The Rodney Dangerfields of Corporate America

Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. Photograph by Orion/Everett Collection

Pity the call-center workers. They get no respect. A British TV series makes fun of them, comedians mock them, they are low-paid, and everybody loves to tell stories about customer-service failures. But at their best, these frontline employees can dramatically improve your brand and business. Considering the influence they have on our success, it’s time we give them the respect they deserve. Coach them. Guide them. Reward them. And don’t forget—listen to them. Do you know what your brand sounds like over the phone?

We must remember that customer service is not limited to the call center. Customer service has evolved into a multichannel, cross-enterprise, state-of-the-art function. And with the addition of new channels, such as social media, you’ve given some employees megaphones that could leave your organization with little room for error. The workers in these groups and in contact centers are brand ambassadors for you on the phone, e-mail, chat, Twitter, and Facebook. They are expected to ferret out dissatisfaction, solve problems, and delight your customers in record time. In short, they are evolving from underappreciated phone operators to frontline defenders of your brand and reputation.

These workers need the right tools to do their job. Go watch the call center agents in your organization. You will see them deftly navigate among more than six applications running simultaneously on one screen—while dealing with the pressure to get the customer off the phone as quickly as possible. They need tools that deliver information and guidance in real time, so they can serve the customers and make sure they come away satisfied. Better yet, they should also have tools that help them sell the caller on pricier goods. In this regard, a call-center agent should be like the in-store salespeople at Home Depot—helpfully pushing more expensive items that make the customer’s overall project successful, not just trying to add something to an order.

This pressing need has turned the contact center into a hotbed of innovation. Today’s customer-service agents are no longer robotic script readers; they use on-screen guidance for selling and emotion-detection software to sense customer dissatisfaction. This technology analyzes the words of the customer in real time and alerts agents to possible buying trends while linking the agents to offers suggested by the marketing team. Furthermore, contact-center agents are collaborating with agents in chat and mobile apps, rather than deflecting customers to them.

According to IBM’s 2012 Global CEO Survey, 71 percent of chief executives view human capital as a key source of sustained economic value, and 66 percent feel the same about customer relationships. By comparison, only 52 percent of CEOs include product/service innovation in this category. Such organizations as eBay are delivering strong results not because of their products but because of their people and customer relationships. They have invested in their brands through their employees and are turning customer interactions into a positive experience.

Think of your last customer-service experience. Your perception of that company’s brand is in the voice of the person with whom you interacted. Now think of thousands of interactions happening every day in your organization. Equipping and rewarding these employees will help you deliver on your brand promise and ensure that the “voice” of your brand is capable of providing the right service.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE