Identity Crisis … Who Are You?

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

The Who (the band made famous in the 70s) once published a song called, “Who Are You” with some very complex lyrics that went like this: “Who are you? Who, Who, Who, Who?” I am beginning to think that some Contact Centers should adopt this as their theme song.

We could begin with the fact that even as an industry, the identity is splintered as in “Are you a Call Center or are you a Contact Center?” The fact that it really doesn’t make much of a difference seems not to deter people from conducting this insufferable debate, as if it matters. I have yet to see the value of making this distinction. Most operations today include a variety of channels and in my humble opinion you are entitled to refer to these enterprise operations as either a Call Center or a Contact Center. We all know what you’re talking about.

The term “identity crisis” originated in human physiology and refers to an individual’s understanding of who they are, who others think they are, and how they fit in the world. I believe the term also applies to Contact Centers: who they are, who others think they are, and how they fit in the enterprise world.

Identity becomes your “visibility.” How you see yourself is the key factor in how others see you. How you report on performance, how you interact cross-functionally (from the C-level to the cube level), how you recruit and retain staff … essentially everything you do as a Contact Center leader … factors into your “visibility,” and hence your identity.

Identity is also how others see you. When it comes to Contact Centers, this is where there can be a massive gap. “Who are you? Who, Who, Who, Who?” Contact Centers need to craft a charter that defines what they do, why they do it, when they do it, how they do it, and for whom they do it. They must identify the steps required to utilize the services of the Contact Center. Sadly this is not often the case. There are situations where just about anybody in the company has the authority to go to the Contact Center and ask for (or demand!) services from this business unit. And it seems that there are few that actually ask!

Cross-functional requests include things like a research request: “Could you ask just this one question at the end of every call?” It may be the exception that the request is posed as a question as it is more frequently posed as a directive. What is not understood is that the question will generate a response from a caller that will add time to each and every phone call. This has the potential to hurt Service Level and subsequently the Customer Experience. There is also a de facto expectation in this request that the response information will be gathered and reported back to the team looking for the answer. Who exactly is supposed to do that if the Contact Center hasn’t planned for the task? When a charter exists, the Contact Center has a methodology for people to utilize the Center, a set of expectations around reporting on findings, and standards around services and associated response times.

Let’s not forget the folks that don’t even consider the impact of their actions on the Contact Center. For example, Legal may send a completely confusing communication to the customer base, often evidenced by a new menu option (“If you are calling about the recent letter to depositors, press 3 now”). Or Marketing may launch a campaign without letting the Contact Center “in on it.” I actually had a Marketing person once tell me that the program was “secret” so they couldn’t tell the Contact Center ahead of time. Seriously? That sums up the Contact Center identity in that organization: “We don’t trust you” and “You are not a partner.” Or maybe Marketing feels that the Contact Center is a hotbed of industrial espionage. Who knows? What the frontline does know is that they look stupid and ill-informed to the caller/contact. How can that be good for any communication or campaign? Frontline staff sees and feels this identity issue; they look to their leaders to fix it!! That is part of the leader’s job … managing your identity across the enterprise in order to service the customer or prospect.

These examples are not the only kind of activities that get “dumped on” the Contact Center. Back-office tasks such as mail, research, fulfillment, etc., can become part of the Contact Center, not necessarily because of the strategic plan but rather due to a concept around how others view the Contact Center. When the Contact Center’s identity to others is as a “people farm” a belief emerges that there are plenty of people who can handle these random back-office activities. So just send it to the Contact Center! Strategic leaders recognize this situation as untenable and work to eliminate … others do not.

The “people farm” concept extends beyond moving back-office operations to the Contact Center. It also includes “loaning” Contact Center staff to other departments. Sometimes when a backlog occurs in another department people come to the Contact Center to fill in gaps to resolve backlogs in other departments. This entire concept flies in the face of getting the right number of people in the right place at the right time doing the right things in the Contact Center. The more stunning aspect of this situation is that the Contact Center managers AGREE to allow their resources to be “borrowed” by other departments without proper impact analysis. I believe this to be a direct result of the Contact Center existing without a clear charter … a clear identity. We could make the argument for the benefits of learning other parts of the business. It would be all well and good if it were part of the charter; we would be planning for it. But when these actions are random, there is typically a negative impact on the Contact Center’s ability to respond to the people they primarily serve. This can potentially cause morale problems for those being loaned out or forced into handling back-office tasks. The “loaning out” of resources may also cause an inability for the Contact Center to conduct training, coaching sessions, or team meetings … all of which may be jeopardized by even the temporary loss of resources.

But it doesn’t end here; many other identity issues occur. One very common identify crisis relates to the question, “Are we a Sales or a Service Center?” This is a very serious distinction because it affects everything from hiring, to training, to compensation. However, it is often approached in such a casual manner that it becomes a struggle to be successful. You may actually be putting both service and sales at risk!

Contemporary Contact Centers need to craft their identity carefully in order to enjoy the benefits of being a strategic asset instead of overhead. I have stated for decades that the only “currency” the Contact Center has is “information.” The ability to provide current, relevant, and actionable information to enterprise partners to improve the Customer Experience is a key factor in managing the Contact Center’s identity. When your Center has clarity around who is being served, where the work originates, and what your objectives are (sales? service?) that becomes the foundation of your charter and your identity.

Crafting a charter is a strong first step in managing your identity …

My Best,

Kathleen