How to Improve Your Center’s Loyalty and Retention Rates

FROM THE JANUARY 2014 ISSUE

Engaging the C-Wing
Illustration by Justin Putnam

There is no such thing as, “just an address change” or a “simple customer question.” Every interaction is a loyalty situation: How that interaction is handled can either generate customer commitment or drive that customer away.

For example, I called my phone company to request a business calling card. I had to navigate a painful IVR system, wait online for several minutes, spoke with a poorly trained agent and then was transferred to a more experienced agent. That second agent was pleasant enough; however, my calling card never arrived. I found out it was because they forgot to include my unit number on the envelope. So even though my phone bill arrives every month with my unit number on it, my calling card got lost in the mail. I am still upset about it and will consider choosing another phone provider when my existing contract is due for renewal.

What can we learn from this? Every interaction with a customer will either increase or decrease their chances of remaining with your company. What can you do as a contact center leader to improve those chances? Train every agent how to increase client loyalty. Set up a proactive loyalty team to contact customers before their contracts/policies are up for renewal. Finally, you can create a specialized “Save” team to work with customers who have decided to quit.

Train Every Agent to Increase Client Loyalty

Satisfied customers are loyal customers. Step one is ensuring that your frontline agents can handle routine client interactions, such as address changes, repeat orders, etc. Do not drive the customer away with incompetent service. Better yet, exceed their expectations. How can you enhance your caller’s experience? Look for opportunities to save the customer money. For example, a mobile phone company agent notices that the caller is exceeding his monthly data cap. The agent suggests a more economical data plan that saves the customer money. The customer is delighted.

A second way to increase loyalty is to suggest better ways to use your company’s products. For example, one of my clients is a wholesale food distributor to restaurants. Their agents are trained to suggest alternative uses for each ingredient. If a restaurant owner orders chicken fingers for a “kid’s menu,” the agent will suggest adding chicken fingers as an adult appetizer or inside a wrap so the owner can generate more sales. Helping your clients save money or make money increases their loyalty to your company.

Be Proactive: Call Customers Who Are Up for Renewal

Don’t wait for your customer to cancel. Be proactive. Assemble a proactive loyalty team whose role is to reach out to customers whose contracts or policies are up for renewal.

Have your agents call customers before they reach a decision point. For example, my car lease expires in six months. At that point, I can buy my car outright, lease another one from the same auto dealership or go elsewhere for my next car. Proactively, my dealership called last week—six months early—to discuss “end-of-lease” options. I appreciated that and will stay with them.

In comparison, my mobile phone contract expires in three weeks. However, the phone company still has not contacted me regarding “end-of-contract” options. I am already upset about not getting the calling card I was promised, due to their incompetence. I feel ignored because they have not called me regarding my expiring contract. How likely is it that I will remain loyal to them?

Create a Specialized “Save” Team to Focus on Customer Retention

Creating loyalty on every call and proactively contacting customers who are reaching the end of their contracts can reduce cancellations. However, some customers will still call to cancel their service. Retaining them is a big challenge. After all, that customer has already made a decision to quit. Changing his or her mind can be a difficult task—one that should be assigned to your best agents.

When selecting candidates for your “Save” team, choose experienced agents. You need people who are capable and knowledgeable. People who understand your products and services, have great interpersonal skills and the ability to solve client problems. They also need to be mentally tough enough to handle irate callers.

Coach Agents on Retention Techniques

Your “Save” team’s first challenge is engaging the customer in a conversation. Often, customers are guarded because they don’t want to be “talked out of leaving.” Coach your team members not to challenge the customer’s decision to leave at this point. Instead, they should acknowledge the request and say, “I’m sorry you want to cancel. I can help you with that.” Then, they can ask a hypothetical question that bypasses the customer’s defense mechanisms: “In hindsight, what could we have done earlier, or better, to convince you to stay with us?” Customers will often give a sincere answer to this hypothetical question. That gives your agent a starting point for saving this customer.

On the other hand, some callers are very open regarding their reasons for leaving. They want to vent. Your team should allow those customers to get their frustrations off their chests. Agents can then begin to build rapport by paraphrasing the caller’s key concerns so that he or she feels heard and understood. It’s important to listen without interrupting. Remind your agents that, even if they have heard that concern from a hundred previous customers, it is the first time this customer is saying it, so let them finish.

Coach agents on proper techniques for showing empathy for the customer’s concern. For instance, the agent can say, “I don’t blame you for feeling that way. I’d feel that way, too, if I were in that situation.” They can build upon that by offering to help the customer. Then, have your agent follow the usual customer service pattern of asking diagnostic questions to determine how to fix the caller’s problem. If the problem can be fixed, the caller is usually willing to remain a customer.

Not Every Customer Can Be Saved

There are some cases where a problem cannot be fixed. For example, if a cable TV customer is permanently moving to another country or an auto insurance customer is giving up driving. At that point, agents should simply thank the customer for their patronage and invite them to join again if they ever move back, buy a new car, etc.

There are also cases where a problem should not be fixed, if it sets a bad precedent. In those cases, damage control becomes a priority. Before the Internet, disgruntled customers used to tell an average of 10 people about a poor customer service experience. Now, with social media, one customer can tweet a bad experience to thousands of followers and have the story picked up by mainstream media. So, every client interaction needs to be handled carefully. If you cannot do everything a customer asks, at least negotiate a settlement that helps them stay calm. Your agent can try asking the client what solution they think is reasonable. In many cases, customers ask for less than the agent would have otherwise offered.

Set Up Your Save Team for Success

There are two final tips regarding “Save” teams. The first tip is to focus on saves rather than average handle time. Let agents take the time they need to retain a customer. After all, how much does an extra minute cost? In comparison, how much does a lost customer cost? Even worse, how much does a lost customer who complains to thousands of other customers cost?

The second tip is to focus on morale building. Dealing with irate callers is a challenging job. Help your agents celebrate saves and cope with losses. View your “Save” agents as a valuable Voice of the Customer. They hear first-hand why customers are leaving. So make use of that information by forwarding it to the appropriate decision makers. Let agents know how their feedback is being used to improve things and avoid future client cancellations. That will empower your agents and improve morale.

Many years ago, when I was an agent dealing with saves, our team provided lots of customer feedback to our marketing department. However, we never heard back from them regarding any changes or process improvements. Eventually, agents felt frustrated and powerless. Do not make that same mistake with your agents.

Every Interaction Counts

Remember, every interaction with a customer will either increase or decrease their chances of remaining with your company. So, train agents to increase loyalty on every call, set up a proactive loyalty team to contact customers before their contracts/policies are up for renewal and have a specialized “Save” team to retain customers who want to leave.

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