The Anatomy of a Successful Inbound Call

Agent Resistance, Tools and Techniques and Ensuring Success
Michael Schein

When I first made the transition from the outbound business to inbound a number of years ago, the first thing I did was visit as many sites and observe as many programs as possible. Frankly, I was shocked at the amount of "winging it" that went on. While the norm at outbound sales shops was to write scripts and test them, there was very little that was comparable in the world of customer service and tech support. Inbound trainers typically crammed agents' heads full of huge amounts of complex information in a short period of time and released them onto the call floor to handle whatever situations that arose however they deemed fit. Some agents figured out what to do and some didn't. Unfortunately, it was often the customers that suffered most.

I wasn't comfortable with accepting this status quo, so I took a page out of my outbound playbook. My team and I listened to hundreds, and eventually thousands, of inbound customer service and tech support call recordings to see if we could find any patterns.

At first, the results seemed as random as the methods. The poor performers were all over the map in the way they handled calls. There were very few consistencies from agent to agent or program to program among this group. But when we listened to the top performers' calls, the full picture began to emerge. We discovered that regardless of the type of agents, kind of product or specifics of the program, there were certain elements that virtually all successfully handled inbound calls had in common.

In essence, there was an optimal structure – or anatomy – that made a customer service or tech support call work. While certain agents had figured out this ideal structure by instinct, we decided to create a set of tools that would allow every agent to have the same advantage.

What is the Anatomy of a Successful Inbound Call?

In order for agents to unfailingly create customer satisfaction within a well-controlled time frame, they must walk the customer through the following five steps in the sequence found below:

  1. Opening/Information Verification – Deliver required introduction and collect all necessary identifying information.
  2. Probing – Uncover all issues and details before attempting to solve the problem.
  3. Research – Look up and review all information needed to solve the customer’s problems before attempting to answer any questions.
  4. Solution – Resolve the customer’s issues only after fully probing and researching the entire scenario.
  5. Closing/After-Call Work – Deliver the required closing and document the case accurately so future agents can provide similarly superior service.

Agent Resistance

Despite the hard evidence that this call handling procedure was effective at driving consistent success, many reps initially resisted. So almost immediately after figuring out the internal mechanics of what makes calls work, our team set out to study the factors that caused agents to resist adopting these methods as their own.

Our study eventually showed that agents took issue with adopting the new call "anatomy" for one of three primary reasons.

  • Customer Pushback: Although agents may have actually intended to lead customers down the path that results in the best rate of issue resolution, it was the customers themselves who often stood in their way. If customers had had previous negative experiences with customer service reps, they often pressed to get service on their own terms, regardless of whether those terms had the best chance of delivering the accuracy, efficiency and effectiveness they claimed to be looking for. In fact, the more obstinate customers were on this front, the less likely they were to receive the help they needed. The challenge for the agent became one of leading customers down the proper road to resolution without alienating them.
  • Old Habits Die Hard: Human beings are creatures of habit. Even if you give someone a fully tested, easy-to-use method of improving their performance, they will often slip into and cling to their old patterns. Add to this the stressful environment of the typical call floor and you have a recipe for the best laid plans going awry.
  • Scripting Roadblocks: While much conventional wisdom says that scripting has no place in a customer service environment, empirical data suggests otherwise. Providing verbatim scripting for agents to use at critical points of a call can make the difference in whether an interaction is successful. However, to make this approach work, call center leaders must arm agents with the ability to make scripted words sound like their own. This is a skill set that most agents do not inherently possess.

Tools and Techniques

In a perfect world, customers that call an organization for customer service or technical support would approach the situation without preconceived notions or prejudices. They would all have the sole intent of getting their questions answered and their problems resolved. Unfortunately the world is far from perfect. As a result of an overall customer service landscape that has too often focused on metrics at the expense of people, many customers have become burnt out. To these customers, all call center reps are the same – ill-prepared, unknowledgeable and unhelpful. Due to the sins of the past, the burden now falls on agents to prove they are experts and consultants rather than uncaring button pushers. Customers have developed, often unconsciously, their own ways of testing contact center agents. The antidote to this modern call center disease is to provide agents with well-tested verbiage that establishes the agent as an expert and keeps the customer on track. Ensuring that agents deliver optimal service across the board depends on providing them with words that have been tested and tweaked in a pilot environment until the program consistently achieves the desired results.

Floor Support

All the tools, techniques, scripts and systems in the world accomplish nothing if agents don’t adhere to them as intended.

One of the drawbacks to supplying agents with verbiage that has been tested for maximum impact is that when agents change, add to or subtract from these words, the result can be negative. Sometimes one or two words make all the difference, and agents who play it loose reverse the impact. The same applies to tools that help agents handle calls in the optimal order. Without an operational process in place to drive agents to adhere to the tools and techniques based on the anatomy of a successful call, the benefit of this new-found knowledge will evaporate.

The Downside to Carrots and Sticks

Since so many of the findings discussed in the previous paragraphs are counter-intuitive, the standard "carrots and sticks" approaches of disciplinary action and bonuses are not effective when used in isolation. Instead, it is essential to educate agents about why these approaches work, both at the outset of the program and throughout their tenure.

Ensuring Success

If you intend on enacting your own plan for success based on the anatomy of a successful call, there are a few key principles to keep in mind. Whatever shape your final tools and technologies take, the call flows and verbiage they contain must be based on monitoring and evaluating real, live calls. Make sure you rigorously test and change whatever needs to be changed based on your results. Above all, talk to your agents. They are the people on the front lines who know better than anyone which elements of your solution are working and which are falling short. Moreover, consulting with agents is the best way to build the credibility necessary to compel them to adhere to the tools, techniques, scripts, and technologies you put in place. The result, when driven properly, will be an inbound customer service or technical support program that exceeds its goals day after day and year over year. More importantly, the customers who call will be thrilled to do business with you or the company you represent again and again.

About the Author:

Michael Schein is the Vice President of Solution Development at The Results Companies. The Results Companies is one of the fastest-growing providers of business process outsourcing (BPO) services focused exclusively on partner branded support. Established in 1990, Results provides services through over 4,000 agents located in 16 locations worldwide. For more information, please call 954.921.2400

November 10,2011