Being Customer Centric Shouldn’t Get You Fired

Posted: 11/29/2016

“If I were to do that, I would be fired.”

Is there a more frustrating thing to hear when interacting with a customer service representative?  Is there a more illogical thing to hear?

Creating a customer-centric experience supposedly represents a universal business priority.  Agents, meanwhile, are supposedly tasked with delivering that customer-centric experience – and increasing customer satisfaction.

Why, then, should an agent fear that doing exactly that would jeopardize her employment?

Agents know they are supposed to be customer-centric, but they also know they answer to organizational leadership.  Their job security and opportunities for incentives and promotions hinge on performing how their supervisors want them to perform.  If a scenario emerges in which a customer’s demand conflicts with the answer or resolution the agent was trained to provide, the agent is always going to opt for the latter.

The customer will not be happy, but the agent will have done what the person signing her check wanted her to do.  She was a good employee even though she technically failed to do the very thing she was hired to do:  satisfy customers.

This “mixed message” dilemma is incompatible with customer centricity.  If customer centricity truly represents the business’ aim, the agent can only have one directive:  satisfy the customer.

I recently encountered the “mixed message” dilemma when interacting with representatives for Time Warner Spectrum cable.

There was so much to like about the experience, including a discount, the promise of new features and a very friendly set of customer service representatives.  Unfortunately, all the positives were for naught when an agent revealed that doing right by me, the customer, would have been the wrong move for her career.

The Situation

Late last week, I called Time Warner Spectrum to renegotiate my TV and Internet bill.  During the discussion, I noted my interest in upgrading to an “enhanced DVR” box.  Unlike the standard two-tuner box, the enhanced DVR product allows one to record six shows concurrently.

The agent processing my plan confirmed it would not be an issue; when I went to pick up a new box from the Time Warner Spectrum store, I simply needed to ask for an enhanced box rather than a standard DVR box.

Prior to going to the store on Saturday, I figured I would call ahead and make sure they had such boxes in stock – and that there wouldn’t be an issue.  I was unable to get a correct number for the store itself, but I was able to reach a general Time Warner sales line.

He unfortunately could not determine whether the specific store had the inventory; Time Warner Spectrum, it seems, is a multi-channel business rather than an omni-channel one.  Worse, he brought my attention to a potential complication.

The new, “merged” Time Warner Spectrum does not offer enhanced DVR service – and does not issue boxes to new users.  The store will only make like-for-like trades; those with enhanced boxes can get replacement enhanced boxes, while those with standard boxes can only get standard boxes.

I was furious!  The original agent blatantly gave me bad information.  Luckily, the new agent was sympathetic to the situation and absolutely wanted to honor the previous employee’s word.  His supervisor, more importantly, noticed that I was already paying for an upgraded DVR (meaning I was being overcharged, but that’s an issue for another day) and simply did not have the equipment.  Since I was already paying, his perspective was that I should be viewed as a grandfathered customer and thus should be able to get an enhanced DVR box.  The opinions were notated on my file to ensure the store gave me no hassle.

Unfortunately, the store did give me a hassle.  They outright refused to give me the enhanced box, reiterating the like-for-like policy.  Worse, they attributed the situation to the fact that the original agent had already switched me from “legacy Time Warner” to “Time Warner Spectrum.”  Time Warner Spectrum customers do not have the option of adding enhanced DVR equipment, whereas legacy Time Warner customers do.

In other words, the initial phone agent – who knew I wanted the enhanced box – should have added it to my account before converting me to a Spectrum plan.  Her failure to do so made it impossible for me to get one now.

But should I, the customer, be penalized for an agent’s mistake – especially when another agent and a supervisor confirmed I should be able to get an enhanced box?

The customer-centric answer is obviously “no,” but it appears Time Warner Spectrum does not actually allow its agents to be customer-centric.  Even though the in-store agents saw the note on my account, accepted the premise of my story and agreed I was in the right from a logical standpoint, they said they could not give me an enhanced box.

One of the senior representatives explained that she reports to leadership at the individual store; the main Time Warner customer service team, which said I should be able to get the new box, has “no authority” over her.  And if she were to go against the store’s policy, she “would be fired.”

The agent knew what I wanted, knew I traveled to the store wholly under the impression that I would get what I wanted, knew it made logical sense to give me it to me, knew there was no major financial reason not to give it to me, knew giving it to me would make me happy, knew giving it to me had been approved by “corporate” and still opted not to give it to me because doing so might get her in trouble. Doing the customer-centric thing would jeopardize her job.

Adhering to the “flies with honey” mantra, I tried my best to keep a cordial, upbeat tone as I pled my case.  I was unsuccessful, but I did learn from another representative that other customers have encountered a similar issue.  He “wish[ed] there was something [he] could do.”

The Solution

There are numerous, “trendy” ways Time Warner Spectrum could have mitigated the specific issue:

  • Improving knowledge:  All employees should know the “policy” inside-and-out.  It is utterly preposterous that each agent (and even each supervisor!) with whom I spoke had a different understanding of the company’s stance on enhanced DVR boxes.  Training needs to be consistent and the knowledge base needs to be readily and universally accessible.
  • Embracing omni-channel: Time Warner Spectrum engages customers in all major channels – voice, live chat, in-person, social, email, mobile, etc.  Unfortunately, it seems these channels are not necessarily unified.  They are not connected for the purpose of creating a singular experience for the customer.  That needs to change.  Agents should have access to data (such as customer history and inventory) in all touch points, and they should all be managed in accordance with the same objectives.  The “corporate customer service line” should never be at odds with the individual retail stores.
  • Listening to customers:  Even if the policy had been correctly articulated, why should it be a policy in the first place?  The in-store agent confirmed that other customers have encountered a similar issue, which means there is interest in upgrading to an enhanced box.  Why not give the customers what they want?

But these fixes overlook an even more fundamental issue:  agents must believe doing right by the customer is the right thing to do.

The agents with whom I spoke feared they would be fired if they delivered the resolution (a very easy and practical one, mind you) I wanted.  That mindset needs to change.

Agents should not fear job loss if they do what the customer wants; rather, they should know they will be fired if they do not keep customers happy.  They should view “policy” as a best practice or recommendation for handling common issues rather than as a requirement that they say “no” to uncommon requests.

The agents with whom I dealt were attentive and personable and should be thriving in a customer service environment.

Unfortunately, they can only generate satisfaction if they are allowed, let alone encouraged, to do so.  These agents were not.

Are yours?

Posted: 11/29/2016

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