I have spent a large part of my career working in the call center industry. I started out working for Accenture (News - Alert) in the early 90s implementing call center technology for Fortune 500s, then transitioning to a managerial role at Genesys before starting two successful businesses that provided software to contact centers.
Although contact centers get a bad rep in the industry, they are actually highly evolved organizations with advanced management practices. These practices have been perfected over decades of experience and innovation. The inside sales industry, on the other hand, is relatively new and hasn’t had a similar opportunity to mature.
There is a lot the inside sales industry can learn from the operational practices at call centers. Some of these are:
1. Managing Activity
Call centers obsessively track activity metrics for their agents. Managers have ready access to dashboards that display everything from average talk time per call to calls handled to average wait time. Management can then use these metrics to offer feedback to agents and measure individual agent/team performance against their peers in the organization and in the broader industry in the goal of improving service levels.
For inside sales, there is a strong correlation between activity and sales bookings; however, many inside sales teams are lax about tracking activity metrics. This is in part due to a lack of tracking tools, but the best inside sales teams understand the importance of tracking and managing activity to ensure full sales capacity.
2. On-Boarding New Agents
If you join a new call center, you typically will not be allowed to handle calls until you have gone through an extensive training regimen. This program will cover the basics along with advanced issues such as simulation of different customer calls (angry customers, customers with complex requirements, etc.). The idea is to drill agents for peak performance before they speak to a single customer.
It is rare to find an inside sales team with a similarly rigorous training program for new reps. More often than not, new reps undergo a quick overview of the company and the products they will be selling, then they are put on the front lines to interact with prospects and customers. This seldom yields desirable results and has the effect of extending the ramp up time of new reps. In fact, training ranked as the No. 1 challenge among sales leaders in a AA-ISP survey, which goes to show the extent of the problem.
Due to high employee turnover rates, call centers live by the always be hiring mantra. The best call centers are always looking for suitable candidates, regardless of existing openings. In fact, a friend, Randy Rubingh, who wrote Call Center Rocket Science, actually recommends going so far as to look for candidates even when you are out shopping. He says that if you encounter great service at a store, you should ask the person if he/she would be interested in a call center position right there on the spot.
I believe inside sales organizations can benefit greatly from adopting similar hiring practices. Turnover rates in the industry are high – 27 percent, according to one estimate, and I have seen them at more than 27 percent in companies I have been involved with. You need to be in perpetual hiring mode if you want the best candidates, especially since it can take seven to 12 months for a rep to reach full productivity.
Another friend of mine, Tom Aden, hired his flight instructor to join his inside sales team after he was impressed by the way he had upsold him on more flight lessons. You should ideally have a detailed profile of your target candidate. When you encounter such people in everyday transactions, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask if that they would be interested in working in a sales position. The important part here is to keep a pipeline of candidates for the inevitable opening that you will have on your team
The success of a call center depends on keen listening. Agents are trained to listen closely to the customers’ issues before suggesting a solution. Most agents will even repeat the problem back to the customer to make sure that they understood it correctly. This leads to fewer misunderstandings, faster solutions and happier customers.
In inside sales, however, I have seen far too many reps eager to close a sale instead of actually listening to the customer. As a result they start pitching their product before fully understanding the problem the prospect is trying to solve with their product. This unfocused approach not only frustrates the prospect but also makes for a longer sales cycle. The lure of the sale (and the resulting commission) can be strong, but unless reps buckle down and listen closely to prospects, they cannot really hope to solve their problems and gain a truly satisfied customer.
5. Service Level
Call centers exist for one reason and one reason alone: to solve customer problems. This is why call centers track service levels religiously. Everything from the time to answer a customer call to time taken to get back to the customer with an update are tracked obsessively.
Inside sales teams do not have similar devotion to tracking service level. I am aware of companies that take four to six days to respond to a sales inquiry from a prospect. This does not make the prospect feel valued and has a negative impact on the prospect’s propensity to then buy their products. There is an established inverse link between successful connects and time taken to respond to prospect queries (more time equals fewer connects), yet few inside sales teams track service level metrics. Beyond lower yields, not promptly responding to prospects destroys the trust in the company’s brand long term.
6. Continuous Coaching
Call centers operate on the dictum of continuous coaching and feedback. All calls are recorded for quality assessment and managers listen in on a regular basis to gauge agent performance. Managers also give agents continuous feedback on how they could improve in specific areas (introduction, managing customer expectations, etc.).
Inside sales teams can benefit tremendously from similar coaching programs. A strong initial training program helps, but it is only with continuous coaching that reps can go from good to great. Your reps will love this as well, as it gives them the knowledge they need to consistently beat quotas.
Inside sales is a nascent industry with a very bright future. As the industry matures, it will undoubtedly adopt more sophisticated management practices. Borrowing these six practices from the call center industry is certainly one way to optimize performance and productivity.
Edited by Maurice Nagle