Customer, Serve Us

Two recent articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal make an excellent parallel read.

Yesterday, the Times, Fast Company founding editor William Taylor considered the sorry state of the customer service call center. Contending that chief executives could best listen to the "voice of the customer" by answering the phone, Taylor holds up organizations such as Commerce Bank and ING Direct as customer service leaders to learn from.

And somewhat eerily, the Journal treads similar water today. (Registration required.) Citing the woes of customer service representatives — they work hard! Every day! — Carol Hymowitz holds up a report by Katzenbach Partners that found that just 10% take personal initiative to solve problems in one call, going off script and occasionally upselling additional services.

Customer service is hard work. We've been there. But if call center work is so unrewarding — turnover is extremely high — no wonder only 10% perform at or near peak.

So what to do? One Katzenbach researcher had this to say: "[Average performers] apologized a lot to customers about what they couldn't do, while the high performers always offered something."

That's good advice. Hello? What can you do for me lately?

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  • Chuck Dennis

    As a customer service consultant who specializes in dealing with angry customers, I believe that all the front-line service training in the world will not be worth a hill of beans if the folks at the top of the organization do not buy into the service philosophy. They need to be able to solve problems before they happen, so that when they do happen, the resolution is quickly and courteously delievered by the front-line reps. It amazes me that so often, customer issues leave the service reps totally baffled, like this is the first time anyone ever complained about a product or service problem. Then, there is the mad scramble to try to invent the wheel, based on the scraps that a bottom-line driven management team has given them to work with.

    Companies need to decide upfront how much their customers are worth to them - not just in revenue, but in VALUE. Then they need to arm their service reps with that information, and the ability to do what it takes to make the customer happy. A great example is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which allows each employee $2000 a day to be used at their discretion, to keep the customers happy. Now, not every business can afford to be that generous, but there is something to be said for putting your money where your mouth is.

  • Dominic Cameron

    If that is a joke it is hysterical. And if it is not, FC please take care of the guy...

  • John McDougall

    How many companies use their own people to provide customer care? When it comes to outsourcing this department seams to be the first to go. With that taken into consideration, just how much do these representatives know about the company and/ or services they are discussing, much less the company culture. And if the call happens to be shipped overseas as well, then what?

    Hiring an engineer in India to discuss computer technical issues might make sense from a dollars and cents point of view. But then again, is this well educated, usually eloquent individual really ready to take on any frustrated American that can easily dispute his credit card charges if that frustration level is pushed ever so slightly in the wrong direction? Where is the opportunity to upsell? What is this reps motivation to think outside of the box to make things better? They don't think like we do, as we're not greatful just to have that computer. We've paid a hard earned buck to have it work, whether we know how to use it or not.

    Companies might consider multiple care units. But now the frustrated are forced to deal with an automated voice to route their calls only after a barrage of questions and "press 6 for...".

    Kudos to companies like Commerce Bank, as they have a "real" person routing those calls. What's better, is that they are usually calming and quite personable. Others like JetBlue will at least try to entertain you with a jest or two on their automated system, which then directs you to the friendliest person on the planet, regardless of what kind of mood you are in.

    The point is, as consumers we expect to speak to someone who is in the same boat that we are, but then also knows enough about their own company to help guide us through the quagmire of possible solutions without allowing us to become overheated.

    Unfortunately for all of us the ones that are the very best at it usually get promoted and moved out of our reach just to become bitter about managing the miserable horde that has been hired to replace them.

    So much for that...