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"Humanizing Your Call Center" By Diane Franklin for Credit Union Management Magazine, April 2003.

When evaluating the performance of your call center, you may be tempted to look strictly at the numbers: how many calls are handled each day, how many calls are transferred, the average call length, the average hold time, which agents take the most (and the least) calls, and a variety of other quantifiable factors.

Technology will supply you with these numbers, but the numbers don't tell the entire tale of how effectively your call center meets your members' needs. There's another factor that should be taken into consideration, and that's the human element.

Even in this era of advanced technological tools, the human element remains the most important resource in any customer service interaction. It's especially important for call centers, considering that 95 to 98 percent of customer contact is accomplished via telephone. This statistic is cited by Rosanne D'Ausilio, Ph.D., president of Human Technologies Global, Inc. (www.human-technologies.com) and author of the book, "Wake Up Your Call Center: Humanizing Your Interaction Hub," now in its third edition.

"Except for the most simple transactions, people still want to have human contact," says D'Ausilio. "That's true today, and it will be true 25 years from now, no matter how automated our society becomes. People are still human beings, and they want human reassurances."

D'Ausilio affirms that technology plays an indispensable role in controlling costs and measuring the productivity of a call center. "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it," she says. "But no matter how wonderful the technology is, you should not forget the people component. In the case of call centers, the most important resource is the people."

According to D'Ausilio, many managers should shift their paradigm about the call center's role in their organization. "Many in management view it as a cost center, when in actuality it can be a revenue center," she explains. The call center agent is in a great position to take the pulse of the credit union's members-finding out why they are members and what motivates them. This is valuable information that the credit union can use."

D'Ausilio is an expert in the call center field, providing consulting, training, executive coaching and other services for some of the top organizations in the country. In her consulting role, she emphasizes the need to hire personnel who are well suited to the fast-paced, high-stress environment of the call center.

"I always say, 'Hire for attitude, teach aptitude.' It's a lot easier than changing the attitude," D'Ausilio says. "If you have someone with the right attitude, you can train that person in such areas as communication and listening skills, rapport building, empathetic responsiveness, conflict resolution and anger diffusion."

Conflict resolution and anger diffusion are especially important, given that many calls originate because a caller has a problem or a complaint. The high volume of irate, angry or irrational callers is what makes working in a call center one of the 10 most stressful jobs in the country, according to D'Ausilio.

Proper training gives call center agents the ability to deal with even the most irate callers in an empathetic, reassuring manner that can diffuse the situation and lead to a satisfactory resolution. "When someone calls with a complaint, first and foremost they want to be heard," D'Ausilio says.

"In my research, I've found that it's possible for the caller to feel good about the conversation regardless of the outcome. Even if the caller doesn't get everything they want, a empathetic ear can make it a positive experience."

According to D'Ausilio, each interaction with the call center is "a moment of truth," giving the caller an opportunity to make a judgment about the organization. It's also an opportunity for the organization to solidify a relationship-especially important, D'Ausilio notes, in this electronic age that puts every customer just a mouse click away from the competition.

D'Ausilio recommends using such training strategies as role-playing, coaching and mentoring to give call center agents the skills they need to handle various call situations. "I don't believe that we are born with the tools of how to handle an upset customer," says D'Ausilio. "There is no course in school. That's why it's important to do training over a period of time in order to gain these skills. We work at creating win/win situations-situations in which the organization wins and the customer wins."

Training agents to resolve conflicts effectively can have a positive impact in controlling call center costs. As an example, D'Ausilio cites one of her clients, a utility company, that was able to shorten complaint calls by an average of 22.3 seconds and as a result save $325,000 per year. "If properly trained, call center agents can shorten the length of their calls without having a negative impact on service," D'Ausilio states.

Incentive programs can be an effective strategy for optimizing service in the call center. D'Ausilio sees incentives as a positive for call centers, but she cautions against basing them strictly on monetary compensation. "Money alone is never enough incentive," she reports. "People also need to hear that they're doing a great job."

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