Conversing or Transacting in the Contact Center
Illustration by Alex Dolan

Contact centers come in all shapes and sizes. We have different ways to define them—sales vs. service, virtual vs. brick and mortar, small vs. large, etc. To that list, I would like to add one more—conversational vs. transactional.

This designation might not be the most obvious, but you need only listen to a few calls to be able to discern one from the other. The transactional center sounds businesslike and mechanical, with a focus on efficiency. A conversational center sounds completely different. There are twists and turns in the discussions, the rep will offer unsolicited input, comments will be restated for clarity, and there will be little evidence of a desire for efficiency on the part of the agent. Visually, a transactional call looks like a straight line, while a conversational call has a number of curves and off-shoots.

Getting It Right in Your Center

It is hard to argue against the power of conversation. If you’re looking to learn more about customers, make better-informed decisions, build stronger relationships and/or generate more sales, a conversational approach seems like an obvious choice. And from a customer’s perspective, it is easy to be loyal to a company that listens to you and responds to your individual needs.

So, conversational must be the way to go for everyone, right? Not so fast. There are plenty of situations where a phone call is better handled like a transaction. The efficient nature of the transactional call reduces costs, which is always a welcome outcome. And in the right environment, customers prefer “quick and businesslike” to friendly but lengthy. Many business-to-business calls fit this category. So do very basic calls, like order taking. It may also be appropriate where agents (or callers) are highly skilled, expensive resources that are in high demand.

We can all agree that few, if any, contact centers should fit in one category for every single interaction. Transactional centers will have customers that need some hand-holding, and conversational centers will have some customers that want speed more than anything else. But every center needs to consciously define a “default” position and work toward delivering it on a consistent basis. It is an important, strategic decision for your center, and is driven by your performance objectives and your approach to call monitoring.

Performance Objectives

When you ask agents what drives them to make certain decisions on a call, one of the two most commonly cited reasons is the impact on performance objectives. If talk time is a critical performance measurement, it is often quoted as the reason why a missing email address was not obtained during a call. If customer satisfaction ratings are the biggest component of an agent’s scorecard, it is usually noted as the reason why an agent picked up a cue and spent a few minutes talking about the caller’s children, even though it had nothing to do with the topic at hand.

The metrics you choose to measure performance, and the weights you assign each one, have a strong impact on whether your calls sound transactional or conversational. The table below depicts a number of common contact center metrics and defines the type of call behavior they more typically support.

METRIC TRANSACTIONAL CONVERSATIONAL
Adherence X X
Talk Time, Handle Time X
Calls per hour X
First Contact Resolution X
Quality Monitoring Score X X
Customer Satisfaction Score X

What metrics appear on your agent scorecards? If the more important metrics support a transactional call approach, then chances are you have mechanical, efficient sounding calls. If the more significant measurements in your center lean toward conversational, then you more likely have calls that sound like a friendly discussion.

Quality Monitoring

The other key influencer on call handling is your quality monitoring program. The categories you use for ratings, the scoring system, the guidelines that define what you are looking for—these all work to influence the myriad decisions that an agent must make in completing an interaction.

Monitoring programs are like snowflakes—no two are alike. There are however, certain characteristics that many share, and these have an impact on the approach agents will take with callers. If you have a form with many (20-plus) rating elements, each of which are yes/no with little room for judgment, then your monitoring program is encouraging transactional call handling. If you have fewer categories, with different weights per category and a scale that goes beyond yes/no, then your calls will sound more like conversations.

Identifying the Exception

Whatever type of contact center you build, it is important to recognize that it will not fit every caller. Exceptions exist, and the best-run centers are those that train agents to identify caller needs early in the contact. Sure, a sales center will do well with a conversational approach. But when a caller starts out with “I’m on my way to an appointment, but I had a quick question about…,” the transactional approach should kick in. Maybe the caller will be more patient and more probing later in the call, in which case the agent can go back into conversational mode. But it is the customer who gets to lead that dance, not the agent.

Make It a Conscious Decision

Any center will fit into the conversational or transactional category. The key point for management is that it should be a conscious decision that drives the performance objectives you select and the approach you take to quality monitoring. If not, whatever performance objectives you select, and whatever monitoring plan you put in place will drive the degree of conversation you have. Chances are the outcome you get will not match the type of customer experience you want to deliver.

Subscribe to Contact Center Pipeline Magazine