New Research Reveals Why Customers Hate Call Centers

Nobody likes calling customer service.

The list of gripes is a mile long: confusing phone menus, intolerable hold times, and a lack of agent empowerment all annoy us.

New research from Mattersight reveals a few specific reasons why customers are dissatisfied. What's surprising is it's not a poor product, service, or policy that's at the heart of the problem. It turns out the heart itself is feeling ignored.

Finding #1: Customers don't want to call

It's easy to get confused by channel preference data.

Microsoft's 2015 U.S. State of Multichannel Customer Service report revealed that the phone is still the most popular channel. Their survey shows that 81 percent of customers use the telephone to contact customer service on a regular basis.

At first glance, it seems like customers actually do want to call you. Otherwise, another channel would be more popular, right? Here's where Mattersight's data provides some additional perspective: 

Only 28% of customers call customer service as their first attempt to solve a problem.

This means that most customers who call start somewhere else. Microsoft's study found that 57 percent of customers start online, but customers might also try another channel like email, chat, or social media. They end up calling when they can't solve their problem on the first try.

Smart companies work to prevent calls by providing better service through other channels, particularly self-service. This keeps their customers happy and allows them to serve customers more efficiently.


Finding #2: Customers are already upset

Calling customer service can feel like navigating an obstacle course. Think about all a customer has to go through just to get someone on the phone:

  1. They experienced a problem.
  2. They couldn't resolve it without calling.
  3. They had to navigate through an annoying IVR system.
  4. They had to wait on hold.

Mattersight's study revealed this is a major problem:

66% of customers are frustrated before they even start talking with a customer service representative.

This frustration makes the customer service agent's job a lot harder in several ways:

Smart companies realize the best strategy for working with upset customers is to have fewer upset customers. They work on identifying and fixing root causes rather than deploying their customer service agents as human punching bags.


Finding #3: Customers aren't happy after the call

Call center agents routinely overlook their customers' emotional needs. Here's another stat from Mattersight that sums it up:

75% of customers have felt frustrated after talking with a customer service representative, even if their problem was solved.

Serving emotional needs is the real secret sauce in customer service. Unfortunately, we tend to focus so much on solving the problem that we miss out on helping the customer feel better.

A 2011 study from Bain highlights a terrific example. They looked at Net Promoter Scores for airline passengers who experienced a flight delay or cancellation. The data revealed that the way the issue was handled had a much heavier influence on their rating than the event itself.



All of these findings revolve around attending to your customers' emotional needs. Here's a short video that gives you a glimpse into that way that tending to emotional needs can make a difference.

So, what can you do to make calling your company a better experience for your customers? Here are three suggestions:

First, give customers fewer reasons to call. Relentlessly search for icebergs and fix those problems. Improve the quality of your self-service options so customers can solve issues on their own.

Second, make it easier for customers to call. Remove or reduce barriers like clunky phone menus and long hold times. Consider adding a callback feature like Fonolo if you routinely have large spikes in call volume.

Third, train your agents to serve their customers' emotional needs. You can use the Working With Upset Customers training video on You'll need a subscription to view the entire course, but you can pick up a 10-day trial here.

ICMI’s 2014 Contact Center Demo and Conference Re-cap

Last week’s Contact Center Demo & Conference in Chicago, IL was a blast. There were great keynotes, engaging breakout sessions, and lots of networking.

Here’s a re-cap of the conference in case you missed it.


Conference Overview

The conference, known as CC Demo, is put on by ICMI. They provide research, conferences, and training for contact center professionals. 

CC Demo attracts a nice blend of participants from senior leaders to contact center supervisors. You can read an overview here or check out the conversation on the Twitter backchannel.



There’s just too much to cover at a conference like this. Something’s going on everywhere you turn!

Here were a few highlights for me.


Chip Bell’s Keynote

Chip did such a great job keynoting last year’s CC Demo that he was brought back by popular demand! He shared six strategies for delivering innovative customer service from his book, 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service.

One fun moment from Chip’s presentation was when he talked about staying at the Hotel Monaco in Chicago. They made his stay a little brighter by putting a gold fish named Trixie in his room. 

He recounted a return trip to the hotel where the front desk associate asked him, “Shall I send Trixie up to your room, Mr. Bell?”

It got even better when Marriah Barnett sent this Tweet:

Leslie O’Flahavan’s Email Session

Too many conference sessions are death by PowerPoint. Not Leslie’s! Her session was called Not Dead Yet: How to Write Great Emails to Customers in the Age of Social Customer Service.

It was highly interactive with great conversation and hands-on activities. Here were a few take-aways that stood out for me:

  • Critical reading is critical - make sure you understand what the customer wants.
  • Sound friendly, not stodgy by writing like a real person.
  • Integrate self-service options whenever possible.


New Research from ICMI

ICMI’s Senior Analyst, Justin Robbins, gave us a sneak peek at some of ICMI’s latest contact center research.

Here’s one stat that really stood out:

The average contact center agent uses seven screens to serve customers.

That’s up from five screens last year. Given the destructive qualities of multitasking, it seems like this trend is going in a dangerous direction.

Robbins also shared the results of a survey outlining the top ten challenges faced by call centers. Captured here in two grainy phone photos:

ICMI’s next big conference is the 2015 Contact Center Expo & Conference. It runs May 4 - 7 in Orlando, Florida. There’s already big buzz for this one! 

Here's what your contact center agents are really thinking

Do you know what your contact center agents are thinking?

Do you know what your contact center agents are thinking?

A study from BenchmarkPortal reveals new insights into what contact center agents are really thinking.

The Agent Voices study was based on over 5,000 surveys with contact center agents in North America. It reveals that overall job satisfaction among contact center agents is 76.2 percent. Not surprisingly, the thing agents like best about their jobs is working with customers.

There are a few interesting highlights that deserve attention from contact center managers.

New agents need more support

A whopping 92.9 percent of agents gave their new hire training program high marks, but only 60.8 percent felt their transition from training to the contact center floor was adequately supported.

The training program itself may be part of the problem.

Call center agents must simultaneously use a wide variety of skills to do their jobs. This may include recalling product knowledge, navigating a variety of software programs, and interacting with the customer in an appropriate way. Many call centers train their new hires on one skill at a time, which makes them easier to learn.

Unfortunately, this method can also cause agents to experience a form of mental gridlock when they first try to use all the skills together at one time. This typically happens as agents make the transition from training to the contact center floor.

Call centers can overcome this problem and speed up new hire training by moving to scenario-based training. I’ve used it to cut new hire training time by as much as 50 percent while still improving new hires’ performance. You can learn more about this approach from an article I wrote for ICMI earlier this year.

Agents want a better work environment

Most call center agents really want to do a great job for their customers and 83.8 percent said they’re proud to work for their organization. The survey also showed that call center agents generally gave their co-workers high marks and felt a strong sense of teamwork.

These results were tempered by some signs that work environment needs improvement in many centers. One of the most striking findings was that only 44.6 percent of agents agreed that their working atmosphere is usually optimistic and positive.

One explanation is the way responsibility is structured in many contact centers. Agents often solve problems caused by another department, such as a shipping error made in the warehouse or a bug in a new software program. They must also frequently rely on someone in another department to implement the solution. 

It can be discouraging to repeatedly face problems that appear to be outside of your control. Many contact center agents are susceptible to a condition called Learned Helplessness where poor service seems like a foregone conclusion. Agents experiencing Learned Helplessness can stop trying to serve their customers if they believe their efforts will be fruitless.

Good relationships with supervisors, but not executives

A contact center agent who works for a financial services firm recently told me that executives routinely ignore contact center agents when they see them in the elevator. This may be a wider trend - only 56 percent of agents said they trust the messages from senior management.

Things are a little rosier on the relationship front when it comes to agents’ direct supervisor. A total of 77.6 percent reported they had a good working relationship with their direct supervisor.

The lesson here is executives must be visible in the contact center. They need to take time to listen to their frontline agents and explain their strategies and policies. Acknowledging employees in the elevator probably wouldn't hurt either.

Agents don’t feel heard

A majority of contact center agents don’t feel heard. Only 39.1 percent felt their leaders exhibited effective listening skills and only 45.7 felt their opinion was valued.

This may help explain why many employees don’t pass along feedback to management. I uncovered this trend earlier this year in a post titled Why Employees Don't Pass Along Customer Complaints.

Customer service needs work

Agents tend to feel their own teams do a pretty good job on customer service, but the company as a whole needs work. Only 47 percent felt that decisions in their organization were aimed at achieving the highest possible level of quality for their customers, but 71.3 percent felt their customers could trust them.

This disparity may be a product of two things. One, contact centers can sometimes be an outlier where other parts of the organization aren’t nearly as focused on service. Anothe possibility is contact center agents may suffer from the Dunning-Krueger effect where they overrate their own ability in comparison to others. 

What do you think?

If you are a contact center agent, or manage contact center agents, it would be great to hear from you. Are these results true for your center? Or, is your environment a little different?

5 Ways to Train Contact Center Agents Faster

Faster (and better) training is possible!

Faster (and better) training is possible!

Note: this post originally appeared on

New hire training represents a significant investment for many contact centers with typical training times ranging from two to six weeks or even more. Fortunately, there are ways to train new hires faster and improve their on-the-job performance.

I shared one of my biggest secrets in an article I wrote for ICMI in June called “Boost performance with scenario-based training.”  Here are five more ways to speed up the training process without compromising results.


#1 Keep a trainee observation log

When I ran a call center training department, my trainers all kept a log of detailed notes on their new hires’ daily in-class performance. When a new hire struggled with a particular concept, the written notes helped the trainer clearly describe the specific challenge. For example, a note describing a new hire having trouble with upselling might read, “John frequently confused features and benefits while role-playing upsell offers.”

The detailed notes made it easy for the trainer to create a strategy to get the learner back on track. John’s trainer might decide to spend a few extra minutes with John reviewing the difference between features and benefits. A little extra practice or instruction was often all that was needed to for the concept to click. Without that extra intervention, many new hires would continue to struggle and fall farther and farther behind.

Keeping a written log of trainee observations had a few additional advantages in my training department. If a trainer called in sick, someone else could easily cover their class by reviewing the log to see where they left off. The log also helped trainers get a second opinion when they faced a particularly challenging situation. I had two shifts of trainers working in two locations, so the trainer could email me the written notes if I wasn’t able to personally observe the class.


#2 Group new hires for live calls

The transition from new hire training to taking live calls can be a challenging one. They know how to do the job, but they may not have the speed, accuracy, or confidence to handle a heavy load of calls without asking a lot of questions.

One way to speed up this transition is to group new hires together and have them take calls under the watchful eye of a dedicated coach. This allows the new hire to be productive by handling contacts from a normal queue while still having instant access to intensive coaching when needed. Generally, a few shifts in the “new hire section” is all that’s needed for an agent to become ready to join their assigned team.


#3 Conduct passport tours

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for new call center agents is that they don’t fully understand their company’s operations. A passport tour is a simple training technique that takes learners to various parts of the company so they can get a first-hand look at how everything fits together. New hires collect a signature on their “passport” for each stop along the tour.

This technique was a huge help when I worked for a catalog company. New hires would tour our merchandising department so they could touch and feel our products. They visited the fulfillment center so they could see how orders were picked, packed, and shipped. They visited the returns department so they could see how and why merchandise came back to us. All of this first-hand knowledge helped new hires quickly grasp how everything fit together.

Some companies have far-flung operations, but you can easily create a virtual passport tour by using a smart phone to shoot short video tours of key operations. You can also use web-conferencing technology like GoTo Meeting or Adobe Connect to have people from remote operations provide your new hires with a guest lecture.


#4 Have new hires score their own calls

Many contact centers use their quality assurance form as a template for new hire training. This makes sense since you want to train agents to the same standards you use to evaluate a successful call.

You can take this a step further by having new hires score their own calls. These could be either live calls or recorded role-plays. Self-scoring invites agents to view their performance more objectively and helps them learn to analyze their own performance so they can quickly make adjustments.


#5 Encourage social learning

Many contact centers have social learning tools such as chat, blogs, and wikis that allow agents to share knowledge with each other. In some contact centers, these tools can mean the difference between solving a problem in five minutes or thirty minutes. Unfortunately, these resources can be underutilized if agents don’t know how to use them or aren’t even aware they exist.

You can encourage the use of social learning by designing training exercises that require new hires to make use of these tools to solve complex problems. They’ll learn the answers to difficult challenges, but more broadly, they’ll understand how to use those tools to quickly solve similar problems in the future.

Contact Center Conference Fall 2013 Re-cap

The Fall 2013 Contact Center Conference was a hit.

The Fall 2013 Contact Center Conference was a hit.

 The Fall 2013 Contact Center Conference was in Phoenix, AZ this week. Phoenix is a great city to visit and the weather was perfect. 

There are a lot of contact center conferences throughout the year so it’s impossible to attend them all. And, it can be tough to keep track of all the great content even if you do attend. That’s why I put together this short re-cap.


Conference Overview

If you didn't attend, you may want to start by familiarizing yourself with the conference:



Here are some additional resources that you can use to get even more content and perspectives from the conference.

Conference Highlights

It's impossible to attend all the sessions. There were even a few great ones scheduled at the same time I was scheduled to present The Journey to a Customer-focused Culture. However, there were three sessions that really stood out for me:

Dr. Natalie Petouhoff’s session on building a business case for multi-channel customer service. Her session took us through seven steps, but I was really impressed that step one was social listening. She suggested that businesses start by finding what their customers are saying about them on social media and where they are saying it. This in turn can provide business intelligence that can reduce contact volume, improve products, and ultimately win more business. I also found a nice YouTube video where Petouhoff explains the nuts and bolts of calculating the ROI of providing customer service via social media. 

Bruce Belfiore’s session on what agents really think. Belfiore is the CEO of Benchmark Portal, a company that specializes in benchmarking call centers.  He presented the results of a research study to find out what contact center agents are really thinking. Overall, it seemed that agents are fairly satisfied, but the survey did identify a few areas for improvement. Chief among them are the transition from training to the call center floor, providing realistic job previews during the hiring process, and senior leadership inspiring trust.

Fred Van Bennekom’s session on customer service surveys. Van Bennekom shared many examples of ways that surveys can be deliberately or inadvertently manipulated to provide false data. The biggest problem revealed is that companies get fixated on achieving a certain score rather than using the survey to drive continuous improvement. When that happens, companies start finding creative ways to get customers to give a positive rating. Van Bennekom outlined an excellent example on his blog.

If you attended the conference, what were your biggest take-aways?