Things Customer Service Reps Won't Say...And Their Impact on Customer Experience



Brian Cantor
01/20/2012

Here is something that will shock you: today’s customer service departments adhere to behind-the-scenes philosophies, strategies and practices they do not excitably disclose to the average consumer. Mind-blowing, right?

Certainly, none of the "secrets" listed in Smart Money’s "Top Ten Things Customer Service Reps Won’t Tell You" should shake the Earth on which anyone with customer management experience walks. Frankly, none of the hidden practices should even surprise those who have never set a single foot inside a call center, although they irrefutably will amplify the skepticism most carry towards service professionals.

They, more importantly, underscore the extent to which traditional customer service is often predicated on an underwhelming consideration for the needs and wants of the actual customer. Far too commonly, service is dictated by functional convention rather than customer reality, and the consequence is a perpetuation of weak customer satisfaction even though agents and supervisors believe they are doing their jobs exactly right.

In the interest of removing the gap between the tradition of customer service best practices and legitimate customer-centricity, Call Center IQ below analyzes the customer experience ramifications of Smart Money’s Top Ten "facts."

1) You Can’t Always Get What You Want (aka, Complainers Rarely Receive their Desired Resolution)

Some customers are impossible to please, and that reality has only worsened as such needy customers have come to believe (due to anecdotes stemming from short-sighted thinking on the part of customer service teams) that their complaints will always yield discounts and/or free products. And no matter how inclined one feels to shout "do what the customer wants" from the top of his lungs, it is highly-unlikely that person would sincerely advise bending infinitely far backwards to appease each and every customer who contacts support. So, yes, it is true that some customers will never get what they want.

But many of today’s brands are also failing to appease a more pragmatic, realistic breed of customer, which simply wants a workable resolution to come quickly and sincerely. These brands portray customer complaints as "bad" and thus rely on customer service representatives to keep the ill-sentiment at bay. In that respect, the agents are conditioned to view their purpose as calming a storm rather than creating smiles.

More significantly, if treated as a dividing line between customers and the greater business rather than as a link between the two, customer service representatives cannot properly communicate the voice of the customer up the ladder, which prevents organizations from making the process and product improvements needed to actually deter customers from even wanting to complain.

2) Customer Service Reps Don’t Have to Take Attitude

Few concepts are more antonymous to customer centricity than the idea that a customer service representative can simply hang up on impolite callers. While it is of course true that many disgruntled callers can be more respectful in their dealings with agents, organizations absolutely cannot lose sight of whose feelings matter here. Hint? It is not the agents’ feelings.

Any marginalizing difficult customers as "belligerent" requires a deafness to the voice of the customer. Outright giving agents the power to dismiss calls they do not like requires the dismissal of a very crucial customer experience question: What is it about our product, our marketing, our processes or our service that drove the customer to anger?

Accepting blame cannot simply be viewed as an unwelcome obligation to issue a make-good. It can also be used to maximize understanding of the customer.

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3) High-priority customers often receive access to VIP customer service; (4) There are backdoors into those VIP rooms

For those who subscribe to the "every customer is my most important customer" philosophy, there is no justification for this practice. It is simply wrong.

But for those who accept that philosophy’s incompatibility with the reality of commercial enterprise, the situation is at least somewhat more forgivable. Just about everything in society has a price, and items with higher price points are supposed to deliver a greater value. Those who spend more money on a company’s goods and services are bringing more value to that organization, and so does it not stand to reason that they should receive better customer support?

And yet, for as simple as that concept appears in theory, the execution is anything but. If business wisdom universally states that all customers are entitled to a quality customer experience, then how do we determine the distinction between the "premium" service level and the normal service level? What service is mandatory; what is superfluous?

Through VIP service channels, businesses show that they are technically capable of acting in a customer-centric fashion and delivering the value so many customers complain about not receiving, and that naturally raises questions about why the quality service is not being delivered to a wider customer net. Businesses have every right to keep their high-value customers happy by providing VIP service, but customers have no obligation to tolerate an inadequate experience due to their "second fiddle" status.

5) If customers want to pressure businesses to respond, they should express their frustration on Twitter

There is actually reason to question the validity of this "secret"—a number of recent research reports have skewered brands for their weak response times and frequency on Twitter.

But there still exists some merit to the notion that as customers gain more power to take their complaints viral, businesses face more pressure to deliver satisfactory resolutions. Customer service representatives should absolutely succumb to this pressure. When communicating wishy-washy sentiment as you give the customer the obligatory runaround can permanently damage your brand in the eyes of millions, the era of social customer service has no place for "heroes."

At the same time, "insider secrets" like this one—that customer service reps are more likely to help those complainers who have an audience—underscore the long-standing criticism of social customer service: to what extent is it actually "customer-centric?" Customer management action should be predicated on delivering the everyday experience most consistent with the voice of the customer. In a social world, businesses are increasingly falling victim to this bully mentality, which features them doing whatever the "cool kids" want (like bringing Porterhouse steaks to popular online commentators) and not giving any increased attention to the very-substantive "small time" complaints coming through traditional channels.

6) Short calls = Happy managers, No matter how the customer feels

If there is one issue that epitomizes the disconnect between customer management "best practices" and the customer experience, it is the preservation of metrics that operate independently of customer sentiment.

Sure, if a customer received a satisfactory resolution quickly into his first call, he would likely be thrilled. Unfortunately, far too many agents are graded on the "quickly" part (by virtue of metrics like "average handle time") rather than the "satisfactory resolution" element. And so instead of digging deeply into the customer’s issue and thoroughly investigating and contemplating the best possible resolution outcome, the agent will immediately jump on what seems "smooth" from an organizational perspective. Far too often, the consequence is customer disappointment.

Traditional call center metrics were built on the idea that customer support is a "cost"—performance, therefore, is graded on the most-efficient use of that cost. Since quickly dismissing calls enables an agent to answer more calls in a single day, it gives the organization a greater "bang for the buck" and thus is successful from a cost standpoint.

Instead, customer communications should be viewed as opportunity. Time-based metrics might still be fine in that kind of environment, but they should only be used if they can measure the maximization of the customer service opportunity.

7) Agents have no obligation to transfer calls to a manager and should actually try to avoid doing so

From a pure logistics standpoint, this does make sense. No matter how much one believes a call center should be driven by customer experience needs instead of the bottom line, there are financial realities associated with serving a customer, and there is no efficient justification for an excess of managers who can handle each and every transfer request.

Problematic, however, is the very idea that most calls would even need to be transferred to the manager. If efficiency and customer satisfaction are the names of the game, organizations should more-suitably empower their agents to handle calls on their own. They should have more latitude to bring issues to favorable conclusions without enlisting superiors and endless "approval" procedures.

With empowered agents, customer service teams would greatly restrict the number of calls that need "manager assistance." As a result, the agents would be able to actually deliver on such requests.

8) Customers, sometimes, have impure intentions

As noted under #1, some customers feel they can use angry calls, letters or Tweets to swindle businesses into providing tangible make-goods. It is not a customer experience necessity to give such "complaint inflaters" exactly what they want.

At the same time, these interactions should not be approached as hostile, nor should they be dismissed without any thought whatsoever. If there is at least some basis to the complaint, the company should still try to understand what went wrong, what it can do better in the future, and what it can reasonably do to improve the relationship between now and then.

9) It takes four to help one

Research from Arizona State shows that it takes an average of more than four calls to resolve a customer issue. Given the analysis under #6, this is not always bad. If extra calls are the difference between a dismissive answer and a truly-compelling solution, many customers will see value in the longer process.

If the more likely scenario is true, that reps are passing calls along quickly because they need to keep call times down and could not solve the problem anyway, then this is a major customer service shortcoming. Metrics like average handle time and first call resolution may not always be the best way to measure call center performance, but they do speak to the general idea that "time is money" (for both customers and agents).

If customer service teams can achieve the desired results more efficiently, they are absolutely hurting the customer by not adhering to "efficiency metrics."

10) IVRs Are Awful, But They’re Necessary

There is one scenario in which overreliance on IVRs would be acceptable: if they legitimately helped customers achieve resolutions with more efficiency than live agents.

And, indeed, that reality is true in some cases. Unfortunately, few organizations actually consider that conception when determining their reliance on IVRs. Instead, they simply look for ways to keep call center costs down; ways to minimize the burden on live agents.

As a result, the systems are not always implemented with perfect consideration for customer-centricity, and they end up causing more harm than good for customer satisfaction.

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