How can I help you online

How can I help you?

The election for the bad word of the year 2006 is over, and unfortunately the expression “helpline” did not make it again. In doing so, it exceeded the requirements of the jury to be “factually grossly inappropriate”. This applies in particular to so-called IT helplines. Anyone who expects help because the computer in the office has crashed again shouldn't contact the manufacturer's telephone support, because most of the time he ends up in a call center. So in hell. No, first in limbo, on hold. According to studies, a caller stays there for up to six minutes on average before he is allowed to contact one of the superficially trained employees. If they can speak the language of the caller, they usually shout down standard answers. On average, the customer gets to know at least two service employees - and in the end is left with his unsolved problem.

The call center operator Fujitsu Services knows all of these clichés and knows that they are only partially exaggerated. The company, headquartered in London, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Japanese IT manufacturer Fujitsu, employs 18,000 people in 20 European countries and has not reinvented the wheel of telephone advice. His core business is normal IT support for companies, a service provider like many.

And yet some things in Fujitsu Services' call centers are different from those of the competition. The differences start with a simple but crucial factor: time. The employees of the telephone hotlines listen to each individual caller until they understand his request. Instead of solving the same problem again and again at short notice, the consultants analyze why the difficulties occurred in the first place and look for a fundamental solution. This can sometimes take a while; in the long term, Fujitsu saves its clients time and money - and also reduces the number of customer complaints.

Alex Copeland, for example, sees himself as a partner and not as a problem administrator, otherwise he would certainly not have solved the Vodafone case. The Briton is one of 20 employees in a Fujitsu Services call center who supports the mobile network operator with IT problems. Every day he takes 30 to 35 calls from Vodafone employees and first of all listens. Like last summer, when employees at Vodafone stores complained unusually frequently about failing screens. Most of them were pretty annoyed, because having to switch computers in the middle of a sales pitch with a potential customer takes time and leaves a bad impression.

Others would just ask: is the cable plugged in?

If Copeland were to work in a call center, as we know it from the annoyed stories of frustrated advice seekers, he would probably have gone through a checklist of possible standard errors with the callers every time: Is the power cord plugged into the socket? Have you checked that the monitor is turned on at all? Have you ever pressed button x or y? In the end, he would probably have advised to wait and replace the monitors if necessary - only to hear the same complaint again the next day.

Copeland wanted to know exactly, did some research and found that the computers and screens in the Vodafone stores were in constant use. Even at night, when the shops were closed, the devices stayed on. A load that makes every screen go crazy in the long run. Copeland suggested to Vodafone to upgrade the store computers with software for automatic switching to stand-by mode, which would extend the life of the devices that were still functioning. The customer followed the advice, a high investment that pays off in the long term. The devices have to be replaced less often, and the Vodafone employees in the stores have more time for customer care. “In other call centers you are just a lightning rod, we are active problem solvers,” says Alex Copeland.

This should be a matter of course for a helpline, but it is not. Professor Bernd Stauss from the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, who has specialized in the management of services for his entire career, never tires of emphasizing the importance of customers seeking advice. He is neither a supplicant nor a disturber, neither complain nor annoyance: First and foremost, he is already a customer - and thus a value that promises sales.

In the meantime, many studies have shown that it is many times more expensive to win new customers than to keep existing ones. And yet, says Stauss, the message usually does not get through: “The management board only sees the development of the customer base,” he says. Whether behind an increase of 100,000 customers there might be 300,000 expensive new customers and the exodus of 200,000 dissatisfied old customers is not taken into account. "Only in exceptional cases do companies target the immensely important reduction in customer losses."

The geologist needs different care than the oil trader

A telephone helpline worthy of the name could make an important contribution. Conversely, a station that only silences the customer often causes them to leave. Purdue University in Indiana found that 92 percent of US consumers' experience with a complaint call is critical to their valuation of the company as a whole. 63 percent of those questioned stated that they would no longer use the company's products after only one negative experience. Among consumers between the ages of 18 and 25, the number even climbed to almost 100 percent.

Fujitsu Services has now recognized the danger that frustrated customers pose and has tried to offer tailor-made solutions for the individual needs of callers. Experience and a sure instinct are required, because what is far too little service for one person can be too much for another. "For example, the oil trader for an energy company needs immediate help with IT problems," says Phil Falato from the Business Transformation Group at Fujitsu Services. "Even a two-minute failure of his IT system can mean losses in the millions." Unlike the geologist from the same company who prepares oil wells in Siberia. He examines the soil with the help of complex devices and then feeds the data into computers. IT is extremely important for his work - how quickly his possible IT problems can be resolved is of secondary importance compared to the oil trader. "Anyone who is in Siberia can probably wait 24 hours for us to fly an employee out to see them," says Falato.

It is therefore important for Fujitsu to identify the customer's IT-critical business areas in advance of an order. For an energy company, this includes secured network access for the oil trader - for an airline, on the other hand, the fastest possible baggage transport between two aircraft or the speedy handling of passengers.

This is exactly where Fujitsu was able to help the British airline BMI some time ago. An analysis showed that more than half of all BMI calls for help related to recurring problems. An impressive 26 percent of all callers complained that the printers in the airline's check-in area were not working reliably. The counter staff were often unable to print out boarding cards and baggage cards that were difficult to read or at all. In addition to the expenses for printer repairs, there were enormous follow-up costs: the passengers regularly missed their flights because the poorly printed travel documents could not be scanned at all security checkpoints. Sometimes the planes even missed their take-off slot because of the delays.

The company that initially handled the IT support for BMI responded to the ongoing complaints as usual: they regularly had the manufacturer's technicians out to service the broken devices. Fujitsu Services convinced BMI to invest money in new printers because the previous ones were obviously not suitable for continuous operation at the airport. After the new equipment was installed, the number of complaints dropped by 80 percent. The amount of repair and maintenance costs that BMI saved by replacing them by far exceeded the amount due for the new printers. The service provider reduced the costs even further: When the airline continued to make occasional complaints about the new printers and a If the problem was solved too slowly, Fujitsu analyzed the service process with the printer manufacturer - and reduced the average repair time from ten to three hours.

Interfering like this is part of the corporate principle today, because only those who understand the customer's processes can understand and solve their problems. And neutral observers, as practice teaches, are often better at this than the company experts themselves.

It was the same with the company that supported Fujitsu with the installation of networks in private households. Until then, it was customary there for the company to obtain permission from private clients to purchase the required hardware. The IT service provider's process analysis led to the realization that the procedure, with a processing time of up to 40 days, was not only far too long, but actually completely superfluous. The authorization requirement was introduced because the technology was originally very expensive for private individuals at around 2000 British pounds. Since its inception, the price had dropped to £ 50 - the permit requirement remained.

“At some point people stop questioning what they have been doing for years,” says Phil Falato, “that's why we take on this task. Organizationally, this is a major challenge, because our suggestions for improvement affect departments that are not under our control. ”In addition, different incentive mechanisms work in these departments. The buyer of a company, who is valued according to how cheaply he orders, will preferentially buy inexpensive printers - even if the company would find it cheaper in the long term to invest in more expensive but better printers. "That is why our suggestions only work," says Falato, "if customers also adapt internally."

Anyone who opts for Fujitsu Services must know that they have chosen a self-confident partner who does not determine the quality of their work by handling them, but rather by eliminating problems. This may not always be convenient for the client, but he can rely on receiving the best possible advice. If only because the problem solution also pays off for the service provider.

Call centers are usually paid for by their clients on a case-by-case basis. The more calls, the more money. The more frequently the client's customers ring the hotline, the more lucrative it is for the call center operator - who consequently has little interest in eliminating the actual cause of a problem.

Fujitsu Services also worked according to this principle for many years. As the dissatisfaction grew externally and internally, the company researched the causes of its own problems. The service provider's workforce, it turned out, was frustrated by the constant inquiries and annoying customer complaints. Many employees left the house, the fluctuation among call center employees was 42 percent above the industry average. Fujitsu examined all customer relationships and found that up to 90 percent of all calls were avoidable. A large part of the phone calls, for example, revolved around inquiries about the processing status of a complaint that had already been made. Other callers blocked the line with problems, technically so simple that they shouldn't actually have occurred. The company drew conclusions from the analysis - and completely converted its system to the principle of sustainability.

The new system: fewer calls, happier customers

In addition to researching the cause, this also includes a billing mode that rewards the new quality of service. Fujitsu is still being paid to handle calls, but now the goal is to make as few calls as possible. The company has agreed on a fixed annual fee with most of its clients. The more fundamentally the supervisors solve recurring problems of the callers today, the fewer discussions they have to have. An advantage both for the service provider, who ultimately earns more, and for the client company, which benefits from satisfied customers.

For Bernd Stauss, drafting contracts is the key to a functioning complaint management system. From the point of view of the expert, very different approaches are conceivable. As an alternative to the Fujitsu solution - fewer calls and more satisfied customers - the remuneration of the call center service provider could, for example, also be linked to the fact that it reduces the churn of existing customers.

The path taken has proven to be the right one for the London-based service provider. Since the switch to the new business model, the number of calls to the hotlines has fallen by up to 90 percent - customer satisfaction has increased by 28 percent. The success of the new strategy can also be proven internally: In the past fiscal year, Fujitsu achieved a record profit of more than 230 million euros with sales of 3.3 billion euros. Operating costs fell by 20 percent and employee satisfaction increased by 40 percent. The termination rate confirms the vote of the workforce: It fell from 42 to 8 percent annually.

Satisfied employees are the basis for the performance that Fujitsu has recently been offering its customers. Those who take care of callers in a committed and responsible manner and who constantly get to the bottom of their concerns gain valuable experience over time. Only with this knowledge can the high quality of customer advice be maintained, which is why the Group regularly invests in the qualification of call center agents. Unlike many a competitor who, after a brief introduction, lets his employees go with a folder of common questions and answers, the 18,000 employees in London need creativity and their own opinion in the service of the customer.

From call center agent to quality missionary

Both are brought closer to the service employees in the company's own training institute, where Fujitsu is also breaking the usual rules. Because the call center agents are not supposed to receive orders, but rather to solve problems, they have to learn everything that turns a listener into a competent conversation partner. The academy is therefore not about making friendly calls, but rather, for example, asking better questions to find out what needs a caller really has. Observation, statistics and analysis are also part of the workload, because otherwise neither problems can be evaluated nor solutions identified. For example, why was it that processing took noticeably long in certain cases? Are there recurring reasons for the exceptions? Can the problems be avoided in the future?

The service employees usually have a few weeks between the seminar days during which they can practice the new approach in practice. Fujitsu then trains some of its employees in advanced quality seminars. The certifications range from level one to four and lead the participants into increasingly responsible positions. From the call center employee who evaluates phone calls and makes spontaneous suggestions for improvement, to the strategist who thinks with colleagues about fundamental improvements in cooperation with a customer, to the quality missionary who should establish the approach in the parent company's foreign markets. “The goal is to keep developing,” says Gwenda Connell, head of the training institute. Because only the best can in the long run contribute to the leaps in quality for customers, which Fujitsu Services is all about.