By virtue of my job I spend a lot of time thinking and examining concepts around Customer Experience. Yes, I drank the Kool-Aid a long while ago and I’m convinced that Customer Experience is the true differentiator in today’s highly price-competitive and commoditised market.

Back in 1997 when Vodafone acquired BellSouth, the late great Graham Maher identified and then explicitly explained to myself and every single employee in the newly formed company that service not price or technological differentiation was going to be the pillar the company’s success would be built on. I remember thinking that this was somewhat radical, given we spent much time and effort pointing out to customers and prospects how much better our GSM technology was than our rival’s dated analogue platform. Fast forward a few years and Vodafone’s brand had risen to dominate the local mobile market space. Graham was right. Vodafone’s early and rapid success was achieved via a ‘service first’ strategy.

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In examining how a service first strategy can be applied there are several components that contribute to the strategy succeeding. One of the most crucial of those is to Empower Your Frontline.

A little while ago I called the call centre for a service provider. I will not name them but let’s just say they provide entertainment content to my home. The reason for my call was I had an error when trying to play back some of that content. In fact I even had an error code.  So after calling through to their tech support and providing details of the error and the error code my expectation was that it would be a quick diagnosis, leading to a speedy resolution.

I was on hold for 15 minutes while the frontline staff member tried to find out what the error code meant, even though, by definition it was a known error that someone had taken the time to allocate a number to. Clearly there was very little empowerment of this frontline employee in the way of knowledge. She was polite, friendly and well trained, but she did not have easy access to the knowledge that she needed to truly provide a great experience.

So what was the impact of this?  I was left feeling very frustrated…it’s a half hour of my life that I will never get back. I am now considering whether I need that service or if there are better alternatives. I doubt I would be feeling that way if my call had been answered by an agent who was empowered with the knowledge to resolve my issue quickly and efficiently.

Potential loss of custom is the tip of the iceberg here. There’s also the hard costs of increased ‘average handle time’ and the resulting drop in productivity within the call centre. Plus, the impact of staff frustration and poor morale can hardly be overstated. Low levels of empowerment translate into poor morale and high staff turnover. Most call centres are already high-stress environments where staff are required to continually meet/beat targets and their performance is constantly judged/rated and made visible to others. Job satisfaction resides in having the power to satisfy or please the customer.

So what’s the answer? How do we empower our frontline staff effectively?

In my experience when customers take the time to call into an organisation, whether it is a good or bad experience often hinges around how efficiently the correct information that pertains to their query is provided.

In the case of assisted channels (think phone, chat or email, as opposed to self help) the agent is the conduit between the customer and the organisation that holds this knowledge.

Customer specific knowledge usually resides in some sort of billing platform where transactional history is kept, maybe in a CRM or combination thereof. The ‘How do I do this? What does this mean? How do I fix this? Where do I go?’ type of information is usually stored in a multitude of repositories ranging from shared network drives, to filing cabinets, to training manuals, to colleagues at the next desk, or Post-it-Notes stuck to the screen. I often see either document management systems or, worse still, shared directories, used to store critical knowledge. When I talk to agents they just don’t access these systems as they can’t find the information they need quickly enough. Often this means that the story the customer gets is either outdated, inconsistent or completely wrong.

So where to start? Sit down and listen to your call centre team as they take calls. Or better yet, scare the #$ap out of yourself and take some calls yourself. You will pretty quickly see how empowered, or not your staff are. If like many you are shocked by how hard it is then the next step is to look to create an internal knowledge base with the help of a product such as WebCX. Your new knowledge base can be designed to provide your agents with the correct information, at google-speed. Most of the effort will go into gathering everyone’s collective wisdom and moving it into the system. Then, once it’s up and running, make sure you stay committed to maintaining it. Your knowledge base is a living, breathing organism. If you don’t update it, it will die.

It is a critical tool if you want to empower your frontline staff to provide great experiences to your customers.