Archive for the ‘customer service’ Category

Nice is nice, but customer service means solving problems, first and foremost

Monday, July 26th, 2010

I’ve been immersed in studying customer service calls for more than a year now. I’ve gotten very attuned to how customer service representatives handle requests, and I’ve drawn one major conclusion: nice is nice, but effective beats it hands down.

I have to confess that I hadn’t crystallized this thought until I read “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” by Matthew Dixon, Kathy Freeman, and Nicholas Toman, in the July-August Harvard Business Review. This perceptive article is full of clear thinking and good ideas about what good customer service (both web self-service and telephone service) means.

Most importantly, the authors reject the idea of delighting customers in favor of effectively solving customers’ problems. They underline this theme by referencing their study (through the Corporate Executive Board) showing that customers’ loyalty was only slightly positively affected by great customer service, while disloyalty was heavily influenced by poor service. In other words, you can’t create (too much) loyalty by over-the-top service, but you can easily drive customers away with lousy service.

This helps explain something I’ve witnessed among companies that take intense pride in their customer service: what seems like great service from the rep’s point of view may not be great service from the customer’s point of view. One example is the question of whether or not to transfer the call. When a customer has a technical problem, it’s ideal if the first person who answers the phone can solve the problem. However, a timely transfer to a tech is far preferable to a rep spending countless minutes researching knowledge bases to try to learn about an unfamiliar issue.

Another area Dixon, Freeman and Toman focus on is on preventing downstream calls. As they explain, this is not the same as first call resolution (FCR), because it’s possible to resolve a customer’s issue (thereby achieving FCR) but not head off a forseeable next call. An example: helping a customer find and download a wild new mobile app may answer the customer’s specific question, but if the rep explains how to use the app, the customer won’t need to call back.

Stop Trying…” is well worth reading in full. It provides a fresh look at customer service and helps remind us (me) that great customer service is about solving problems. If only the CEO of a certain broadband service provider, which I called no fewer than four times to solve a critical service interruption and which offered an appointment 5 days later as a solution, had read it. [Mr. Roberts, that means you.]

A moment of truth

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

530-40501Moment of truth (1932)
1 : the final sword thrust in a bullfight
2 : a moment of crisis on whose outcome much or everything depends

(source: Merriam-Webster online)

Marketers have been using the above term to refer to the time a customer decides to make a purchase, or to continue doing business with a company. Comparing someone browsing in a store to a bullfighter poised to thrust his sword into a bloody, tired adversary seems a bit weird, but the term has stuck; largely, in my opinion, due to the importance of each interaction a company has with its customers.

I had one of those moments today, with my…wait for it… bank.

I went to the drive-up window at the bank today at lunchtime, with two deposits. One was a rent check for my brother-in-law, who owns a rental property nearby but who lives in North Carolina. I had the check (endorsed by my wife) and an empty deposit slip. No account number. The plan was to write the name and town and ask the teller to look up the account.

Of course, there was no pen in my car. There was a dry-erase marker and I used it to (try to) write my brother-in-law’s name and town on the deposit slip. Then I threw the check, slip, and my own deposit into the pneumatic-tube system carrier and sent it over to the teller.

“I have a stupid question,” she said through the intercom. “There’s no account number here.”

“I know, it’s my brother-in-law. His name is … and he lives in … Can you please look up the number?”

“No problem…. Also, who is the check made out to?”

“My wife. His sister. She endorsed it.”

“OK. I’m going to stamp it FOR DEPOSIT and go from there.”

“Thanks a lot. Sorry to dump this on you.”

The transaction continued. Then the carrier returned through the system with a swoosh. “Thanks and have a nice day,” the teller said. Inside the canister were my receipts and a lollipop for my seven-year-old, who had been sitting in the back seat playing with a Bionicle toy.

This was a transaction where I made several mistakes and cut several corners in the interest of saving time. But rather than showing any impatience, or really anything other than appreciation and courtesy, the teller solved the issues and handled everything. Wow. A machine would have told me to go home and get my transaction in order. A person sorted it out and helped me.

Machines have their place in customer service. They are very efficient, open all night, and don’t have bad moods. But they won’t provide a moment of truth. The best outcome for the customer is, “I got that done fast. On to the next thing.” A person, especially a well-trained, skillful representative with lots of empathy, can do far more during moments of truth.

So as we think about customer service of the future, where do the reps fit in? Because they matter.

[Photo: Model 45DR pneumatic carrier via]

Report from Cape May: customers say donuts, not scones

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Spending the weekend at Cape May, NJ, a seaside resort (mercifully, prior to the start of the peak summer season), was a great way to size up customer-management practices. After all, you don’t get any more commercial than the relations between resort shopowners & their visiting customers.

And the surprise is this: precisely where you’d expect the sensitivity to customer needs & wants to be most acute, it’s as dull as Walmart’s.

The best example was this. We bought a coffee at a cybercafe (surprised these even still existed) and while the barista made our drinks, she mentioned that people sometimes come in & ask her for directions to one of the other coffee shops in town. (Subtext: tourists are inconsiderate & not very bright.)

“Once we ordered donuts by mistake,” she continued. “The guy brought like 3 donuts. They sold out right away.” She motioned to the case where scones & muffins sat like statues. “And then people kept coming in & asking for the donuts, & nobody bought any of the other stuff. We made sure that never happened again. No more donuts.”

The vice president of common sense & I looked at each other, thinking the same thing. I said, “I don’t know. If I owned this store, I think I’d order more donuts.”

The barista handed us our drinks & shrugged. “I just work here.”

It’s not fair, of course, to expect a clerk to think like an owner, but it reminded me of my four years in retail, part-time at Silliman’s and later Weed & Duryea Hardware in New Canaan, CT. There was a simple rule the buyers lived by: if something was moving, order more of it.

But small-business owners often overlook that rule in favor of another one: it’s my store, & people should buy what I put on display.

The next time that feeling comes over you, remember this story, and order more donuts.

The customer’s journey

Monday, April 19th, 2010

startjourneyatomicjeepI might have had my last haircut at my long-time salon. I’ve been a customer as long as they’ve been open, but based on what happened on my last visit that may change.

It was my fault, of course. I was late, quite late. It was an overscheduled day and I had been running behind for hours. I called at 12:30 (my appointment time) and told them I was on my way. After fighting traffic for 20 minutes I was within sight. My cellphone rang. “Might you be able to reschedule?” No. I’m on the road next week. “Could we send you to another stylist?” Ugh. Not what I needed.

My frustration was irrational but very real to me. I wanted the stylist to be more resourceful. Wasn’t there a way to accomodate her schedule without sloughing me off to another stylist? No. So I went to the other stylist, and was not happy about it.

These moments of truth happen all the time at businesses. And I would suspect that many of them involve incidents where the company itself is not at fault – yet its inability or unwillingness to extend itself harms the customer relationship. And, as we know, the customer has options. The business pays the price if the customer leaves.

This incident brought to mind a conversation I had recently with a colleague. We were discussing defection at wireless phone companies. The large operators have “save” groups that try to win back customers who call in to cancel. If you’ve ever tried to cancel your cell account, you’ve been transferred to a save group.

The problem with saving customers at that step is that the emotional decision to defect came earlier. By the time they call to cancel, the customer’s mind is made up and only an amazing offer can lure them back (and often not even then).

My colleague said, “It would be fascinating to trace the customer’s journey, the series of interactions that begins the process that ends in cancellation. What happens? When could interventions have helped?”

This made me think of my journey with my hair salon. I think it started a few months ago when I began traveling a lot. I’m only at home one weekday, and so my options for haircuts are limited. The owner, who has cut my hair for 9 years, wasn’t available when I needed a cut a couple of months ago, so she referred me to another stylist, who did fine. So I made my next appointment with her.

Then this latest incident happened. My loyalty was already shaken when I was transferred from the owner to the first stylist. Now I was being transferred again, to another stylist. I was really annoyed.

Another moment on the journey, after the appointment: “Would you like to set your next appointment.” No, I wasn’t ready to do that yet.

Each of these steps on the journey is a place where intervention could happen. For example, the salon could realize that transferring a customer from one stylist to another (the first step on my journey) is a leading indicator of potential defection. They could do something to keep me coming back (e.g., a loyalty card that rewards me after my next 5 visits, say).

At the next step, today, they could have realized that shifting again to another stylist was another issue influencing my loyalty. Also, the fact that I was upset should have been noted and someone (the owner) could have followed up with me.

Finally, the salon could have noted that I didn’t make a return appointment. That should send off alarm bells, especially when combined with the prior steps of the journey.

As you can see, this customer journey has already traced several steps on the way to defection. At any point, an intervention could help keep me in the fold. And, as the journey progresses, I’m more likely to defect, and a save is less likely to work.

What does your customer’s journey look like? Do you know the signs that start the defection process, and how to intervene? Or are you relying on the Save Group?

A big f***ing deal in customer service (hat tip to Joe Biden)

Monday, March 29th, 2010

I heard a remarkable conversation recently. A woman, whom I pictured to be in her 50s, was talking to a help line to solve a problem she was having with her internet service. The very polite support technician continually misinterpreted her question & asked her which channel on her cable television was acting up.

After three go-rounds with no progress being made, in a low, teeth-gritted voice she told the computer she was talking to: “Send me to a person.”

“So, you’re having a problem with your cable television?”

She said louder, “Get me to a person!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Could you please repeat what you just said?”


“I’m sorry–”

“F*** YOU!” she screamed into the phone, then hung up.

I have never heard anyone drop the f-bomb as loudly & angrily as this poor lady did.

This anecdote occurred to me while I was reading this article in a recent issue of the Economist: “The World Economy Calls,” in which they make a case that improved telecom services in Africa may open up BPO business opportunities there.

Which it may well do. But hopefully companies there don’t subscribe to this blithe opinion tossed off by the Economist’s correspondent:

As established outsourcing companies take on ever more complex & lucrative work, firms elsewhere spy an opportunity at the lower end of the BPO market, in prosaic jobs such as operating call centres & keying in data.

Call centers are low margin businesses, at least at present. But if customer service were as “prosaic” as the Economist asserts, the computer would have done a much better job understanding that lady’s internet issue.

Customer service is not prosaic. When done well, it’s an art form requiring a careful ear, cultural appreciation, & nuanced dialogue. Witness this other recent call I heard:

Customer service: “Thank you for calling (…). How can I help you today?

Caller (male): My f***ing internet isn’t working & I’m f***ing pissed off.

CS: It can be frustrating when that happens.

Caller: It hasn’t worked for a while & I’m f***ing fed up.

CS: Sir, I’m here to help you. But I have to say, your language is getting in the way of my doing that. Why don’t you tell me how this started, but hold off on the swearing if you can?

Caller (calmer): Okay… (begins story).

The ability of a customer-service rep to set aside a script & deal with a real human situation can be the difference between a positive customer experience & a disaster.

Voice-recognizing computers can’t do that. Human reps far away from customers culturally, linguistically & time-zone-wise also struggle (witness Delta & Dell backshoring their customer service).

In my view, companies would be far better off working hard to provide easy-to-use, delightful apps to take unnecessary calls off their phone systems, & invest more – not less – in their human capability to solve challenging customer problems.

Related post:
On Backshoring

When competitors are everywhere, customer service is the ticket

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

I’m on the road a lot these days, and so I meet a lot of bartenders. Last night, the bartender who served me dinner said she’d been working in restaurants for eight years, but was studying to be an esthetician.

“There are a lot of restaurants,” I said, “but there seem to be even more salons. How do they attract and keep a clientele with so much competition out there?”

“You’ve got to be pretty good at customer service,” she said. Something people running businesses falling into the “commodity trap” should keep in mind.

Related post:
On “Beating the Commodity Trap”

Why companies need to be more proactive with subscription customers

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Yesterday I wrote that companies need to be more proactive with customers–helping them understand what they’ve bought and, particularly in the case of subscription products, helping them reconfirm on a regular basis that their package is appropriate.

This almost never happens. And it’s a time bomb for providers. People’s needs change over time, and the longer they are a customer (a delightful situation for providers), the more likely their needs have evolved while their subscription has stayed the same. Then, if an event occurs where needs and offer collide–say an insurance claim scenario–it’s very likely the customer will be surprised, at a very sensitive and emotional moment.

But isn’t it the customer’s responsibility to make sure what he’s paying for fits the bill? As long as I disclose everything, haven’t I done my job as a supplier? That is a valid way of looking at the issue.

Yet the world has changed. People are busier. Two-worker households are the norm. Customers are buying more exotic products and lack the expertise to check them for fit–especially if it’s something rarely put to use. And customers will blame their supplier if things work out poorly. They will consider canceling their service, and will tell their friends.

Seems like a pretty cut-and-dried situation to me. Take care of your customers by helping them buy subscriptions that fit their needs, or take your chances.

Proactive dialogue and diagnosis – the future of customer care

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

I have several commercial insurance policies that I renew regularly and pretty much automatically. I do think, from time to time, that I should review those policies with my agent to see if I am properly insured. But I don’t—because I don’t have time, and auditing my insurance coverage is something that takes a back seat to, for example, marketing, client work and collections (never mind family time!).

Customer service used to mean responding promptly to customers’ requests and resolving the issues they brought up quickly and effectively. No more. In today’s time-constrained, overcommitted world, customer service means reaching out to customers, diagnosing their unstated anxieties and proactively putting measures in place to deal with the problems they worry about.

Let me continue with my own example. Say I had an incident that caused me to file a claim, and I learned through that process that I was underinsured in that area, and my insurance, contrary to my expectation, would not cover all the loss. What would that mean for me, my agent and my insurance provider?

For me, it would be costly and perhaps painful. I would likely get pretty angry—with myself, for one, but also with my agent. She has been sending me renewal notices for years and dutifully cashing my checks, but has not sought me out to review my needs and update the policies so I am adequately covered.

And my response, very likely, would be to change agents and insurance carriers.

This is reality in the insurance industry and many industries today. We have become distanced from our customers. We don’t understand them the way we used to. At the same time, customers have more demands on their time, so they need our guidance more than ever.

As a result, our customer relationships are fragile and prone to break with any misstep. What to do?

The first step is to realize that silence is not the basis of a productive, long-term customer relationship. A signed renewal and a check do not signify a satisfied, well-cared-for customer.

Next, seek out opportunities to ask customers what they think—about your service, about the industry, about their futures. This can be done through interviews, when customers call, or scheduled as part of the renewal process. Company blogs and Twitter are another source to gather customer stories. Don’t only ask for good things; seek out the negative thoughts customers have as well. (If you know something is wrong, you have the possibility of fixing it.)

Collect the stories, put a team together and immerse yourselves in them. You’ll see patterns. I guarantee you’ll be surprised by some of the things you find out. A group of customers may be unhappy with one aspect of your service. New business areas may be emerging that require different insurance products. Competitive awareness may be on the rise.

Finally, take action. Use the insight you learned from the stories to make meaningful changes in your business. (Focus on experimentation rather than “grand planning and initiatives.”) Your marketing department will be delighted to talk about these changes, which respond to things customers actually want and need!

Imagine that the following happened: My insurance agent called me and said, “Before we renew, let’s review your policy and make sure you have the right coverage.” We looked through all my policies, and made some adjustments. When the incident happened, I was completely covered, thanks to the review.

Not only did I not cancel my policy, I actually recommended my agent to several friends.

How much is that worth?

When reps are discourteous, is it them… or their environment?

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

I had the silliest dust-up with a teller at my bank yesterday. I brought in some rolls of coins I had measured using a small electronic coin counter, as I do every few months. I placed them on the counter in front of the teller and said, “Could I change these for bills, please?”

From her steely glare and folded arms, I knew something was wrong. “Did you count them by hand or with a machine?”


“We don’t take machine-counted coins anymore. They’re always coming up short.”

“Is this new? I always take my coins here and never had a problem.”

“We don’t take them.” She kept glaring at me.

“Is this a policy?” I said. “When was this put in place?” Silence. Arms folded.

Eventually a manager came over, discussed the situation, and helped me count the coins by hand. I was 22 cents short over $28 worth of coins. (A surprise to me–I had assumed the machines were accurate.)

The manager told me that when I drop coins off in the future, I should put my number on the rolls, so they could call me if they came up short.

I am fine with that. I am not trying to swindle the bank out of 22 cents. And now that I know my machine counts a little short on nickels and pennies, I can fix that, too. But I was upset with the teller’s behavior. She refused to make eye contact with me as I left and I’m sure had a lot to say about me after I was gone.

As I thought about it, and the teller’s heightened emotional state, I knew there must have been more to the story. There may be people systematically shortchanging the bank. Tellers have to balance their drawers at the end of the day (my mom was a teller). They may have to make up the difference if their drawer is short. All of which could lead one to be a bit hostile when the next person comes in with a pile of machine-wrapped rolls of small change.

A teller shouldn’t be put into a position to unilaterally implement a customer policy, like whether to accept or reject machine-rolled coins. If there’s a problem, it should first be communicated to customers and then, if needed, a policy created and communicated (like writing the phone number on the rolls). Any side effects on reps must be removed (like them being financially responsible for shortchanging).

The bank failed on several accounts here, but first and foremost was putting a teller in a position to be hostile to a customer.

Customer complaints as a source of business insight

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

We’re taking a brief detour from the corporate change series to discuss customer complaints (every businessperson’s favorite subject) though in truth it is very much in sync with the “letting the outside in” philosophy we’ve been discussing in those other posts. The Wall Street Journal’s occasional Business Insight section prompted the thoughts with today’s article, “Making the Most Of Customer Complaints,” by Stefan Michel and David Bowen of the Thunderbird School of Global Management and Robert Johnston of Warwick Business School.

“Making the Most…” focuses on the relationship between the customer, the front-line rep, and service management, and correctly describes how to manage a complaint to minimize damage to customer satisfaction without “giving away the store,” and to incent behaviors that will result in customers leaving the interactions feeling good (or at least not badly) about their vendor. It’s particularly insightful when describing the conflicts the front-line reps feel when trying to deal with a difficult customer situation:

These workers have the difficult task of dealing with customers who hold them responsible even when the failures in question are completely out of their control. The attitudes of customer-service workers, positive and negative, spill over onto customers.

Yet companies do surprisingly little to support them.

To be successful, these workers need to feel that management is providing the means to deliver successful service recovery on a continuing basis. Alternatively, when employees believe management doesn’t support them, they tend to feel they are being unfairly treated and so treat customers unfairly. They display passive, maladaptive behaviors and can even sabotage service.

This alienation is compounded when the workers believe that management is not improving the service-delivery process, which keeps employees in recurring failure situations. Even though complaining customers represent an opportunity to fix problems and improve satisfaction, alienated employees often see them as the enemy.

In addition to the sound advice to repair the processes, provide appropriate guidance to employees and management, and incent customer-delighting behaviors, there’s a broader value that I see to studying these interactions.

Customer complaints are a window into the customer’s use of the product and perception of the company. Virtually all satisfied customers are silent. Many dissatisfied customers are silent as well–calling customer service is time-consuming and frustrating. The fact that many problems aren’t resolved compounds people’s feeling that engaging with the company is simply not worth the trouble.

This means that any customer complaint reported to the company is a very important piece of data. Taken together, complaints can illuminate patterns pointing to product over-complexity, poor usability, underservicing, poor expectation-setting. The patterns might tell you that the customer-service approach you are so proud of is not working as well as it should. Or that customers are using a product differently from how you expected them to. The patterns serve as marching orders to product management, marketing and customer service for important value-adding projects.

But… you have to collect and sort through the data. It can’t be resigned to the bit bucket because it’s unpleasant or tells you things you’d prefer not to hear. I have started to work with clients to learn from customer-service interactions–the raw material, not just the statistics. And, not surprisingly, we are always surprised by what we learn.

Related posts:
Time to start listening to front-line employees

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