From 1 to 400 – Editor’s Cut

Our case studies are often based on an interview with a customer service professional. In the published version, we usually include only a few quotes from these interviews for reasons of space. However, in our Editor's Cut column, readers who want to read more can read the full interview. We asked the supervisor of United Call Centers about the challenges of customer service in the events sector and workshops on managing a call center team, among other things.

Our case study focuses on a specific area, the events industry. The client is an outdoor entertainment venue open seasonally from early April to mid-October. Outsourcing customer services is common practice in many areas, but why is it worthwhile for a company of this type to outsource these tasks to a third party?

To add to the overall picture, last year was a little out of the ordinary, as our client added an ice rink as a new service on its premises, so we were practically working together throughout the winter season, with inquiries coming in constantly, by phone, email, and Facebook. In addition, the pandemic-related restrictions have affected the concerts in the recent period, there are rearrangements, and the season has been extended because of this, as there are constant inquiries about whether a particular concert will be held next year, what the new date is if it was previously postponed, whether the ticket purchased then will be valid, if not, whether there is a possibility of a refund, and so on. But in general, the operation is seasonal: we work from the end of March to the end of October, after which the campaign "sleeps" until the following spring.

Am I right in assuming that employing an in-house call center would be a much more costly, time- and energy-consuming solution in this case?

For seasonal campaigns, outsourcing customer service is an obvious choice. During the quieter periods, 2-3 calls over several months may not justify maintaining an in-house team, as there is an ongoing wage cost to maintain the space. And if you let go of your customer service colleagues during the off-season, so to speak, you risk having to recruit a new team for much of the following year. In such cases, there is no guarantee that the new recruits will have the experience, soft skills, and language skills to do the job properly.

From this point of view, an outsourced call center is an absolutely cost-effective solution, as in a shared agent system, operators can work on other campaigns during quiet or completely uneventful periods so that the same team is available at any time when the cooperation is restarted.

In the events sector, the weekend is the busiest period. Do you need customer service seven days a week? 

In summer, and in general during the active season. It's also a very exciting question: will there be a major concert on a weekend or a weekday in a given week? It's important to know that foreign acts tend to book concerts in the summer as part of a festival tour, so it's not at all certain that such dates will fall on a Friday or Saturday. In many ways, the questions our operators have to answer will be determined by whether it is a small club concert or an event that will attract thousands of people that week.

If the age of admission is lower, we are often called by the parents of the visitors. And it depends on the subculture the performer of the night is coming from. The audience of electronic music performers or people who go to a simple party event are interested in completely different things than people who come to a concert of a rock band, so even the questions we ask are influenced by what kind of artist is playing that day. Those who come "just" for a Saturday night party tend to look less into the information. And because there is a very wide range of age, attitudes and education levels in terms of audience, it is very important that the operators working on the campaign have excellent soft skills to communicate perfectly.

Are there any surprising questions?

There always are. Without mentioning any specific cases, there are situations where you really need to be sensible. For example, a bomb scare is a special case for an event venue - fortunately, we haven't had that situation yet, but we are prepared for it. There is a script, what to ask, what to listen for, for example, what you hear in the background, what words the person is using, and so on. In extreme cases, we have had an elderly gentleman call our phone number in error and turn out to be very unwell. We had to call an ambulance for him - I was on duty, luckily the operator called in time, and while he was on the line with the gentleman, we called for help, the operator helped direct the paramedics to which address to go. At that time we were dealing with an emergency that was not literally part of our job, but it was our duty to help in such a situation.

Obviously, it's not only dangerous situations like that happen, but a bit more fun ones too, right?

Sometimes rather trivial questions arise, such as, for example, can alcoholic beverages be brought into the venue? We have had inquiries from a mother asking if it is possible to attend with a few days old baby - at a rock concert where the volume can make your hair stand on end even in the middle of the auditorium. That's when you need experienced cameramen. In such cases, the operator must be tactful in saying that there will be a very large crowd, over 11,000 people and that the venue may not have noise-canceling ear protection, especially for such a small child, so it is worth thinking about. Especially as the crowd can move when a big hit is in the repertoire, at which point even grown men sometimes find it hard to stand on their feet.

What skills are needed to work as an operator on a campaign like this?

A lot of empathy, a lot of patience, a solution-seeking attitude. Whatever the task, from providing general information to dealing with complaints, you need to have professional knowledge and preparation, but equally important is good communication. We need to be able to keep the customer talking while looking for a solution, we need to remain empathetic when responding to a visitor's complaint.

And the importance of which is often not mentioned because it is so much part of the professional routine: we need to be able to sit on a line like this every day so that we can create a good atmosphere during every contact. It's a fun place where people come to have a good time. We have to pick up on the kind of vibe that someone is looking forward to seeing their favorite band in the evening and they ask us for help to make it a perfect encounter. The customer experience is much more positive if the operator handling the call also has a "smile" in his voice, and is not bored and indifferent when he lists the obligatory information.

And there's a special aspect to customer service that you might not think of at first, right?

It's important for the operators to be familiar with pop culture, with popular music, with who's going to be on stage. If a fan call in, we need to be able to answer questions like who will be singing in the band, will there be guest musicians? At least to the level of being able to search for the right social platform. It's also interesting because there are a lot of young people working in the team, who take this kind of thing for granted, who learn very easily. At the same time, we also have plenty of over-50s on the line, for whom, even if only because of age, it is not necessarily self-evident that they should be up to date with the latest pop music productions. But they are always up to speed.

As has already been mentioned, the volume of incoming contacts for a campaign like this can fluctuate to extremes.

The daily call volume for a campaign like this depends on a lot of things. When we are off-season in the classic sense of the word, we hardly get any calls. After the start of spring, or if there is a small club event that day, we may have to handle a few dozen contacts, but in the summer season, with a concert attracting more than 10,000 people, it can go up to 300-400 calls a day, especially if there is an official announcement about epidemic restrictions or it is simply raining. If it starts to rain early in the morning on the day of a big concert, I know in advance that it will be a busy day, because many people will ask before the concert opens whether it will be held and whether it is worth going to. There is bound to be a rush, as everyone wants to know everything immediately.

How can such a number of contacts be adequately serviced?

In such cases, the work of the supervisors and their ability to manage the team is put to the test. You have to see who among the operators is getting a bit tired, who may have handled a lot of complaints in a row on the day. It's also important for colleagues to know that they can report this at any time. At such times, they can prioritize incoming tasks or, in a shared model, they can prioritize other types of customer service lines as a kind of rest and breathing space. Fortunately, modern call center software is capable of handling - deliberately exaggerated example - if someone is on their hundredth complaint call that day, then the rest of the working day is spent 'just' directing general information service queries to them.

What other methods are there?

A situation like this is also a good opportunity to include a much-needed assessment discussion, sharing of experiences, but on a particularly busy day, it can also be a good opportunity for a little extra rest. We need to pay attention to the workload of the operators and, at team level, to good morale and mutual trust. If a contact center aims to deliver a high-quality customer experience, it cannot make the mistake of waiting until a member of staff is so tired or burnt out at the end of the day that they disappear into the ether. That's why it's important to have a constant flow of information, proper coordination, and to let the operator know that he or she can ask for help from colleagues or team leaders at any time.

If there are a lot of calls, it is also a big task to "hear the colleague", so to speak, especially as our system is very much based on teleworking, so team leaders are often not walking around the desk. Being physically present is easier in this respect, because you can see the body language, and even the posture and gestures of the operator can tell you a lot. In a cloud-based system, you rely on what you hear, but for a skilled group leader, that's enough. Also, in professional customer service, it is a daily routine to evaluate calls on a regular, weekly or monthly basis. There are coordination meetings where we give and receive feedback. It is important to know how the operator feels on the line, what can we help him/her with, either on a professional or personal level? Sometimes little things can be important that no one who is not working on the campaign would think of.

Can you give an example?

The cloud-based system has its own peculiarities. In this campaign, the client is a nightclub in the capital, but there are many operators working on the line from other cities. In this case, for example, the lack of local knowledge can be a problem, because if someone hears the name of a street or a district from two hundred kilometers away, they don't necessarily know exactly where it is. In order to avoid such problems, a number of background materials are prepared for each assignment, since close contact and a constant flow of information between the client and the customer service is an essential cornerstone of process improvement.

Can automated, chat-based case management be used in such a campaign?  

Certain basic questions can be automated. So, for example, outside working hours, the chatbot can respond to an incoming message by telling the customer service is currently unavailable and when the customer should contact us again. For frequently asked questions, it can also be used for L1 customer care, as there are typable answers, but not for more complex tasks at this campaign, at the current level of development. The reason for this is very simple and has already been partly mentioned: every event is different in terms of the number of spectators, speakers, circumstances, and the composition of the visitors, so it is difficult to answer more complex questions than general information in this way.

Why is it good to work on such a campaign? When does an operator or a team leader say, yes, it was a good day?

The day after a concert, we often get calls from visitors telling us how good the evening was. That they had a good time, the sound system was good, or the food they ate in the buffet. When we receive such calls and messages, it is always a great experience. Or when the client calls to say how good the customer service was, because no one came to the concert without being able to reach us, no one at the information desk said they hadn't been told that. When we find that we have really prepared properly, that we have given the right information in every contact, and that we have created all the conditions for the audience attending the concert to have a good time, that is a good day.

Read our related case study here!