Stress the fundamentals for profit

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In previous articles, I stressed that profit per call is the best measure of call center performance, that sales agents are a center's most important investment and that an effective communications program helps a call center get the most out of agents. Here, I offer initiatives, grouped into four fundamental categories, that may increase a center's impact on profits.

Convert more calls into orders. Do you treasure each customer call? Consider these initiatives:

• Reduce the abandonment rate. This may require more staffing, but the extra profit may be worth it.

• Improve speed of answer. Are customer wait times costing you sales? If so, shorten wait times.

• Make your order-entry system foolproof. Errors affect inventory, handling and postage. They also disappoint customers.

• Make your order-taking process easy on customers. This may produce more frequent sales and more total sales.

• Convert customer service calls into sales. Converting even a small number can add revenue with little increase in costs.

Increase revenue per order. The quality of the four-minute conversations between your agents and customers is the best predictor of your company's success. Here are suggestions to increase revenue per order:

• Find the unstated "want." Asking "did you see anything else in our catalog that interested you?" may spur additional sales and build customer affiliation.

• Is there a way to increase the quantity of items ordered? Perhaps your company offers a second item at a discount.

• Cross-sell. Do your systems make cross selling easy for agents? Do you train agents on how to initiate cross selling so customers perceive it as a service? Do you track agents' cross-selling performance?

• Upsell. Do you merchandise explicitly for upselling? Do you train agents to upsell? Do you track results?

Build customer loyalty. Agents are your firm's voice to customers. Here are thoughts on building rapport with customers:

• Know something about the customer when she calls. Is this the first time she is ordering? The 10th? If possible, share basic customer buying history with agents and train them to adapt calls accordingly.

• Know the catalog from which the customer is ordering. Agents who know your catalogs and products not only can take orders more accurately, they can answer customers' questions and affirm customers' choices.

• Speak in a manner consistent with your company's desired image. Each time a customer calls, your agent should reaffirm the customer's positive image of your company. A Lands' End customer, for example, expects to hear the friendly voice of a knowledgeable agent from a small Wisconsin town. Each time the customer repeats a positive ordering experience, her affiliation with the company grows. When she is surprised by the voice of an untrained, pushy agent, her image of the company may be tarnished ever so slightly.

• Ensure that customers get the same standard of service every time. Define protocols for greeting customers, handling objections, answering questions, cross selling, upselling and for ending calls. Train agents to perform accordingly.

Achieve call center efficiency. Improving efficiency involves defining the optimal pace for agents so they can serve each customer in a manner matching your company's image. Consider these initiatives:

• Determine the ideal work pace. There is a pace at which adding, or subtracting, calls per hour would reduce a typical agent's success rate.

• Create meaningful overflow work. Rely on sales agents to process mail-in orders, make outbound calls, reply to e-mail questions or conduct customer surveys. Agents performing non-selling tasks during slow times let call centers build slack into staffing. Extra staffing helps reduce abandonment rate and improve speed of answer.

• Schedule to achieve the ideal work pace. Use an effective scheduling system and feed it with the best available forecasting and employee information.

• Reduce telecommunication costs. Find the lowest toll-free costs. But beware, even a small drop in sales caused by poor service outweighs even very large decreases in cost per minute.
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