“We are experiencing higher than normal call volumes…”
It’s the infuriating phrase that makes every customer cringe — a refrain that’s become a standard part of most every 800-line call greeting, with similar language posted on websites for chat-based service. And it all means one thing to the customer: That question you had, that problem you needed resolved? Well, get comfortable, because it’s going to be a while before you speak with a company representative.
The ubiquity of the “higher than normal call volume” warning suggests that many organizations don’t have a clue how to staff their service centers or, more shamefully, just don’t care. Being inundated with customer service inquiries is bad for business on multiple levels. Obviously, it represents an aggravation for customers, and sends a signal that your call – and you – really aren’t that important to the company (no matter what the 800-line recording asserts). And, as studies have shown, if a company subjects customers to a poor experience, it exacts quite a penalty on the business.
But the negative impact of long call and chat queues doesn’t stop with customers; it also extends to employees. If you’ve never sat in the customer service chair and experienced high incoming volumes yourself, suffice it to say – it’s brutal. The moment you finish one call or chat session, another one immediately gets routed to you. No downtime. No rest for the weary.
Moreover, because customers are kept waiting for so long, by the time they actually reach the company rep, they’re not happy. So not only are employees overwhelmed with customer inquiries, the customers they’re talking to are already furious, due to no fault of the employee. It’s a tough, exhausting slog, and one that takes a real toll on the staff, contributing to burnout and turnover which fuels further deterioration in the customer experience.
To deal with high customer inquiry volumes, many companies focus on “deflection.” That’s a strategy which involves shifting the inquiries to another channel that doesn’t require human intervention. Instead of online chat with a live representative, route the customer to an automated AI chatbot. Instead of fielding a live call, encourage the customer to use website self-service or 800-line automated voice response.
Shifting customer inquiries from live to automated/self-service platforms isn’t the worst idea, provided those other channels are robust enough to effectively satisfy customer needs and avoid an annoying channel-switch to a live representative. It’s questionable, however, if many of those platforms even meet that bar. Research from the Corporate Executive Board indicates that over half of incoming calls are triggered merely because customers couldn’t find what they were looking for on a company’s website.
A strategy of deflection, therefore, clearly has its limitations – and not just operationally, but also philosophically.
That’s because, on a conceptual level, deflection doesn’t really evoke helpfulness. At its core, deflection is about brushing aside customers who need your staff’s help, relegating them to a cheaper, automated service platform. It’s not exactly the most inspirational technique for fostering customer-centricity within an organization.
“Call deflection is about brushing aside customers who need your help, relegating them to a cheaper, automated service platform. It’s not exactly the most inspirational technique for fostering customer-centricity.”
A better approach is to focus not on deflecting customer inquiries, but preempting them.
Think of all the customer contacts (calls, chats, texts, e-mails, etc.) that your business fields, and then consider how many of them are, in reality, unnecessary.
They might be triggered by people who are following-up on an earlier inquiry, because a company representative didn’t do what they said they were going to do. Or they might be triggered by people who, prior to purchasing, need clarification because something was unclear about a product description they saw online. Or they might be triggered by people who received a communication from your company that generated more questions than it answered.
These are all examples of customer contacts that could be completely avoided if only something was done differently upstream: better expectation-setting by service representatives, clearer online product information, more polished customer communications.
Not only would such improvements reduce incoming customer contact volumes, but they would also make customers far happier than is possible through deflection. After all, rarely does anyone wake up excited to contact their bank, their cable company, their insurer, their telecom provider – or any type of business, for that matter. People prefer to patronize companies where everything just works right, obviating the need for them to seek assistance from a company rep, AI chatbot, or self-service website. For this reason, a preempted customer contact is far preferable to a deflected one.
Knowing how to preempt customer inquiries isn’t all that difficult; it simply requires asking the right questions. Whereas many service centers carefully categorize and monitor what customers are contacting them about (e.g., sales inquiry, billing problem, product return, etc.), the more meaningful question to ask is why is the customer contacting — what specifically triggered their need for help — and how might that contact have been avoided.
For example, some pre-sale inquiries could perhaps be preempted by modifying print/online product information that’s creating customer confusion. Billing inquiries could be preempted by clearly explaining to customers, when they make a service change, how that will be reflected on future billing statements. Product return inquiries could be preempted by better highlighting return procedures in a package insert or order confirmation.
Furthermore, revealing the “why” behind potentially avoidable customer contacts need not be an expensive research exercise. Sure, it can be done in a sophisticated fashion, via electronic categorization of every incoming contact by the employees who handle them. But a lot about the “whys” can also be learned simply by asking your front-line staff who field these inquiries. It’s a low-tech approach, but one that inevitably identifies a handful of recurring themes, as well as ideas for upstream improvements that would help preempt many customer contacts.
When the tidal wave of customer inquiries hits and service queues lengthen, there are short-term fixes that can help mitigate the negative impact on the customer experience. Staffing can be augmented (via new hires or redeployments). Technology can be leveraged (virtual queuing “call me back” capabilities, as well as dynamically calculated wait time estimates for those in queue). And, yes, customer inquiries can be deflected to automated platforms (AI chatbots and website self-service).
However, all of those tactics – while helpful – nonetheless ignore underlying, upstream issues which are inflating customer contact volumes in the first place. Fixing that requires not just deflecting inquiries, but preempting them. And the sooner your organization shifts its focus accordingly, the happier both your customers and your employees will be.
[A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com.]
Jon Picoult is founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress customers and inspire employees, creating raving fans that drive business growth. Author of “FROM IMPRESSED TO OBSESSED: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans,” Picoult is an acclaimed public speaker, as well as an advisor to some of world’s foremost brands. Follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram, or subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.