Call centers sit on the frontline of customer experience where they provide sales, support, and customer service functions. They’re often customers’ first — and sometimes their only — human interaction with a company.

Even with conservative estimates, it’s easy to make the case that large call centers have customer influence on par with, if not greater than, that of mass advertising campaigns. (Assuming a call center with 3,000 agents and an average of only 50 calls per agent per day, a company has the opportunity to make 1.05 million personal connections each week — and 54.6 million each year.) 

Call center interactions have the potential to build a company’s brand image, delight people so much that they recommend the brand to friends, and even generate incremental sales. 

But bad call center experiences spoil millions of daily opportunities to drive business value. 

Despite their reach and potential impact on the business, call centers go largely ignored. Instead, companies are making deeper investments in the Web and other sexy of-the-moment digital service interactions, like mobile and Social Computing. Consumers have noticed — they tell us that phone conversations with live agents just don’t stack up to online or in-store experiences. What's worse, Forrester has been tracking US consumer satisfaction with phone conversations across multiple industries since 2007 and 2008, and all but one industry saw their satisfaction rates sink during this time period. Only investment firms bucked the downward trend, and even there, the story isn’t a whole lot better: Satisfaction scores have been effectively flat since 2007.

The root cause: Call centers treat agents like slave labor.

Some large call centers hold agents accountable for strict metrics like time-to-answer, average call handle time, talk time, idling time, nonproduction time, and adherence to script — just to name a few. Other call centers literally make agents raise their hands in order to use the bathroom or only permit them to display one photo on their desks. In return for adhering to these draconian practices, agents get paid low wages. Not surprisingly, companies that take this approach count employee tenure in months — not years — and see employees quit to go elsewhere for raises of less than $1 per hour.

Cultural change is the most effective tactic for improving the call center customer experience. 

Instead of sinking millions of dollars into call center technology projects, companies like American Express, Esurance, Lands’ End, and, which are known for delivering great call center experiences, have focused on creating a customer-centric call center culture.

My recent research found one thing that contributes to a customer-centric call center culture more than anything else: the agents’ passion for delivering outstanding customer service.  From retail and financial services to high-tech firms, top call center managers agree that technical knowledge and previous call center experience shouldn’t be prerequisites for employment. In fact, some of the companies we spoke to specifically look for candidates who don’t have call center jobs on their resumes in order to avoid undesirable habits and attitudes learned elsewhere. Instead, these hiring managers look for candidates who have worked for retail stores, ski lodges, cruise lines, supermarkets, and nursing homes — essentially any position with a service focus. Then they ask for examples of how candidates have handled tricky customer interactions — or about great service experiences they’ve had from the customer side.

For companies that have been ignoring their call centers or find themselves mired in a factory mindset, a cultural shift will mean big changes. In addition to overhauling their hiring practices, call center execs will need help developing new training programs and revising internal incentives and metrics to encourage customer-centric behavior.

How does your company’s call center customer experience stack up? Is it a key component of your overall customer experience strategy?

To learn how to boost the business value of your call center, please join my upcoming teleconference, Building A Strategic Call Center That Supports Your Brand And Business, on May 18 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time (18:00 UK time).