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Solidarity with Customers is Secret to Success in Call Centers

7/21/2008 --

Giving "good phone" transcends traditional notions of politeness, according to new research from the Ross School.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—How do the best call center agents get cranky, dissatisfied customers to calm down and find satisfaction? They show solidarity with the caller, says Priscilla Rogers, associate professor of business communication at Ross.

Rogers studied stressful calls between customers and agents at a Singapore call center in the financial services sector. She and her co-researchers found a high correlation between agents who showed solidarity and the courtesy rating of the call. The courtesy rating was calculated based on the customer service agent's deference, respect, self-control, and successful regulation of the caller's emotions during the conversation.

"Solidarity expression challenges traditional views of politeness and is less about the presentation of self and more about enabling collaboration with the other," says Rogers. "Solidarity can only develop if the agent becomes engaged with the caller to fully, not superficially, understand the caller's needs."

Rogers' colleagues in the study included Colin Clark of the University of Sydney and Ulrike Murfett and Soon Ang of the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. They found solidarity also was highly correlated with other characteristics of successful calls, such as whether an agent anticipated the caller's needs, showed attentiveness to the caller, asked for direction from the caller, and empathized with the caller only without distracting from the task.

According to Rogers and her team's research, callers express satisfaction when agents employ with a wide variety of responses to implement these tenets.

Anticipate needs. Grasp the customer's unstated needs or concerns, making an effort to confirm and address them ("Do you want me to check the amount?"). Offer information or help before the customer has to ask for it ("Yes, that's true. In addition, you need to call your bank.") If the customer has to ask you to explain a procedure or calculate a figure, you may not have anticipated his or her needs adequately.

"Offer suggestions, solutions, or resolution without the caller's direct request," advises Rogers. "In other words, think ahead on the caller's behalf."

Be attentive. Be fully committed to the conversation, listening to respond in a way that moves the call toward resolution and customer satisfaction. Showing attentiveness may involve confirming that the customer understands your explanations ("Should I explain this another way perhaps?"), or adjusting your speech to match the customer's level of comprehension (Agent: "How do I address you, Sir?" Customer: "Huh?" Agent: "What's your name?").

"We came to understand showing attentiveness as being present in the conversation," says Rogers. "An agent could do this via acknowledgment tokens ('yes,' 'alright'), commenting, or giving feedback or explanations."

Ask for direction. Try hard to discover what the caller really means or needs. Solicit follow-up information and ensure that any assumptions you make during the course of the interaction are correct. A customer's request may sound familiar, but is it really? Check your understanding ("You want to review your investment policy, is it?").

"It's okay to acknowledge lack of information, but work with the customer to ensure that it's eventually obtained," says Rogers.

Be wary of empathy. Focus on the caller's request. Expressions of empathy may distract from this. Be aware of and respond to a customer's feelings, but don't let the conversation deviate from the task by getting personally involved in a customer's situation.

"It's as much about offering empathy to the caller as it is about withholding it," says Rogers. "To get it right, the agent and caller need to be on the same page and work in a spirit of togetherness to resolve the caller's concerns."

Above all and related to these, show solidarity. Treat the customer interaction as a quest for mutual understanding regarding a customer's concern and respond in a way that fosters working together to address it. "The authentic collaborator takes pains not to place the caller in a passive role or to thwart feedback the caller may wish to express," Rogers and her collaborators conclude. "Solidarity involves collaboration in which both interactants are actively involved."

Written by Leah Sipher-Mann

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu