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May 06, 2009
How To

How to Cut Costs and Keep Customers Happy by Mining Calls

SUMMARY: A call center fielding calls from unhappy customers is akin to a bucketful of lemons – not the best scenario, but one that you can use to your advantage. Find out how a natural gas company mined a sample of their incoming calls to improve their marketing and customer satisfaction, and cut costs by the million. Includes tips to avoid customer confusion, wasted time and website malfunctions.
You can build your budget’s size and impact in your department or work with other departments, such as customer service and operations, to save dollars and increase sales.

Gas South, a Georgia-based natural gas company, maintains a high-volume call center that generates substantial costs and receives 50,000 to 75,000 calls a month. Manon Brochu, General Manager of Mass Market, Gas South, wanted to tap into those calls to uncover ways her team could decrease costs, increase customer satisfaction, and uncover the key drivers to successful sales.

“We spend millions and millions of dollars on call-center expenses annually, so just a 5% reduction in overall calls is tremendous. It’s millions of dollars for us.”

Georgia has an open market for natural gas with lots of competition, and Brochu and her team wanted to stay ahead by both leveraging their call center, and cutting its costs. Find out how they did it and what problems they uncovered. Their example could point to problems in your operation.

Mining a Sample of Calls

Step #1: Select a sample

The team selected a random sample of calls between January and April 2008. The sample contained about 25% of the calls over that period. They chose at least one call from every day. Since the calls came between the fall and spring, they likely were a mix of both customer service and sales calls, with slightly more on the customer service side.

“In the fall, a large portion of our calls will be sales and acquisition calls,” Brochu says. “And during the spring, there will be more customer service calls, because that’s when people tend to get their big bills and tend to be behind on paying them.”

Step #2: Categorize

The team separated the calls into major categories. The two largest parent categories were sales and customer service. The calls were further broken down into sub-categories, including:
o Closed sales
o Unclosed sales
o Long calls
o Mentions of the competition
o Driven by marketing materials
o Driven by a discount incentive
o Driven by a partnership
o Website problems
o Confusion
o Billing

A call could fall into multiple categories. For example, a caller might call in response to confusion about a discount incentive and end up signing up for service.

Step #3: Mine for insights

After organizing the calls, the team drilled into them looking for insights, and spent a lot of time listening to taped calls. They wanted to uncover what made the difference between closed and unclosed sales, why some calls were so long, and what was causing confusion. Also, they wanted to identify which marketing materials, incentives and partnerships were driving the most valuable calls.

Here are examples of the many causes they identified:

1. Sales process

The team uncovered a number of factors that contributed to unnecessarily long call times -- even when sales were not made. For example, Gas South performs a credit check on all customers before registration, and does not accept customers with poor credit. Yet, when a person called to sign up for service, the credit check was not performed until very late in the call, thereby wasting a lot of time on customers whose credit scores did not qualify.

2. Friendliness

Gas South serves Georgia, a pillar of southern hospitality. Many of the call times were extended because customer service reps were exchanging niceties and making small talk with the callers.

3. Miscommunication

When customers called, call center reps did not clearly communicate the rates of service and the benefits that differentiate Gas South from the competition. “Our customer service reps were very confident about what they were communicating, but they were not all communicating the same thing,” Brochu says.

4. Online registration problems

Gas South wanted emphasize customer self-service, but callers were complaining about the website’s registration process. Some were unable to register using certain incentives, and when they called in, they were at times directed back to the website.

5. Lack of self-service emphasis

The team noticed that Gas South’s online self-service was not emphasized enough by their call-center reps, and by their system’s automated messaging. The team wanted it mentioned more often because it has been shown to cut costs and increase customer satisfaction.

Step #4: Find and gauge solutions

The team created a list of more than 30 changes that could be made to solve many of the problems they uncovered in the calls. Then, the team prioritized which changes would be made. Factors they considered included:
o Magnitude: how many people are calling about this?
o Impact: how much will this improve our bottom line or customer service?
o Cost: how much will it cost to do this?
o Time: how long will it take to do this?
o Customer perspective: will customers like this?

Of the list, Greg Dunavant, Strategy Analyst, Gas South says:
o 25% were “low-hanging fruit” that could be quickly fixed to reap benefits
o 50% would take 3 to 6 months to solve
o 25% would take longer than a year

Some changes, although they would decrease call times and save money, were thought to have too much impact on customer service to implement. One example comes from the polite small talk that the reps often engaged in.

“Chances are, when they call you, if they’re enrolling, it’s your first chance to make a positive impression. If they’re not, they’re calling because something has failed. So we made the decision that, in both of those situations, it was worth the incremental costs associated with all of those niceties and small talk, versus shaving the call a certain amount of seconds and saving some money,” Brochu says.

Step #5: Make the changes

“I can’t think of anything we’ve done that has had no impact, that hasn’t shown some kind of value,” Dunavant says. Some of the changes include:

Retrain the call center reps

The team had call reps regularly emphasize that customers can address many of their problems by managing their accounts on their website. Also, credit checks were performed at the beginning of sales calls to avoid wasted time. And the reps were trained on the best selling points to Gas South and their correct pricing.

To do this, several call-center scripts had to be rewritten, the training process had to be changed, reference materials were provided, and these topics were added to the reps evaluation process.

Tweak direct mail

Gas South’s direct mail pieces offered an incentive that confused many customers. The copy of the direct mail piece was tweaked to add clarity.

Update IVR

Gas South’s interactive voice response system had to be changed to emphasize that customers could perform many account management tasks on their computer at a time that was convenient for them. Also, since the previous IVR had been shown to increase call times unnecessarily by misrouting calls, they updated the routing tree.

“On average, we were wasting anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes for that transfer,” Brochu says. “We made some technology changes to improve that and we saw significant improvements immediately.”

Automate regulatory information

Calls were also lengthened by reps’ requirement to read legally mandatory information to customers -- even when they declined to sign up with Gas South. The team further shortened call times by recording this information and playing it to customers when that was legally permissible.

Useful links related to this article:

How to Mine Your Customer Service Department for Nuggets of Marketing Gold

Nexidia: Provided Gas South the tool for mining calls

Gas South

See Also:

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