When you’re trying to get in touch with a friend to make plans, how do you do it? E-mail, text, Facebook? What you probably don’t do nowadays is call them. Why, then, are we still forced to communicate with brands through an 800 number? At one time, call centers were the only interactive connection between consumers and brands, aside from the in-store experience, and often, in-store sales associates would not have the resources to solve customer issues.
The computer and smartphone changed all that and, today, pixels and not voice are the main way we connect with brands. So why are voice-based call centers, which employ nearly 10 million people globally and are incredibly expensive and inefficient to run, still the primary way to get customer service from most companies? Are they really the best retail and fashion brands can do for their customers?
Years ago, consumers were (grudgingly) willing to wait on hold for long stretches of time because voice calls were the only option for communication. Since the dawn of messaging services like iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, consumers have been using messaging as a primary mode of communication — spending four times longer in messaging apps each day than voice calls, according to a recent Nielsen study. Now that messaging is clearly changing the way consumers choose to interact with each other, it’s time for brands to follow suit.
First, we need to understand what is so wrong with call centers on a business level. Consumers have to wait for a few minutes to talk to a representative — big deal, right? Call centers create millions of jobs all over the world. Shouldn’t we tough it out? Ultimately, it all leads back to the consumer.
The customer experience is the most important aspect of any brand interaction. Apparel and luxury companies, especially, place a particularly high value on “delightful” customer interactions, and calling an 800 number — which now feels a little archaic — is the opposite of delight. It not only wastes time, but is frustrating, impersonal and ineffective to the customer, leading to a negative brand experience.
Voice-based support diverts people away from engagement on digital channels. For example, if a customer is looking at a handbag in a brand’s app, they can’t press a button and ask about this specific bag by voice. If the app uses messaging, however, that specific bag can appear in the message thread, so the customer stays in the app and the brand representative knows exactly which bag they are looking for, rather than making a customer explain the style verbally.
Finally, call centers are staggeringly expensive, costing businesses around $350 billion every year to run. For our clients, customer service calls cost a company nearly $7 each. Messaging? Around $1 per conversation, bringing the cost per interaction down by 75 percent.
What about the representatives?
While it’d be necessary to train employees on a new platform, the shift in workflow provided by messaging would not only streamline workflow but lead to more efficiencies among sales associates, enabling employees to tend to more customers at one time. For example, an associate at a call center can only help one or two customers at a time via voice. With messaging, a customer service representative can help up to 10 customers at a time, because consumers and representatives are no longer beholden to a schedule.
With voice calls, the amount of interactions ebbs and flows throughout the day: spikes at lunch and in the evening are fairly common, with lulls in between. With those spikes, coupled with the inability to handle multiple customers at a time, service representatives can get overwhelmed and burn out quickly, attributing to the notoriously high turnover within call centers. Often, this inflamed level of communication results in miscommunications. According to research conducted by LivePerson, 40 percent of customers make a second call within 24 hours because their issues remain unresolved.
With messaging, the workflow is much more steady — the “curve is flatter,” in industry parlance — because there is no fixed time that customers have to set aside (usually at lunchtime or just after work) to call, wait on hold, and hopefully fix their issue. This flatter curve keeps associates calm, with fewer high-pressure rush periods, and customers happy. Messaging is also less stressful for customer-service people than voice calls, because they can talk to each other and collaborate — hard to do when all your coworkers around you are on live voice calls. The result is annual attrition down from 35 percent or higher for call-center staff to less than 10 percent when staffers are messaging.
The permanent, text-based messaging structure creates a historical record that can be referenced by both customer and agent — just scroll back in the thread to see the history of that customer — so questions and informative details don’t have to be repeated. The customer-unfriendly time spent re-explaining an issue (often multiple times, to different reps!) goes down, which is a significant factor in reducing care costs, which go down by an average of 48 percent.
Saks Fifth Avenue is taking a progressive approach to messaging, connecting customers to specific shop floor staff at the location nearest to them, putting associates at that customer’s disposal using their phones, via text messages, to assist and advise the customer on store inventory. This builds a connection between those associates and the Saks.com online presence, creating a positive experience for the customers.
What about the stores?
Not only could messaging change the form and function of the call center, but SMS could completely shift the retail floor offering, unlocking new productivity from in-store associates.
Retail stores and call centers mirror each other, following the same demand curve of business — waves of traffic in the early morning, at lunch and evenings post-work. Between rush hours, retail floor associates are often bored and find themselves either doing nothing or filling their time with menial tasks. If retail associates were trained to field customer-service inquiries via messaging, not only would their productivity increase, but they would become better acquainted with the brand. This makes associates more valuable to customers in-store and on mobile, enabling them to perform their jobs more efficiently. Knowledge is power, after all.
Ultimately, satisfied and knowledgeable employees do more efficient work. Efficient work breeds solutions-driven thinking. And solutions breed a positive brand experience and satisfied customers, which is always the goal. Recognizing the need for a shift in tasks as integral as communication and enabling associates to operate quickly and efficiently is the first step in pivoting to a streamlined future.
Rob LoCascio is chief executive officer of LivePerson, a mobile messaging platform provider.
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