Desperately seeking one, single, solitary relationship

Desperately seeking one, single, solitary relationship

Robert Hall

Dimension Data surveyed 300 call centers in 36 countries across five continents … From 1997 to 2007 key performance metrics indicated a significant deterioration of quality service in contact centers. Call abandon rates … increased nearly 127 percent … annual agent attrition rate rose by 93 percent.

–Kevin Zimmerman, 1 to 1 Weekly, June 30, 2008

Some say fish were the last to discover the existence of water. I suspect call centers have become such a way of life for us that we have lost track of what life was like before then]. Over the age of 40, it is hard to recall what life was like without them. Under 30, it is the only world you know. For many businesses, the call center is the dominant means of interacting with their customers. Selling, scheduling installation, dealing with customer service issues–the call center has become a heavily utilized channel.

Yet the research and our own experiences confirm that despite its convenience and access, the call center is a troubled channel. Customers find a lot they don’t like about transacting there, employees find a lot they don’t like about working there, and companies find it a pretty leaky vessel.

Last week, I was working with a young, recently homeless, single mother of three kids under the age of eight, helping her find a job. She had worked in a couple of call centers, and since she had only a high school degree, the call center seemed to be her best hope for employment. Though she was desperate for a job, she was clearly reluctant to return to a call center. She said it was like working in a club. It is hard to build customer relationships, loyalty and recurring revenue on a model that most resembles a singles bar

To her, call center work was a steady diet of one-time interactions with customers–strangers really–surrounded by short-term co-workers mostly looking to leave. It hit me: A single mom, with no adult relationship at home and no extended family close by, goes to work in a relationally impoverished environment. She spends her day talking to and supposedly caring for people she will never meet, many of whom are upset.

The idea of having a group of people whose only job it is to deal with service problems and complaints of strangers all day is, anthropologically speaking, a novel arrangement. Historically the world of commerce has mixed that chore in with more rewarding customer interactions involving people we know or come to know. Further, having these relationship-less discussions in a co-worker environment of near strangers who don’t want to be there, seems flawed. Transience begets transience. Emptiness begets emptiness.

Dr. Bruce Perry, a noted researcher on brain development, points out that humankind has spent 99 percent of its history living in small, intergenerational groups. He concludes: But, the relational landscape is changing. Today with smaller families, we have less connection with extended families and fewer opportunities to interact with neighbors. Children spend a great deal of time watching television. While we in the western world are materially wealthy, we are relationally impoverished … The human brain is designed for life in small, relationally healthy groups … Unfortunately many trends … are disrespectful of our biological gifts and limitation& fostering poverty, of relationship.

If he is right, no wonder people are desperately seeking to hang on to their Starbucks. It might be the one relational place left–even if it is expensive. What if call centers are transactionally efficient, but relationally unhealthy–even toxic. What if this is true for both customers and employees? Many industries may be betting their customer relationships and thus their future revenue streams on a model that is inherently relationally averse.

Does that mean we just get rid of call centers? No. Customers want the convenience and access and banks need the lower cost channel. But we must find other ways to secure relationships.

While there is much to be sorted out, there is one simple idea that really changes things for the customer and the business. If banks could significantly increase the number of customers who feel they know at least one person at the bank, the sterile call center interactions would have a very different context. It would be the channel for convenience but not the one on which the relationship hinges. Likewise for customers who have at least one connection somewhere in the bank–teller, branch manager, personal banker–who recognizes them and knows who they are, in case of emergency, like their bank being closed by the government, or just the ordinary need that seems pressing at the time, they would feel more secure.

In this post-modern, mobile, work-a-day world, where “single” is the largest demographic, having more customers and bankers who know each other is a better world. In this world, bank managers might sound less like sales managers asking about today’s sales and more like a nosy morn seeking marriage for her son. Did you get to know anyone new today?

Robert Hall is author of “The Street Corner Strategy for Winning Local Markets.” Email:

COPYRIGHT 2008 Bank Marketing Assn.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning