July 18, 2007

Multichannel Retailing Week: Call Centers And Distribution Centers

How many multichannel retail executives view their call center and distribution center as a "cost center"?

It is easy to think of operations as a cost center. After accounting for shipping/handling revenue, it costs between ten and fifteen cents of every dollar of sales to field phone calls, manage live chat, respond to e-mails, and pick/pack/ship items.

You don't view your call center or distribution center as a cost center if you spend any time in these facilities. You'll find yourself rubbing shoulders with individuals more committed to your brand than you are. These folks aren't killing time, waiting for their stock options to vest.

You'll see individuals eagerly attacking contests to improve productivity. You'll find employees who are taking calls, even though their Aunt passed away earlier that morning. You'll find employees who milked cows at 5:00am, showered, and made it in to work through a snowstorm to begin their 8:00am shift five minutes early. You'll see co-workers bringing sub sandwiches, cookies, and treats to work. Food is a motivator for folks who don't earn enough money.

These folks work eight hour shifts for just $11 an hour. After taxes, that's an eight hour day that nets the employee around $70.

We expect an awful lot out of individuals who take home $70 a day.

We expect every single order to be processed correctly.

We expect all e-mails to be responded to within four hours.

We expect orders to be taken with joy, we expect our complaints and criticisms to be met with empathy.

We want these individuals to communicate our frustration with soldout items to an inventory management team they never get to work with.

We want these individuals to absorb the abuse we toss at them because we are frustrated with cost-cutting management teams that hold us hostage in telephone-based CRM systems.

I had the privilege of working in a call center in the late 1980s. I can tell you that it was one of the harder jobs I've ever had. I had to ask customers if their AT&T repair service was done accurately and on-time. Ask a seventy-six year old angry man if he was "very satisfied", "somewhat satisfied", "satisfied", "somewhat unsatisfied", or "very unsatisfied", and I promise you, you'll receive some "feedback".

When I worked at Eddie Bauer, I frequently got to visit our parent company, Spiegel. The executive team worked in a section of the building that had leather floors.

People in call centers and distribution centers work in buildings with dirty floors.

I do think that many multichannel retailers will begin to see call centers and distribution centers as "knowledge centers" over the next decade. Nobody knows more about the "vibe of the customer" than these individuals. We've used these people to increase the "cross-sell" rates from 9% to 14%, netting us significant increases in profits. Over the next decade, we can partner with these individuals to learn more about what our customers truly want.

We can literally pull customer information from these individuals. Today, we push promotions at them, hoping they will push them at the customer.

Instead of talking about corporate blogging, we should talk about call center and distribution center blogging. We could have internal blogs that allow these employees to have a dialogue with business leaders --- passing information back and forth. If the executive won't make the trip to the call center, let technology bridge the gap. We can give these folks a voice. If we want to implement a promotion, we can float the idea through the call center blog, and let our call center employees advocate on behalf of the customer.

If we want to create a better experience for the customer, we can start by creating a better experience for the call center and distribution center employee. We could view these individuals as "knowledge centers" instead of "cost centers".