to go through all pathways, wait in a calling queue and explain the scenario from scratch with a general representative. This was frustrating for the rep didn’t have the right answers, as they were in the wrong department, but spent considerable amounts of my time personally displaying high discretionary effort trying to resolve my billing issue. In one instance I was lucky, since the person I spoke to was willing to go the extra mile, but in some cases I was met with quite a different personality, or simply the kind of employee who said: “sorry you’ve come through to the wrong department, I can’t help you” and diverted me back into the automated abyss. The result: I got fed-up and wasn’t that pleasant to the already unengaged call centre staff. Many of the people I spoke to gave up on my complaint. I’m now unlikely to renew my contract.

“Senior leadership”, another factor (or area) measured in our Alignment and Engagement Survey, is also worth questioning. In this customer call centre, leaders were unfathomable and frustrating for me; when I asked to speak to a supervisor I was told that none were available and that someone would call me back, this failed to materialise. A supervisor did leave notes on my account but the call centre staff were unable to access them. This led to increased frustration on my behalf (the customer) and increased stress and crankiness directed to call centre employees.

There are many factors which affect how employees can be aligned with their organisational goals and feel a sense of emotional, cognitive and behavioural engagement with these. Alignment and engagement ultimately affect company performance and the bottom line. Here, team effectiveness, investment in systems and leadership failed to work and would have been likely to impact staff alignment and engagement. If they’d done an Alignment and Engagement Survey employee survey, they would have been all over this.

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