A few of years ago I did some thinking about call centers and it occurred to me at the time that this was a customer service model which may not be sustainable. Today, I believe they simply aren’t working. The Call Center approach for mass customer service is turning out to be a bad idea. At best, it just barely gets the job done. The word that keeps coming to the surface is marginal. Most people cringe at the thought of placing a call to just about any kind of call center. These facilities are often referred to as “phone farms”. I find this fitting because sometimes they conjure up the same kind of images of mass pandemonium and chaos that you might find if all the animals of a large farm were suddenly let loose in a 100,000 square foot building. The average phone support farm has become over-extended, ineffective, and, is quickly becoming no longer truly useful.

In terms of customer support, the call center approach is failing badly for today’s modern customer. Poor customer service as related to the call center experience is cited more often than not as a reason for why customers have decided to either try a competitor’s comparable product/service or, instead, to do without the product/service altogether. Ironically call centers, which were developed to gain and retain customers, are identified as a primary cause for losing customers (both existing and new). These facilities with their aging service models could soon become irrelevant and begin to weigh down on the companies that operate them as consumers become more savvy and better options emerge.

Today’s modern call center evolved from a simple idea — customer satisfaction. Customer satisfaction builds customer loyalty which keeps customers coming back. A strong emphasis on customer service, both before and after the sale, builds consumer confidence which in turn draws in new customers. This all grows the bottom line and this is really what matters most. The problem we have is that the call center approach to customer service has now devolved into driving customer pacification (not “satisfaction”) and is now a speeding train leading away from its original intent — and no one is hitting the brakes. So, why are call centers no longer working? Let’s look at 10 reasons why the typical call center is slowly turning customers away.

1. Too Many Layers and Menus

People call customer support for different reasons. Some need technical support; some need Sales, some Billing, etc. So it makes sense to have some kind of menu to get you where you need to go. Unfortunately what has emerged as a standard in the average call center is getting down right crazy! The menus are out of control. Press 1 for English, then press 4 for support for Product A, then press 1 if you’re a partner (or hold the line to become a partner), next press 2 for this, then press 3 for that, and on it goes! Of course then there’s my personal favorite…after traversing several layers of options sometimes you get something like “if you need help with product B (hey that’s me!) please call hold the line . . . click, click, Thank you for calling Blah Blah Blah …” – back to the beginning you go! It happens more than you think! Too many menus! Too many opportunities for problems! The trend, more and more, is to funnel all calls to one central number which only makes these menus more bloated and cumbersome. Today’s smarter consumer wants to call a number and get help right away. The menu maze is a major turn-off.

2. Voice Menus Are . . . Um, Annoying!

Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of pretending to have an intelligent conversation with a computerized phone system is ludicrous! I think we’re supposed to be impressed by the “humanized” interface, but for most of today’s consumers it’s laughable at best. Most of the time it’s down right annoying. They’re cumbersome. They’re slow. They’re buggy! This is especially irritating for business customers. If you’re like most business people you want to multitask as you navigate the menus of a call center. Voice menus won’t have any of that! They demand to be front and center. If you try to use the speakerphone while you perhaps read your email — forget it! The slightest distant sound like the blurring of a fax machine in your office or a conversation in the next cubicle is enough to throw the whole thing into a fit of confusion. They are hard to understand. Often they are wordy and filled with too much useless chit chat. As it turns out, people today don’t like to “talk” to a phone system. They’d rather bush a button and get on to what they need. Some systems allow you to press buttons for the voice options instead, but many do not. This is especially frustrating when you come armed with all the steps to navigate the phone maze (e.g. 1-800 # + 1 + 3 + 3). Also, many of these so called “modern” systems don’t allow you to make button selections mid-sentence so customers are forced to endure the queue dribble that spews from the voice prompts before making their selections. People want quick choices, not phony conversation. Personally, I especially hate the open-ended voice prompt which says something like “What would you like to do?” It drives me up the wall! It’s so much better to just have some buttons to push. Besides, you end up speaking in a kind of disjointed “keyword speak” that sounds so ridiculous and so unlike the normal flow of intelligent conversation that you may as well be pushing buttons anyway and do away with the charade altogether.

So why do they do it? Many call center business managers have ended up adopting “voice command” systems after mistakenly buying into the old idea that these systems somehow promote the company’s image as “high tech” or on the “cutting edge.” The truth is most people aren’t impressed with these systems and are often put off by the experience. The technology behind this kind of user interface has a long way to grow and won’t be viable for many years to come and perhaps will never be suited for this kind of application. These voice systems only serve to frustrate the caller with an unpleasant experience right from the start which is then painfully tolerated by the customer until they get the support they need. In short, people are simply not impressed by the “voice” technology and often find it irritating. Yet, call centers continue to deploy them.

3. On Hold Time is Atrocious!!

The call center model lends itself to long hold times. It’s just a fact. When the system is overloaded a customer can wait “On Hold” for unbelievable periods of time . . . e.g. 25, 37, 24, 55, 67 minutes. These are real numbers representing the approximate wait times in call queues to major companies running call centers. This feels to the customer as a blatant disregard of his or her time and almost always leaves a bad taste. Most customers won’t wait that long before they get a live person, but still so many do and the times adds up quickly when you count multiple hold times and take into account multiple screenings leading up to a final useful support session. This of course does not count the time on the phone talking with a real support person or making menu selections. This is just “on hold” time! It is not uncommon for customers to spend as much as a couple of hours in heavy Tier 2 and tier 3 tech support calls and much of that time is waiting on hold in between live people. How in the world did we get to this Point?

This kind of service model is no longer sustainable and is ripe to be replaced quickly as customers acquire better choices for service and move in mass away from companies still using this tired old system. You may ask “doesn’t anyone monitor this stuff?” The answer is yes and no. Of course any good call center will monitor phone queue statistics looking for various indicators. However, if you do some digging, you’ll soon discover that a customer’s total “on hold” time is not that high on the watch list (and in many cases is not even calculated). Yes, you often hear the message “this call may be recorded for training purposes”, but the truth is this “training” is a lot more about how to drive profits and less about how to improve the caller experience. Mangers are trained to listen for “bottom-line” indicators during these call reviews. They tweak the system to weed out costly support sessions (which have the potential to drag on for days). They seek to maximize support for end of life products and services which have the potential to lead to product upgrades and/or service renewals. And so it boils down to profit just like everything else. So as every shred of cost is squeezed out of the corporation to drive profits the patience of the customer who contacts the typical call center is taken to the very threshold of tolerance as hold times get longer during peak periods. Today’s consumer won’t stay with this system much longer.

4. Information Stored in Queues are Lost in Transit

Customers really hate it when they are prompted for various information by the phone system (account number, phone number, product information, etc.) and when they finally get to the live support rep on the other end the first thing out of their mouth is “may I have your account number, phone number, product information, etc.?” It’s enough to take an already frustrated caller to the brink!

Two Things — first, why ask for information in a call queue that will not be used during the support conversation. This is self-defeating. It really turns people off. Some call center employees are trained to tell callers that the information they keyed into the queue is used by the system to route the call, but this explanation almost argues the irritated caller’s point by itself — if you can capture data for routing you can retain that data to improve the customer service experience. Second, if a support rep needs to verify account information (which is reasonable) why ask for the same information that was just keyed in the system by the caller. It’s just asking for trouble. Unfortunately, the call center mind set is a lot less about improving the caller experience and more about dealing with the masses in the cheapest way possible. It’s about quantity, not quality and as always in business this is sinking sand.

5. The Language Barrier

There are 3 things that prompt most customers to hang up immediately when they finally get a live person on the other end of a call to a call center. The first is blatant incompetence on the part of the rep (which most people can usually sniff out in about 15 seconds). The second is the rudeness inevitably encountered on occasion when dealing with over worked, under paid, under trained and poorly screened staff. No one likes to be abused. The third thing that prompts customers to quickly disconnect from a call center session is simply the inability to understand the representative on the other end. Many callers opt to hang up when the language barrier is too pronounced. More and more of what passes for conversational language is utterly disappointing. It’s not the support rep’s fault. Most are just trying to do their jobs the best they can with the training they’ve received. Too often, call center management is content to put phone support reps in situations dealing one-on-one with customers who don’t speak their native language and often have complicated issues and tricky dialects. What worse, far too many support reps are hired on the cheap, given just a few weeks of “language” training and are quickly left to fend for themselves. In many facilities the language barrier has become so wide that support reps are simply unable to communicate with the customers who reach them. We’re not talking about idioms and euphemisms here. We’re talking about the bare basics of forming a sentence in another language! Many of these employees are not ready to carry on a conversation in a bus station let alone a conversation with a customer at a call center who speaks another language. At off-shore call centers, the lingual disconnect can be down right painful and can drive customers crazy. This may sometimes really offend the sensitive customer who is off put by the broken debauchery of their native tongue.

6. Tier Support is too Low-End Skewed

Good people don’t come cheap. That’s the bottom line and a key reason why call center phone support pyramids are so heavy on the low end. The popular support model calls for a large staff of mediocre handlers with minimal skills for tier 1 support, while tier 2 and especially tier 3 staff is incredibly thin and often impossible to reach. For most customers, dealing with these first responders is painfully difficult. Too often these low skilled workers have no solutions to offer. They are simply “stand-ins” for real support reps acting more like call screeners who stand in the way of the qualified support professional and the needy customer. The caller must suffer through the charade.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what happens when you hire an army of low-skilled, low-paid, tier 1 support personnel (most of whom come armed only with a high school diploma, very brief training, and a weakly scripted sequence of steps which spoon feeds them the words to say and actions to take for each call) — customer support suffers greatly. More often than not, the tier 1 support reps are quite pleasant and even enthusiastic (just like the handler who hire them want them to be), but the truth is they are being asked to do the impossible. With this model, there are just not enough people in place who truly understand enough to be helpful. The decaying idea that is the modern call center is losing ground quickly with the next generation. Customers are tiring of the bevy of scripted replies and memorized statements that support reps put out. In the past, corporate VPs had convinced themselves they could still drive profits and continue to placate their customer base with only a façade of a support system — not any more. This house of cards is coming down soon.

7. Incident Logging is Deplorable

A common problem in today’s call center is the failure to log incidents from support sessions or to maintain a contiguous flow of logged data. This leads to certain irritation as callers are forced to restate their issues a second, third, and even, forth time. It is enough to drive a frustrated customer to the point of madness. Many call centers deploy expensive incident tracking systems yet continue to fail to properly log and track these incidents. So as customers drill down the menus and drudge through first and second responders to finally get to the tier 3 support person after waiting in queues and enduring marginal assistance they are often greeted something like this…”Hello, my name is unintelligible, how can I help you?” After an awkward pause, the frustrated customer realizes that service rep numbers 1 and 2 didn’t pass on ANYTHING to support rep 3 nor has the system retained anything from the last 35 minutes.

Incident tracking is often so bad that customers desperate for a solution to a current problem are greeted by tier 2 and 3 support reps with ready assistance for a problem that was once logged for the customer years ago (before logging became less diligent). The irritated customer is left to explain that what’s on the support rep’s computer screen is from an old support issue that was handled months or years ago. With heavy emphasis on mass caller support and minimum cost, important value-added services like careful incident tracking easily falls through the cracks. Whether the current problem was never logged or the logging systems used were different (i.e. data is not transferred properly) doesn’t matter for the customer. It only translates to more sheer frustration and an overall negative customer support experience. So often when this happens the support reps come off as unphased or ambivalent to the loss of incident data. No surprise since the whole model tends to devalue this kind service for their customers. It is clear that beyond the obvious clueless state of the reps at many call centers — the ineptitude goes all the way up the food chain. Apparently the VPs that install and manage these centers don’t get it either.

8. Hurried Reps with Edgy Attitudes

Too often quantity trumps quality in business. This is especially true with today’s call center. When you take a closer look at these organizations you’ll soon discover what really matters to them – numbers! Oddly, it’s all about the numbers and the funny thing is it’s not the kind of numbers that matter. Apparently there is a critical disconnect between the board room and the call center VPs that really believe that the success of the company depends on how many callers the reps handle within a given period of time. Actually it’s part of the pop culture in the modern call facility. A rep who handles 50 calls during a shift has more value than a rep that handles only 30 calls. He’s the one who gets all the applause and high fives. It doesn’t seem to matter that the rep who handled 50 calls ticked off about 35 of those customers in the end — customers who may look elsewhere in a heartbeat if given a better choice in terms of service.

Call center employees can find themselves forcing issues and pushing callers away to keep their numbers high. The drive to make quotas outweighs the drive to provide quality service. It’s this environment that breeds the hurried and edgy support rep and this is a real problem. This kind of employees can really get under the skin of today’s savvy consumer. They speak in quick bursts of monotone, disjointed, phone farm talk and are always ready to move on to the next call – to add to numbers. With every new question posed or attempt at clarification by the customer the support rep becomes more and more edgy. No quite rude, just on edge – needing to move on. All they want is to close the call and it shows. Customers feel the tension right away and are immediately put off by it.

9. No Exit Strategy for the Clueless Rep

It’s bad enough call centers are staffed with a glut of tier 1, bare-bones support reps. More and more low-skilled reps are expected to handle just about everything a customer needs. It’s a losing posture for anyone to be in. This leads to inevitably tricky situations where callers state their issues and are greeted by awkward silence and/or inept responses which clearly demonstrate the support doesn’t have a clue what to do. They don’t understand the product you’re calling about, they don’t know how to make changes on your account, they can’t explain the errors you’re getting, and on it goes. It’s baffling why any organization would put any of its people in a losing situation where they don’t have the skills or even a pre-planned procedure to bail them out. Far too often, at many call centers, more of the low-skilled tier 1 reps have no place to send frustrated callers. They have no answers to give, and no meaningful solution to offer – no exit strategy. They simple wave their hands in utter defeat and offer some weak replay like “I’m really sorry…I don’t know what to tell you.” The caller is left with no solutions, no recourse, no escalation – dead end! How did we come to this?

10. Those 9 Ridiculous Words!

It defies reason . . . and so many call centers insist on it. No matter the nature of the call or the kind of assistance provided. When it’s all said and done they insist on using those 9 ridiculous words . . .

“Is there anything else I can help you with?”

It’s a stabbing reminder that the whole experience was just a scripted joke all along. Right down to the final comment. This statement is laughable when it doesn’t apply. This is especially discrediting to the company when on those rare occasions a caller receives really good support from call center. To end it on that note just ruins the whole customer support experience. In a way it sums up the call center problem nicely. Today’s call center is all about pretending – going through the motions. So it’s no surprise that a question that is just as meaningless to the caller and the rep who is forced to pose it has become the bow that wraps up the phony gift.

Back in the good old days when a call to a company’s support team was really helpful, you got the sense that the company understood what mattered — you the customer. The support they rendered communicated to their customers that they wanted them back and perhaps a few of their colleagues as well. Back then you had product specialist who knew what they were doing and knew how to help their customers or how to get them to someone who could. Maybe there were only a few support specialist back in those days compared to the armies they have now, but that didn’t really matter. For the most part, they helped customers with their issues and most customers felt pretty good about it. Today it’s all just window dressing. The call center has evolved into nothing more than a shell where behind the surface it’s more fake than real. The whole decaying system is ripe for demise.