John Willmott, director of customer service at Norwich Union Insurance, explains how the insurer is implementing an original new technique to boost the quality of customer service it offers through its customer contact centres.
At Norwich Union Insurance we have always believed - I hope justifiably - that we offer a high level of customer service from our customer contact centres. But this is no longer enough for our customers, for our partners, nor for ourselves.
When an organisation already believes itself to be good in some particular respect, there is a huge challenge involved in overcoming the inertia of the status quo. But we were confident the way ahead we had chosen was the right one. And so, starting with our call centre in Bishopbriggs - a suburb of Glasgow - we began working closely with our call centre agents to develop an entirely new mindset when it comes to dealing with customers.
We decided to appoint Cape Consulting to assist us with this initiative. Our work began with a programme of customer research in which we measured our ability to generate enthusiastic customers who would be "promoters". We then modelled our ability in this direction against Cape Consulting’s database of ‘Key Relationship Builders’ (KRBs). These KRBs - the term was developed by Cape Consulting itself - are defined as clear, recognisable and distinctive practices that impress customers.
In particular, KRBs are designed to ensure that the customer feels that her or she:
• has sufficient time to think, without feeling rushed;
• is appreciated as an individual;
• finds dealing with the organisation easy, convenient, efficient and enjoyable;
• feels the organisation genuinely cares about meeting his or her needs;
• is getting a really good deal from the organisation.
In business good research is always important, but devising and implementing applications that literally capitalise on the research and win competitive advantage from it is what really matters. We aligned Cape Consulting’s KRBs to a programme we already had underway to improve the quality of customer service experiences. We named our new programme "Care at the Heart".
The idea behind the programme was to consciously set specific objectives for how our customers would feel when they dealt with us. We then identified changes we could make in how we communicated with our customers, to give them the feelings we wanted them to have.
Like many in the call centre industry, I believe that the biggest influence on the performance of call centre agents is their team leader. And so we created a programme that involved team leaders teaching their teams how to achieve the KRBs.
We were delighted to find that the KRBs gave the programme an unprecedented level of credibility among call centre agents and team leaders.
The telephone interaction between the call centre agent and the customer became guided by specific target behaviours, which the agents were encouraged to put into action in a natural and - above all - authentic fashion.
The reasons why authenticity has been the key to the programme’s success are:
• A lack of authenticity is easy to detect in voice, tone and manner.
• A commitment to offer really excellent service is often called ‘emotional labour’. An agent must want to deliver the KRBs. If he or she doesn’t, no sustained improvements are going to happen.
• If agents don’t enjoy the experience of talking to customers, their jobs can be very mundane indeed. A principal purpose of the programme is to help call centre agents realise that their jobs will actually become more interesting and more enjoyable if they put these practices into action.
Overall, the work itself consisted of three key phases; a diagnostic phase, an implementation phase and a ‘business as usual’ phase.
The diagnostic phase posed the following key questions:
• Do we impress our customers through their service experiences?
• Do our people know how to impress customers?
• Are we supporting a contact centre environment where our agents are given the opportunity to perform to a high level?
• How can we support our front line managers in driving improvements to customer experiences?
Cape Consulting assessed calls between our contact centre through call listening. As we know our team managers to be ultimately the most influential factor of all affecting the performance of our customer contact centre staff, Cape Consulting used an audit of coaching skills and practices to make recommendations to increase the effectiveness of this important group.
The implementation phase involved team managers becoming even more involved at the heart of the process. They ran events for their teams to share customers’ feedback and data. Contact centre staff were shown that while certainly they were good at what they did, there were many areas where they could potentially make improvements.
Finally, there was the ‘business as usual’ phase in which we in effect ‘rebooted’ our activities to include the new working practices we had developed that incorporated the major new emphasis on achieving the KRBs.
The Care at the Heart programme is still continuing. The response to the initiative from individual call centre agents at Bishopbriggs has been extremely inspiring and encouraging. Many people who work in call centres are young people starting what is often their first job. In the past many agents have taken it for granted that their work would be rather boring and not very ‘human’. We have shown, I think, that this does not need to be the case.
The hard facts are there too. Sales are up. The virulent problem of ‘failure demand’ - when customers have to make a second call to clarify some problem that was not dealt with properly the first time round - is down. Motivation is up. Our net promoter scores are up across the board.
I have no doubt at all that we can differentiate our products and services from those of our rivals by striving to offer a better level of customer service than they do. And for us, this enhanced customer service is won by focusing very carefully, thoughtfully and creatively on how the agents in our customer contact centres actually talk to customers - and the authenticity and care with which these agents respond to customers’ needs.