David Howgego

What kind of experience would you want to offer a customer who’s confused or worried?
In all likelihood, you would want to be understanding and attentive to their needs. The experience would feel all about them — i.e., tailored to their specific situation and previous experiences. Such treatment would smooth any ruffled feathers, as well as facilitate a more frictionless resolution.
In many companies, call centers are charged with handling a large proportion of interactions with struggling customers. Yet call center operations don’t always lend themselves to personalization. They live and die by efficiency and adherence to routine — both of which can be off-putting to customers with a tricky question, or are facing a product or service issue.
For this reason, many call centers adopt a skills-based approach to call routing, which directs customers to the agent whose skillset is best suited to the issue at hand. The logic goes that specifically trained agents are able to resolve problems faster and at a higher rate, while boosting customer satisfaction through personalized service.
But is this degree of specialization enough to achieve such goals?
To find the answer, the Medallia Institute examined call center data from a major North American telecommunications business. Focusing on customers who had called in over the previous year, we segmented them using a variety of measures — including how satisfied they were with their most recent prior experience. Then, we looked at which customer experience factors mattered most to each group.
What we found: routing strategies that rely solely on agent skillsets are overlooking a large segment of important customer needs.
Customers with different levels of prior satisfaction show the breadth of this achievement gap.  We found that customers whose most recent experience with the company was positive — promoters — care more about having an attentive, understanding agent than having one who works quickly. But for detractors — whose most recent experience was negative — the opposite is true:
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These are large differences, and they have a significant impact on how satisfied each type of customer will be with their call center experience. Yet a traditional skills-based routing system wouldn’t account for them at all — putting the agent at risk of delivering service that feels wide of the mark.
That’s not a great approach to take with customers who are already dealing with a problem.
Armed with findings like this, a call center could take several steps. One is to route callers based not only on the type of issue they have, but on how satisfied they have been in the past. Specifically, known promoters would be routed to agents who spike in the qualities promoters care about: understanding needs thoroughly and communicating clearly. Meanwhile, known detractors would be routed to agents who are clear communicators and who are highly knowledgeable.
Another step involves training and evaluation. If an agent will deal with known detractors, she needs guidelines or scripts to help her exhibit relevant behaviors. She should also have easy access to relevant customer feedback, so she can compare her performance against the behaviors her customer segments desire most.
But what about companies for whom this particular customer segmentation isn’t important?
According to our research, they’re not off the hook. We saw similar differences amongst other customer segments — including customers of different tenures:
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And again, between customers who were or were not currently on a promotional deal:
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So no matter what customer segments matter most to your business, chances are their unique needs won’t be met by skills-based routing alone.
Certain guidelines can help you identify which segments to focus on. A consumer software company, which wants to prevent drop-off by new users, could route them to agents who are best at the most relevant behaviors. Meanwhile, telecommunications companies, for whom customer churn is a constant concern, could focus on customers who are coming to the end of a promotion period.
Done properly, this level of attentiveness to customer needs — finding systematic ways to exhibit the right behaviors in addition to the right technical expertise — fosters personal, memorable experiences on a broad scale. In this way, call centers can focus not just on fixing mistakes, but on fostering extra satisfaction at a critical point in any customer relationship.

Photo Credit: christopher_brown