The New Wave of Customer Service: Voices of Web Summit #8 Sanja Milinovic from Hrvatski Telekom

Customer service is rapidly evolving, so it’s essential to have a conversation about the field’s major trends and topics.

Zowie’s New Wave is a series of interviews with trailblazing customer service experts. They’ll be offering insights and laying out their visions for the future.

For our 2nd edition, we’ll be talking with leaders we met up with at Web Summit 2021.

Today, we meet Sanja Milinovic, Customer Support Director at Hrvatski Telekom.

About Our Guest

I’m Sanja, and I’m Customer Support Director for residential customers at Hrvatski Telekom. It’s the leading telecom in Croatia and part of the Deutsche Telekom group. I oversee inbound calls, outbound Telesales, online sales, complaints, the quality and efficiency team, and the second brand call center.

What is your definition of ideal customer support?

Ideal customer support would answer all customer requests correctly in the first contact and as quickly as possible.

From an operations point of view, this is important for the company in terms of efficiency—less repeated contacts means lower costs—but it’s also important from the customer’s point of view.

If you don’t have to wait long for an agent, and if you have your request solved in the first contact, you’re not frustrated. So it’s a win-win situation.

Why do you think customer support is so important?

When you have an issue with any kind of company, you would like to have the possibility to resolve it quickly. I think it’s common sense. 

There are so many different products and services people use nowadays, and I don’t think there is a product simple enough to actually fit all customer segments. If everyone was able to do things themselves, then self-service would be the solution. But something that might be so easy for you as a customer could be completely difficult for me as a customer.

What are the main bottlenecks you’re facing in your job as a customer service professional?

The issue is always how to balance resources with costs. We don’t have surplus resources to be able to manage sudden peaks. And a call center is live. Suddenly, something goes wrong. `For example, a couple weeks ago, WhatsApp went down for seven hours, and although it had nothing to do with the telecom provider, there were people calling us. They didn’t realize that this isn’t the fault of the telecom provider and were frustrated with us.

There are sudden peaks that we cannot plan for, and we can’t be overstaffed to handle them because it’s simply financially unwise. Pressure on efficiency and cost control do not allow for scaling call centre operations for worst case scenarios.

We can’t have people on standby waiting to cover the peaks, and usually peaks are something that happens in real time. In some industries, there are options with external help during peaks. `However, products and services in the telecom industry are complicated, and agents need to be well-trained. `Temporary back-up options in practice prove very difficult and inefficient.

Faced with this challenge, we onboarded telesales agents as well as retail colleagues to be able to step in as soon as we have a surge in calls. This proved very efficient, especially during lockdowns, when retail shops weren’t open and the retail sales force stepped in to inbound and outbound calls. They not only helped us manage increased calls, but they also fulfilled their sales targets, even though their shops were closed. 

The other challenge is people’s willingness and readiness to go digital. And it’s not just a generational question. It’s a question that concerns the type of product and/or service you have.

Some people prefer to call and talk to agents because this is their comfort zone and they don’t want to do anything differently. Some people make bookings and buy different products online, but when they’re faced with an issue, they still prefer to call. For some, it’s a question of resolving the issue, and for others, it’s about resolving the issue as well as venting their frustration (which is obviously not possible to do with an app). And I believe this is going to continue in the future.

Digitization depends not only on the customer and their willingness/ability, but also on the type of product or service and on the type of inquiry. Research from a couple years ago shows that when people have issues and feel emotional, they want to talk to someone. Venting their emotions is as important as resolving the issue. Such situations can’t be handled by chatbots or over email, especially if you care about customer satisfaction.

The last thing I’d like to mention as a challenge is related to fulfilling customer expectations. Namely, we have at least as many different expectations as we have customer types. Some customers think waiting two or three minutes for an agent is excellent service, and some think waiting for a minute is poor service. Most would want to skip any routing and get to agents immediately, but routing helps us address customer inquiries with agents who have specific knowledge (info seeking vs technical difficulties).

And customer support is all about fulfilling expectations

How do you handle repetitive questions?

`We’re trying to detect customers who call repeatedly, and then we reach out to them to see how we can sort out their problem.

In some cases, you explain something to them and the problem is resolved. We’ve been running the “repeated calls reduction” program for a third consecutive year, deep-diving on repeated call reasons and addressing them. It’s brought us impressive results. In two years, we managed to decrease our repeated calls rate within 24hrs by 41%.

What is the link between customer service and customer experience? How could it be improved?

Customer service is a significant part of customer experience. The expectations you set for customers can influence whether or not your customer service can provide a satisfying customer experience.

It’s really important to manage expectations and not set expectations too high if you know you’re not able to fulfill them. 

In what ways can technology improve and influence customer service?

Technology makes agents’ lives easier. When a call comes in, presenting all relevant customer information (billing changes, outstanding issues, previous contacts, etc.) in a quick and informative way helps agents to particularly address customer issues and gain the customer’s confidence and trust.

Technology such as AI could take over the part of the conversation that’s repetitive and necessary, such as customer identification and authentication. `This would ensure a seamless transition between the voice bot and the agent. 

How do you imagine the perfect customer service tool?

An intuitive voice bot that can engage customers in meaningful conversation. It can either resolve the customer issue entirely or prepare the customer case and seamlessly transfer the customer to an agent. 

What do you think will play the most significant role in customer service five years from now?

No one knows. Technology is changing at such a pace that we can’t predict next year, let alone five years from now. People’s needs, wants, and expectations constantly change.

If someone told me two years ago that the whole world would be locked down, I wouldn’t believe it. So saying what will happen in next five years is really farfetched.

And is there anything in customer support that will not be as important in five years as it is now?

Customer support is always about customer expectations. COVID caused a giant leap in terms of digitalization—there is no better way to make a big change than taking away any alternative. So its difficult to say. 

I’m not sure people will be less demanding. I think, actually, they will be more demanding. The more we have, the more we want. 

Are we going to have (again) some disruptive change that would make call centers more relevant? Or something that would lower the overall expectations on customer support and make other (basic) staff more relevant?

And what this all means for customer support is yet to be seen.

We want to thank Sanja for her valuable insights.

For more pioneering perspectives on customer service, check out our other New Wave interviews.