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Customer services scare customers away

Rather than providing customers with better care, customer service centres (call centres) may actually be putting them off, as BI researcher Tor W. Andreassen demonstrates in a study of the experiences customers have of call centres.

An increasing number of companies are contracting out their customer services (outsourcing) to firms that specialise in dealing with customer enquiries. When you, the customer, ring up a Norwegian company, the telephone may just as likely be answered from Denmark, Ireland or Bangladesh as from the company’s Norwegian address.

The motives for this may be both to save money and to improve customer service by enabling calls to be answered more quickly and increasing customer support agents’ productivity.

On the phone to the call centre

As consumers we are constantly encountering call centres which ask us to choose between option 1, option 2 etc before we can speak to a customer support agent. Unless you are a very important customer you may sometimes have to wait quite a long time, and the reply may not be very helpful either. This is because the call centre often measures its results according to efficiency (i.e. the number of calls per employee per day), which means that not too much time can be spent on any one call.

What happens then when you, the customer, are not satisfied with the reply or do not receive a reply at all and try to ring the call centre again, now fuelled by a large dose of irritation and frustration?

In this case, it is not enough for the call centre to be efficient and have short waiting times and high service capacity: you want your problem to be solved and to receive a satisfactory answer to your questions.

Putting customers off

Tor Wallin Andreassen, senior lecturer at Norwegian School of Management BI, together with Timothy L. Keiningham, Lerzan Aksoy, Bruce Cooil and Barry J. Wahren, performed a comprehensive study of an American non-profit organisation that contracted out its customer services to another company. In particular, they studied enquiries from customers who failed to receive a satisfactory reply on their first encounter with customer services.

The results of the study were reproduced in the scientific publication Managing Service Quality (2006 Vol. 1, No. 3 (May)).

“Instead of looking after customers, we found that the call centre might put them off the company entirely,” says Andreassen, who is an expert in marketing and finance.

“The research study shows that customer satisfaction on the first enquiry is driven by efficiency. We want the problem to be solved quickly and efficiently.”

“However customer satisfaction on the second enquiry (when we did not receive a satisfactory answer on our first attempt), is driven by two completely different factors: empathy, and the assurance that our problem will be solved.”

How to make call centres better

Based on the results of the research, Tor W. Andreassen makes four specific suggestions:

1. The customer centre must be able to differentiate between ordinary enquiries, which are answered quickly and efficiently, and more difficult enquiries, which require sensitivity to the customer’s situation (empathy) and being oriented towards a solution. This presupposes that the customer support agent can recognise repeat calls from the same telephone (technological solution) and has the ability to listen to what the customer wants from their enquiry (personal qualities).

2. Because the success criteria for the two types of call are different, the call centre could consider establishing two different teams of customer support agents, one for handling ordinary enquiries and another for dealing with more difficult ones.

3. If there is only one type of customer support team, staff must be trained to pick up signals from customers, and on the basis of that, to change their behaviour from being fast and efficient to showing empathy and being oriented towards a solution.

4. The call centre must establish incentives which make it possible for customer support agents to move between the two roles without losing money by doing so. Customer enquiries which are more problematic take a longer time to deal with than ordinary ones.


Keiningheim, T.L., L. Aksoy, T.W. Andreassen, B. Coile, B. Wahren (2006): “Call Center Satisfaction and Customer Retention in a Co-Branded Service Context”, Managing Service Quality, Vol. 1, No. 3 (May).

Audun Farbrot | alfa
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