There are “moments of truth” in any service encounter. For organisations that use outbound calling as a selling or relationship management tool, the first moment of truth is when the customer puts down the saucepan, the baby or the remote control and picks up the phone.
Several current call centre practices – used by, or on behalf of, some very large and prominent organisations – demonstrate a very poor understanding of the strategic importance of this first impression.
First are the calls that begin, not with a friendly human voice, but with a few seconds of ambient room noise. Often, this is long enough that I find myself saying “Hello” for a second or third time. Occasionally, it’s so long that I have given up, hung up and walked away… annoyed. Once or twice, the phone has rung again 30 seconds later, and the caller (a real human this time) confirmed that it had been them calling earlier.
The information pages of the White Pages used to carry advice on what to do if you received a call where you just heard breathing on the other end. But apparently it’s OK for a call centre to make “nuisance calls”. It’s all because of predictive dialling technology, which enhances call centre efficiency by letting the human staff avoid busy signals, answering machines, modem lines and faxes. When I complained to a call centre supervisor about getting a call from a “breather”, I was told - in no uncertain terms - that her organisation’s “silent call” rates were perfectly within the range suggested in regulatory guidelines (in the US, a maximum of 3% of predictively-dialled calls are permitted to be dumped).
OK… so this is operationally optimal and it meets the letter of the law. But the telephone is, after all, a communication medium. And what this practice communicates – unequivocally – is that the marketing organisation considers the customer’s time, convenience and peace of mind far less valuable than the time of one of its call centre operators.
Now the second example: I answer the phone and there’s a voice I don’t recognise on the other end. “Is that Mr Downes?” - “Yes” - “How are you today?” Often, I can’t stop myself replying “Who wants to know?!”
Why are call centre staff being trained and scripted to ask people how they are before introducing themselves? What kind of thinking leads to a practice that ignores a basic social script? Does some sales manager or team leader think the operator will win me over with a patently insincere enquiry about my health before I even know who’s calling? You ring me, at my home, and you already know MY name. Don’t expect to make small talk until I know who YOU are!
Role and script theories are very important in service provision. When basic social scripts are tampered with, customers feel uncomfortable. Most get nervous, many get defensive and some get hostile. None of these emotions is an effective foundation for listening, comprehension, persuasion, all of which are critical steps in any customer communication.