I would bet that you’re reading this because you don’t believe the title. By reading this, you’re either curious, questioning or even challenging me. As a writer and a marketer, I’m proud of that — your attention is my currency.

I’d like to challenge the stereotypes about customer service. Let’s narrow the conversation by talking specifically about call centers, and how they’re the last untapped marketer’s dream.

I realize you’re about to almost stop reading, because the claim is so farfetched as to sound like fable. You’d think that my nose is, in fact, growing as we speak.

Photo courtesy of Cartoon Bros.

Historically in the hierarchy of corporate departments, the customer service department, especially call centers, were the unwanted sibling of more prestigious departments like finance, marketing or risk management, primarily because customer service departments were considered a necessary evil of running a business or — at best — a cost center. Ten years ago, e-commerce orders that touched the call center were frowned upon because they had an additional cost. At $4.95 per call, this incremental cost drove down KPIs like average profit per order. Call-center representatives used canned scripts and were measured by average time per call, with the goal of driving cost below that $4.95 threshold.

No surprise then that the profit goal at many companies was to decrease call volume by shifting customers away from calling the customer service number, thereby creating a model that needed less staff.

How was call volume decreased?

Customers were discouraged from using the phone and shown online self-service pages on e-commerce sites that include FAQs, Contact Us, Return Policies, Shipping Costs and Order Tracking.

The best we could do as marketers/owners of our e-commerce site was suggest adding upsell or email sign up to call-center conversations with customers.

Why You Shouldn’t Laugh at My Title
In fact, call centers and customer service representatives shouldn’t be viewed as a cost, but rather as the last frontier in retail — the last untapped gold mine.

I’ll give you two reasons why and how that apply to your retail business in a minute. For this to make any sense at all, I need to describe the changes in the macro retail environment as well as cultural shifts in our perception of value and spending.

Even if you don’t agree with my title, I’d bet you’ll agree with the background and foundational facts I’m about to lay out. (You can disagree with my thoughts on customer service and laugh at my title after … if you still feel so inclined.)

The Context and Foundational Facts
Over a year ago, I argued with futuristic accuracy that retail in the U.S. is overbuilt for today’s demand.

Many of us have experienced the cultural shift from the materialistic focus of the 90s to the value now placed on experiences instead of things. The “keeping up with the Joneses” of that era is more than just passé; it’s become a downright futile endeavor since wage growth for most U.S. workers has been nonexistent for the last decade. Median U.S. household income in 2015 is on par with that of 2009, as illustrated in the chart below:

Flat household incomes over the last decade. I miss the 90s. (Photo: Department of Numbers)

Further depressing retail sales, stagnant paychecks are consumed by new technology costs (new iPhones and data plans large enough to watch video … Anyone? … Anyone? Bueller?). Significant and uncertain healthcare costs further eat into disposable income.

It’s no surprise then that people part with their (limited) hard-earned dollars more judiciously than they did in the late 90s/early 2000s. The retail environment that was built on the (relative) material accesses of the bygone 90s era isn’t needed anymore.

So, what happens then?

But I don’t need to tell you that. We’ve seen it, lived it and are fighting to survive the musical chairs of U.S. retail today.

Value is no longer placed on things; it’s placed on lifestyle and experiences. For example, take a look at this ad from Groupon called “Haves vs. Have-Dones.”

The Call Center is Hot
Customer experience was the retail buzzword of 2016, but have we figured out how to execute a better customer experience?

Enter the call center. This is the place where there’s significant opportunity to drive the customer experience. This is where a superior customer experience can save a sale, create repeat orders and future referrals. This is the place where the rubber meets the road.

The call that a customer makes to your business is the greatest opportunity out there for creating a great experience. It’s the most valuable touchpoint, the low-hanging fruit, the best place to create loyalty and differentiation for a business.

I’d argue a customer’s phone call is the most powerful and inexpensive differentiator in our overbuilt retail environment. Inexpensive because if you’re in retail, you already have a call-center asset in some form.

It will separate the wheat from the chaff, the winners from the losers. Those winning — Ulta, Home Depot, to name a few — have already figured this out.

Still don’t agree with my title? Then read on.

Think About When You Call Customer Service
Attention, as I said in the first few sentences you read, is a currency for marketers. Engagement is another currency. An action is the end game.

What does it take for a customer to call your business? They’re interested in your brand and offering. They’re taking time (attention), finding your number (engagement) and calling (action). They aren’t calling to hear you repeat the policies on your website and try to get off the phone ASAP. They’re hoping for a good experience.

A good experience gives you what you’re looking for, makes you feel good, that it was worth the call and time. It should be pleasurable. It should validate that you spent your finite spendable dollars in the right place. And that the call (the action) was a worthwhile spend of your finite time. Think about your own personal experiences with a brand or retailer? Why did you call? What were you hoping for? Did you get what you were hoping for? How did you feel?

What’s the second reason? Remember the adage that talking to customers is the most valuable thing you can do as a marketer or a person in sales? Not talking, but listening. What do you think call-center reps spend 95 percent of their time doing?

This is the gold mine, this is where the greatest customer insights that will drive the business forward are hidden, waiting to be revealed once the great data points coming in are operationalized, codified and set into action.

Call centers and online chat are enormous opportunities for brands and retailers to differentiate themselves with their customer experience, as well as hotbeds of rich customer insights.

A Story on How to Find Your Improved Experience
Let me tell you a story about a small company where I was head of e-commerce and digital marketing. I was given dotted line supervisory responsibility for our three-person call center.

I thought hard about this responsibility. How could I make this department work optimally for the business? What would I be doing if I was the business owner of the brand? As a marketer, I saw the value in speaking directly to the customer. This team was the lifeline to that conversation.

I set up monthly reporting, and not typical average time per call type stuff either. I set up reporting to capture the qualitative data that was coming in and operationalized the process so it went like clockwork. I captured what customers were calling about — trends, problems, values, reactions, including any language that the customer used.

I treated those calls like gold. I did the work to add video and voice chat. I treated those as assets as the best way I had to get close to the customer, understand their needs and absorb their vernacular. I didn’t know it at the time, but I created a voice of the consumer using my three-person call center, Microsoft Excel, motivation, hard work and sheer discipline.

Not glamorous enough for you? I found these year-over-year comparisons sexy, and so did leadership:

  • Total revenue: +9 percent
  • Order volume: +13 percent on 8 percent higher unit retail prices
  • All managed marketing channels were up double or triple digits.

The customer experience win was made possible by using my call center to identify pain points and get to understand the language customers used as well as their values at a deeper level than I ever could otherwise. I connected the dots around how to communicate our core products better. I killed friction points in the shopping journey that would have otherwise taken years to surface and address.

What I did was develop a way to grow the business by recognizing the call center as the gold mine that it is.

Customer service as a discipline and the call center may not be the new black just yet, but the time will come.

Do you agree?

Amy Madonia has led e-commerce and digital marketing efforts for many brands over the course of her 17-year career. With a record that includes leading and growing e-commerce businesses for brands including Temptu, Nautica, New York & Company, Michael C. Fina, Wrangler and Hanes, Amy’s responsibilities have typically included site merchandising, content and promotion development, analytics, social media, mobile, and remarketing.