Virtual Call Centers: New Trends in Customer Engagement and Retention

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The advancement of new communication technology has transformed the consumer experience in a number of tangible ways and in a very short time. On Black Friday 2013 alone, online purchases reached $1.93 billion, an incredible 39% increase over the previous year.

As the number of consumers around the globe that make their purchases online continues to grow, there is no doubt that retail companies and their customer service centers will continue to evolve away from traditional brick and mortar buildings, often in favor of virtual call centers. Naturally, this transition in the customer service industry has created new challenges in customer engagement and retention, and many retailers and service representatives are looking to meet these challenges in fascinating and inventive ways.

The Growth of Virtual Call Centers

Within the virtual model for call centers, a customer will contact a service representative over the phone or online. While the traditional model often involved service reps speaking to customers from a physical, brick and mortar building, in many cases, these call centers are only “centers” in name only. Today, representatives might be speaking from a smaller, localized location as part of a small team, or even from a mobile device while working from home.

Call center work is rarely easy. In most cases, a customer will contact a company to express an issue with a product or service that they purchased, often in anger or annoyance. For the representative at the other end of the line that is a lot of responsibility. Not only must the questions and concerns of customers be addressed, but reps are expected to remain gracious and remain ambassadors for the company. In the era of social media and customer engagement, customer service is absolutely key.

The Gamification of Customer Service

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At times, the work can be tiring and frustrating, leading the customer service management at many companies to work towards creating a more engaging work experience for their representatives. One method that has proven to be effective is gamification — essentially the use of rewards for representatives who post excellent retention numbers or demonstrable customer engagement. A successful representative might find monetary bonuses, a greater degree of freedom in the office or other prizes.

Yet, gamification is only one part of a larger trend in call centers toward a focus on customer interactions as opposed to boiler room-styled centers where quantitative yardsticks are encouraged above all else. For a customer, the sincerity of a representative (or lack thereof) is often obvious, and by focusing on creating a higher quality work experience, the effect can lead to more motivated employees, and thus, more engaged and delighted customers.

Quality over Quantity

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For managers that operate from a number-crunching perspective, it can be tempting to put pressure on reps to reach as many customers as possible. However, there is a growing consensus that reps who are under significant stress can turn off or disappoint customers.

“Companies have been spending too much time with measurements that are focused on volume,” says Bill Bleuel, professor of quantitative methods at Pepperdine University. Time and again, it has been shown that quality, sincere interactions with customers are far more effective than high volume of contacts in achieving sales or a positive customers experience.

Increasingly, customers are analyzing the ethical business practices of the companies they interact with, and make their purchasing decisions accordingly. A person who gets the sense that customer service representatives are being treated poorly might even elect to break off their relationship with the company.

More often than not, a contented customer service representative that is rewarded for a job well done, or one that is allowed to work from home or on their own schedule will translate into a more genuine relationship with the customer. This can provide retailers with a greater depth of information regarding each customer's interests and desires regarding their products, leading to more accurate analytics — an invaluable resource in the era of big data.

The Power of Big Data

Big data has quickly become one of the most powerful forces in business — particularly in the world of virtual customer service. Analysis of customer habits and interests has allowed service professionals to more accurately decipher what their customers are looking for from their service experience. The enhanced accuracy of data can lead to decisions that affect a customer's overall satisfaction. For instance, more data can help a company’s management team to decide whether a traditional call center is warranted, or if their agents would be more effective working from their homes.

Beyond Old-School Engagement

Simply put — today's consumers want to be engaged on their own terms, and service representatives have been eager to meet them with options like instant messaging and even video conference customer service in some cases. For some, the idea of speaking with someone they've never met can be stressful, making a less personal online messaging experience far from appropriate, while others prefer to feel connected by seeing their representative face-to-face.

As technology and enhanced data collection allow for greater awareness of how to please and retain customers, high-quality service representatives will remain an indispensable element of any company. The move towards work environments that adjust to the needs of representatives in virtual call centers is likely to continue for some time, as businesses continue to work toward the goal of satisfying their customer needs as efficiently and effectively as possible.