Posts Tagged ‘customer service’

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]

The graph is nice, but what are you hearing?

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

I’ve been working with a client company and looking deeply into their customer calls to find patterns around why people call, how CSRs handle calls, and what issues customers are having with the company’s products and services.

I was sitting down recently with one of the directors here at the client and we were talking about handle times – how long it takes for a customer’s issue to be resolved over the phone. I talked about some of the analysis we had done on certain scenarios, and shared the statistics we had generated. He looked at them, nodded his head, and turned to me.

“What are you hearing?” he said. In other words, the graphs were fine and useful, but the proof points were in the actual customer dialogues.

Similarly, I did a small analysis on reps proposing to save customers money. In a conference call today, the senior customer service team looked at the graphs, and then the VP asked the leaders to listen to sample calls I’d identified where reps had used this phraseology.

In short: the summarized data lays out the story, but the raw customer stories make it real. Conversely, drawing conclusions from graphs and charts disconnected from the ground-level information is dangerous. [See this interesting Michael Schrage post on the dangers of innumeracy among businesspeople.]

You can’t just go completely the other way, either. That’s the “Undercover Boss” phenomenon – whatever the CEO personally experiences is automatically valid and actionable, regardless of what broader patterns are out there to be discovered. The best approach is a respectful balance of both – analytics and anecdotics. “Trust but validate,” perhaps.

Related post:
Why “Undercover Boss”’s drama is a bad sign for business

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”

The tyranny of the dashboard

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

722346_speedingI frankly am beginning to feel that I’m shouting into a void here. Companies are spending more time and money equipping the CEO and team with information, while starving the thousands of ground-level employees who, frankly, can have more impact on the company’s success simply through their day-to-day actions.

One ray of hope: an article in the December Harvard Business Review (co-authored by Fred Reichheld, the creator of the Net Promoter Score – a simple metric that somehow captures the complexity of customer perception) entitled, “Closing The Customer Feedback Loop.”

As opposed to the conventional wisdom of gathering masses of data and trying to detect high-level patterns in them, Reichheld and his coauthors talk about getting more granular – gathering information at the customer transaction level, creating small rollups of the data, and sharing them where they can do the most good – with the front-line employees and first-level management who directly impact the customer experience.

I agree with their prescriptions, but it still leaves the problem of what to tell upper management. Is there anything wrong with high-level management dashboards? Well, yes. Something of the danger in this is described in today’s WSJ article on Simpson’s Paradox (”When Combined Data Reveal the Flaw of Averages“). The first example cited: while today’s overall unemployment rate is lower than the 1982 level, unemployment at each educational level is higher. (The overall rate is lower because there are more people at higher educational levels, which have lower unemployment, than there were in 1982.) The article states: “Compared with a similarly educated worker in 1983, ‘the worker today has higher unemployment at every educational level.’”

There’s always something lost in summarization. In the case of Simpson’s Paradox, the result of the loss is a flawed conclusion, or at minimum missing a greater point of the story. Overall unemployment today is lower than 1982, but people today have been hit harder than their 1982 counterparts.

Dashboards distort reality as well. Executives rely on machines crunching millions or billions of numbers to present them an easily readable story of what is happening in their businesses. Yet the farther the statistics are distanced from the on-the-ground reality, the more likely they are to lie.

What can be done? Let’s get back to “Closing the Customer Feedback Loop.” On-the-ground data gathering and interpretation by those close to it makes all the sense in the world. But in communicating with upper management, there needs to be less sharing of numbers, and more sharing of individual stories. You can’t get any more granular than that. You can read a vibrant story in a minute or two. And stories fall into patterns–something more subtle and nuanced than statistics–that help senior management understand what’s going on. And human experiences are more understandable than the simplest dashboard.

There are tools to do help you gather and use stories. Rakontu, an open-source story-sharing platform, is one. Enterprise 2.0 tools such as blogs would also work for this purpose. So what’s stopping us? Or am I still shouting into the void?

(Photo by awegedebe via stock.xchng)

Related posts:
GE uses “net promoter score” – one of my earliest posts!
On Rakontu
Time to listen to front-line employees
How B2B customers talk
“Enterprise 2.0″ review
Technology is great, and so is avoiding the acorns

Front-line nurses discover small process innovations can cure medication mistakes

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Bob Sutton posted on this San Francisco Chronicle article today, but it had so much good stuff relating to areas I’m passionate about that I need to write about it too.

The article concerns an effort by Bay Area nurses to reduce the occurrence of medication errors, which, according to the Chronicle, cause 400,000 preventable injuries and cost an extra $3.5 billion in medical costs each year. The results of the effort: a 88% reduction in medication errors in the participating hospitals.

Here are a few quotes that talk about areas I’m interested in – listening to and empowering customer-facing (patient-facing?) personnel, and the value of simple, low-tech solutions to business problems:

Striving to reduce interruptions that lead to mistakes, teams of nurses at the different hospitals came up with a variety of methods – often surprisingly low tech – to alert others they were administering medications….

The solutions “have to be low tech because we, as staff nurses, don’t have the money or ability to make high-tech changes,” said Celeste Arbis, a registered nurse in the medical-surgical unit there. “Something as simple as changing the process just a little bit can make a big difference.”…

Nurses attributed much of the program’s success to allowing those on the front lines to develop and tailor their own solutions.

I’ve seen both these situations in action: the ability of front-line personnel to understand and fix problems with the processes they use, and the effectiveness of often-overlooked simple and low-tech solutions. Sutton wrote something very profound in his post on this subject: “I think that people — especially managers — often use spending money as a substitute for thinking, when inexpensive and low-tech solutions work just fine.”

Related posts:
Low tech and on the ground
Don’t just thank front-line personnel, use their insights

Customers Are Talking: In Praise of “Customer-Oriented Defiance”

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Behind many great customer-service stories is a front-line person who went outside standard operating procedure to solve a customer problem. Now this practice has its own name: Customer-Oriented Defiance.

In “Customer-Oriented Defiance [COD]: Exploring Righteous, Sacrficing and Sneaky Behaviours,” co-authors Cheryl Leo and Rebekah Bennett of the Queensland (Australia) University of Technology comb existing sources and do first-hand research of their own to flesh out the phenomenon. Leo and Bennett show that it is not a completely altruistic practice, nor always (or even primarily) beneficial to the companies involved.

Yet it’s clear from reading this paper, and backed up by my experience, that exceptional customer service doesn’t happen without front-liners (the most vulnerable staff in the company, the least paid, often the least respected) stepping out and taking some personal risk by addressing a customer problem in a non-standard way.

In the past, management has been able to avert its eyes and allow this to happen without explicitly sanctioning it (a pretty shameful practice when you get right down to it). But, with auditing/control technology on the rise, it will be harder for COD to occur without a paper trail, increasing the risk that stepping outside the lines, even “righteously,” will be caught and punished. (See this post on the benefits of lighter access-control policies.)

Which means that exceptional customer service will become even rarer than it now is – unless leaders recognize that some processes are art rather than science, including customer-service processes, and provide lighter constraints that reflect the values of the business, the worth of the customer and a respect for the judgment of the front-line employee.

After all, just because you can audit and control something, doesn’t mean you should.

Related posts:
Processes as art & science
Carnival of Trust (the benefits of lighter access-control policies)

(Thanks to Arie Goldshlager for pointing out this research.)

Offshoring telesales reduces close rates – why?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

I’ve heard from several friends in call center operations that outsourcing inbound telesales to the Philippines has resulted in close rates below expectations. In at least one case that I know of, a company is re-establishing an internal sales center to try to get to the root of why telesales is harder to offshore than customer care.

After listening to hundreds of sales calls and care calls and helping companies find actionable patterns in them, I’ve got some opinions on the subject.

1) Sales is harder to script than care
– a care call is bounded by the product or service the customer has bought. There’s only so much that can go wrong, and most/all those scenarios are documented and can be scripted into the CRM system. Sales calls are open-ended; they can go anywhere, and can veer off track at any moment. Will the prospect complain about the price? Will they bring up a competitor you’ve never heard from? Any left turn a prospect makes can cause an offshored rep, already managing language complexity and reduced empathy, to panic or lose his place (see “confusion kills sales,” below).

2) It’s easier for a prospect to give up than a customer - anyone who has made a call through an offshored center knows that it’s more difficult to communicate with someone who’s from a different culture, with a different accent and familiar with different figures of speech. That difficulty can breed frustration. A current customer with a problem is more inclined to persevere through the frustration, in order to solve her problem, than a prospect, who can hang up the phone or say, “No thanks” and be no worse off than she was before.

3) Confusion kills sales -
if your sales process has a number of steps, and/or it has options a customer has to understand and select, the rep or the customer is prone to become confused. And if the rep gets confused, the prospect is soon to follow. My experience listening to and finding patterns in sales calls tells me that confusion is a sales-killer. There are enough negative emotions swirling around the buying process that adding confusion into the mix can tip a sale from Yes to No.

What have your experiences been with offshored telesales? Are there other reasons sales is difficult to outsource?

(If you’re interested in getting a deeper read as to why your telesales operation is undershooting its objectives, we can help.)

(Photo by via Flickr Creative Commons)

Related posts:
Complex sales: it’s all about the negatives