A Customer Service Rant- Rare but necessary…

Well, Friday has come and gone, and the weekend is now here. I’ve written a bit more than usual this week, enabled mostly by a lighter travel schedule than usual.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thanks to all of you bloggers and tweeters out there. I always learn more from your feedback, than I do from my own writing. I am convinced however, that you’ve got to work both sides of the equation- ‘give to get’ so to speak. I can only hope my posts this week made a “small dent” in what I’m sure will be a perpetual debt balance I hold in the “‘bank of innovation and improvement ideas” fueled by  the blogosphere and Twitter-verse.

All in all, it was a good week. But today was most interesting, from the standpoint of a few Customer Service experiences that left a lot to be desired in my eyes. I’ll leave you with a few parting thoughts from one those interactions, which I’m sure will end up being fodder for some of next week’s posts.

Earlier this afternoon, my wife and I had to run three errands, all of which I estimated would take all but  an hour or two tops. One of those involved what I believed would be a quick run to the ATT store to re-evaluate my mobile WIFI data card and plan, and evaluate some new options I’d been thinking about. While the other two errands were less than perfect from a customer satisfaction perspective (I’ll spare you the details on these), the ATT experience was absolutely priceless in terms of providing new fodder on the topics of business improvement, and specifically “how not to run a customer service storefront”.

In today’s environment, many businesses elect to leave their “storefront” open for a variety of reasons, despite the myriad of online and mobile options available to their customers. It’s no easy decision for them to do this, and the pressures to go the other way and abandon them altogether, are more than compelling. So when they are left open, be it for product sales, or specialized service, I would imagine the company would want to extract maximum value from that decision. In fact, if I were the CCO of that company, my strategy for any local offices that were maintained (left open) would look something like this:

  • Create the most welcoming and helpful environment for customers to shop and buy my products
  • Make sure than any service I elect to provide in that office to existing customers (which, because they are provided in the local office itself, will be visible to my new shoppers/ future customers) is first rate and without blemish
  • And where possible, begin to show existing customers (that are there for “service on their existing account”)  other channels that are available to them to help them (THE CUSTOMER) make their life a little easier, and perhaps even deliver a BETTER level of service than they had before (which would really be a true win win: make the customers life easier and lower the company’s cost at the same time!)

On this particular day, and at this particular store, ATT (and I rarely name a company when I rant on a CS experience!) failed miserably on all three counts. I was there to take care of several things with which I was having trouble taking care of online. I’ll spare you the details on the entire experience, but there was one aspect of the interaction that was truly mind-blowing for me.

As a backdrop to the story, I am a very heavy “data user” given the degree to which I travel.  I have always had an unlimited data plan, which I was “grandfathered” into  a few years back when ATT converted over to a plan that was less expensive, but capped the user at 5 gigs of data. While my usage is significant, I felt I was still undershooting the capped plan even in my heaviest months. So while the lower cost was appealing, I was still worried about the probability of me overshooting the cap, and what it would cost me if I did.

Specifically, my question was how much I had used in the past several months, whether or not I was operating below the 5 gig threshold, and in the months where I may have gone over, what the overage charge would have been. I tried to answer those questions on line but was unable to get a clear enough picture, so I figured I’d just stop in and get some one on one assistance in dealing with the problem. Some may say that this is a simple “self service” transaction, and maybe it is, but as someone who is fairly familiar with online and mobile channels, I found this one to be more difficult than usual and figured I would have more success in person. I had considered calling them by phone, but I had dealt with this store before and expected this to be relatively painless.

While at the counter, I began to describe my issue to the rep- an issue I would have expected them to have faced hundreds of times previously. After several quasi blank stares, I explained the problem again, this time illustrating on a piece of paper (complete with illustrative bar charts) exactly what I was trying to evaluate. Still no luck. And that’s where things went south.

Progressively watching the rep deal with this mathematical dilemma was  like watching a robot get short circuited in front of me, not to mention the other shoppers (prospective customers) that were in the store watching this unfold :

  • First, we had to endure him searching several different screens for the usage pattern (10 minutes (felt like an hour)) for him to find two months worth of history). He tells me it would have been easier for me to do it online because the customer has access to more info. Nice try. I’d already tried to locate the usage history on the site and it was like looking in a maze. That’s why I was there to begin with.
  • After concluding that waiting a for him to find another 2 months of history would have taken another 10 minutes, I decided to rely on the one month overage that occurred in December (which was about 1 gig over the 5 gig threshold) to begin to begin the process of  ascertaining what the overage “charge” would have been. Again, like a deer in the headlights…
  • After watching another blank stare for a while, I just laid out the complex math problem for him as simply as I could (Cost per kb * the kb overage). Calculator in hand, he does the calc 3 or 4 times, and tells me (God honest truth) $20,000. I tell him that’s impossible (like I really should have had to!) because if I was on the 5Gig plan, I would have only paid $45, and while I did go 20% over, I seriously doubt the overage would have been $20 grand. That’s one heck of an overage fee, eh? I’m a bit impatient at this point, as he keeps recalculating and coming up with the same $20,000 answer, over and over again…
  • Now for the climax of the story… he kind of gives up, shrugs his shoulders and says (you cant make this stuff up!!!), “well sir, I find it hard to believe too, but all I can tell you is that most people don’t look at their bills and just pay it. Sir, I’ve not had a question like this before.”

Now, had this been an agent with only a few days on the job, I may have cut him some slack. But this guy has been there more than a few years. I was rather speechless, as were the 3 people around us listening and watching this painful exchange. In a state of amazement (the emotion of frustration had left me by this point), I decided to leave and take care of this by phone, or perhaps by spending another hour or so back on the website trying to figure it out myself. But my confidence in this being a simple exercise was shot. All I was sure of, was that taking care of this myself  would be easier than enduring any more of the “in store” interaction.

And therein lies the “lessons learned” from my Friday afternoon at the ATT Store:

  • If the company wanted to encourage self service transactions in lieu of “in store” transactions— mission accomplished
  • My confidence in the website and mobile transactions being easier for the customer —0
  • Confidence of the other shoppers that ATT’s “after the sale service” will be a good experience—- 0
  • Likelihood of trusting another bill from ATT without being accompanied by a forensic accountant—Less than before I walked in the door.

Seriously though, I actually  do believe that ATT is the right vendor for me at the moment, given the alternatives, and my rather long and uneventful relationship thus far with the company. In fact, there are some unique things about their product that I can’t get from their competitor. So I will likely remain a customer despite the experience on this particular Friday afternoon. For now, I’m going to just chalk all this up to the guy just having a bad day, the CSR equivalent of a “senior moment” or perhaps a minor stroke!

But I believe the real story here is about the state of Customer Service in general, and how the industry is executing the transition to more self service technology. I genuinely don’t believe this is a problem unique to ATT.

There is nothing wrong with trying to shift customers to lower cost channels, be it for payment or general inquiry. But we appear to have swung so far to that end of the spectrum, that the staffs that are left to deal with specialized problems have forgotten what Customer Service is, and more importantly why it exists in the first place.

In the end, I think we will ultimately get all of this into equilibrium, but it is incumbent on CS leadership to make the transition to new technology, new channels and new processes a much more deliberate one. And that will be dependent on their ability to design processes, factoring in the customer experience at a level equal to, or greater than the cost savings involved. Not to say that cost savings aren’t paramount, but it cant be a trade off at the expense of the customer, all else being equal.

Win win solutions that enhance customer service, while still producing a much lower cost structure for the company, are out there. I am confident in saying that. It just wont happen inside of cultures like the one I experienced today. Let’s just hope he was having a bad day.

CC: ATT ???

-b

Author: Bob Champagne is Managing Partner of onVector Consulting Group, a privately held international management consulting organization specializing in the design and deployment of Performance Management tools, systems, and solutions. Bob has over 25 years of Performance Management experience and has consulted with hundreds of companies across numerous industries and geographies. Bob can be contacted at bob.champagne@onvectorconsulting.com

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  1. #1 by Brian Kenneth Swain on February 26, 2011 - 5:07 pm

    Bob,

    Enjoyed your latest observations, but found the story sadly apropos for today’s Customer Service world. That said, it’s worth noting, as well, that one of my recent positive CS experiences, oddly enough, also took place at an AT&T store. Before getting into that, I will say, though, that these experiences now invariably get off to a sour start with the automated “check-in” process that apparently has been adopted system-wide. Before any employee will even talk to you, you must walk up to a kiosk in the middle of the store and type in your name and arrival time in order to get into a queue to be served by an actual human. It all feels rather like the IVR experience that everyone enjoys so much when trying to call a company.

    That said, I was there to transfer my cell service onto a family plan, which, to my surprise, turned out to require about an hour’s worth of quite detailed administrative machination by a tech who not only seemed to know what he was doing, but who seemed almost at pain to continually gauge the degree of our satisfaction. Literally, every five minutes or so (particularly when he was having to wait for their computer system to do something), he would look up plaintively and ask how the experience was going so far. Having, finally, successfully effected the transaction, he then launched into a little parting speech that I encounter more and more these days, i.e., “fishing” for a positive survey result. Basically the way this works is that they tell you you will be receiving a survey by email and they would sure appreciate it if they got all 5’s (or whatever their maximum rating is). It’s almost as if they’re saying they will get in trouble with the company if they don’t max out all the ratings and they want to make you feel guilty for contributing to them getting into trouble. Kind of introduces a bit of survey bias into the evaluation process, it would seem to me.

    So, all in all, a positive experience, if a lengthy one. I do, though, take it as a mild source of encouragement that there even exist any companies at all these days who choose to maintain a storefront presence, so kudos to AT&T for being willing to incur the added expense. Try finding a walk-up location for your local electric/gas utility or other service provider these days!

    Many thanks,

    Brian

    • #2 by Bob Champagne on February 26, 2011 - 6:49 pm

      Amen brother!! And thanks for chiming in Brian!

      I meant to (but forgot to) mention, that crazy ATT “sign in process” you mention. Thanks for reminding me of that! (urgh!). You’d think with all this technology, they would have come up with a better solution, as I’m sure the intent was a noble one. You almost wonder whether they do any market research on this stuff (which I’m sure they do), or if the research they do is halfway credible. Actually, I say that rhetorically, because I have some strong views on that.

      I believe that Market research (in general) these day is so freakin’ flawed, its painful to watch. That profession probably has more high end graduates, from more high end schools, and have more graduate degrees than many others I can think of. Yet we still see even dumber and less effective survey practices than we did years ago when they clearly didn’t work. I remember the “fishing for a grade” experience that I got from my BMW dealership in New Orleans in 1990. So hearing your ATT experience sadly reinforces the fact that the same old dumb-ass practices are still alive and well in the research arena.

      While repairing all of these deficiencies is in large measure a process fix (much more so than it is a technology one- I discussed this a few weeks back on my “Process before technology” post) it almost feels like the whole CS environment needs to go back to the very beginning (before even thinking about fixing the process!). In fact, ( I’ll throw a “bone” out to my LEAN friends here), I think the whole thing needs to start with some very basic thinking about the drivers and core requirements of the customer problem (not just what the customer WANTS, or what WE THINK they need, but a deep understanding of the often simple problems THEY are trying to solve in THEIR world). Someone once told me that ” we should try and see things through THE CUSTOMER’s CUSTOMER’s eyes, and only then will we be able to understand the primary customer’s real needs”. Things like VOC, 5 Why’s, and many other LEAN tools that have been successfully deployed in the manufacturing sector would probably be of great value here. The conventional practices of going straight from transactional surveys to solutions is no longer working. We need to start spending A LOT more time in the PROBLEM before we can even think about designing a solution.

      As for a GOOD example of a company that “gets it”. look no further than Apple. I happen to be a proponent of closing local offices, but not before all of the above is done and the processes and systems are in place to replace it. Then, I think the strategy should be to REDEPLOY SELECTIVELY under a model similar to the one APPLE deploys. Anyone who wants to see this in action should go stop by one stores today, even if they don’t own, or plan to own, one of their products. Look at how customer’s set up their appointments at the “genius bar” remotely, look at how they treat you when you’re in the store, watch how they conduct the check out process (process and tools they use), and most importantly watch how they respond if you either didn’t (or don’t want to) work within THEIR process. I won’t give it away here, because it’s worth seeing for yourself.

      And believe it or not, there are some Utilities I work with who are doing some great work in this space. And they are not the big “mega utilities” that you’d probably think of. I’ll try and get some of them to comment here as well.

      My company onVector is actually facilitating 2 CS IC’s (Innovation Collaboratives) as we speak, (one in the Utility Sector, and one in the Municipal Services sector) because their is a strong need and appetite for this type of dramatic change in both of those sectors. But all sectors seem to have these issues now. CS is an age old discipline that has somehow blown past some of the basic “front end” practices that are so crucial to their success. And yes, it still blows my mind that a company like ATT, a company who is one of the top companies in the wireless and communications game, is missing some of these basic principles and practices.

      A few of the LEAN guys I am working with on this collaborative, may also have some additional ideas to share. I’ll ask them to join in as well.

      Thanks again Brian for your feedback. Look forward to the continued dialogue.

      -b

  2. #4 by Tammy McLeod on February 27, 2011 - 2:12 am

    Definitely sounds like a bad experience. If a company, ATT or anyone, is keeping that channel open, then it’s got to be serviced and serviced appropriately. I’d love to know if they do measure that transaction and exactly what they’re measuring if they do. What has changed significantly over the past few years is that most of the visitors who are under 65 really aren’t doing in-person transactions unless they have to. Therefore, they’re a less satisfied group walking in the door and it’s incumbent upon the reps to deliver the goods.
    Self service does cost less and if done well, produces a more loyal customer but if the channel exists, it needs to be done well.

  3. #5 by Bob Champagne on February 27, 2011 - 1:44 pm

    Thanks for the comment Tammy. That’s a great point re: the ‘state of mind’ a customer is in when they walk in the store. It certainly sets the standard…the “perceptual bar” if you will, against which the provider will be measured for that transaction. We certainly get a lot of info on whether we MET the expectation, and not enough time on learning WHAT the expectation was to start with…not only what the desired transaction was, but the triggers, pain points, and drivers of that chosen medium to begin with.

    But in the end, you’re absolutely spot on- once they’re in the store it’s “game on”. Off the practice field and into to the “real game”.

  4. #6 by Redge on February 27, 2011 - 8:57 pm

    Bob, From a lean perspective, it doesn’t matter how efficient or effective your operation is without a customer to serve. In this regard, Customer Service is an important concern for any Lean Practitioner.

    The primary objective of lean is to continually improve throughput where the benefits of implementation are the progressive elimination of impediments to achieve this objective. In this context, eliminating waste and reducing costs are inherent benefits (not necessarily the objective) of implementing lean.

    Customer service is one realm of doing business that should be a concern for every company. Indeed, some companies actually “monitor the web” using tools similar to Google Alerts or Twitter @Mentions to keep a pulse on the public’s perception of their company and customer service experiences.

    Companies are keenly aware that negative experiences are discussed and shared more so than positive ones – your post is a prime example. It is always in their best interests to attempt to resolve these issues quickly and expunge any negative experiences before they go viral – Remember Domino’s Pizza?

    Unfortunately, service providers are not subject to the same level of public scrutiny and degree of accountability as are product oriented companies. Products are backed by warranties and accountability for performance is assured to avoid the most dreaded event of all, the RECALL campaign.

    Could you imagine a “Customer Service Representative” recall. The sale and support of all products will cease until all customer Customer Service Representatives have been recertified to serve you. Who knows, maybe that’s the new marketing ploy – “All of our representatives are certified to tackle any of your concerns – Guaranteed!”

    The following are just a few examples of companies that quickly became the subject of news worthy recall campaigns: Toyota (Sudden Acceleration), Maple Leaf Foods – Listeriosis Outbreak, Ford Motor Company (Firestone Tires), and Dorel Distribution Canada (Drop Side Cribs). Even small products may be subject to recall if they pose a choking hazard to infants or small children.

    The best we can do to express our dissatisfaction with a service provider is “rant” or “vent” our frustrations as we consider alternative (future) service providers.  We could also file a complaint with the company itself.  The company should be aware that we are definitely sharing our experiences with our family, friends, and co-workers.

    To complicate matters, some service providers have a contractually “captured / locked-In” customer base. As such, many of us are bound by contractual terms of service regardless of the company’s ability to provide satisfactory service.

    To dissuade you from parting ways, mobile service providers will charge a hefty penalty if you decide to cancel your contract before it expires. Perhaps, the contracts should contain a clause that exempts the customer from paying any early termination fees where the provider has demonstrated a failure to provide competent service and / or support.

    Regarding the “Sign In – Take a Number” process, this has become a common practice for many government and company service centers. The question is why was this system implemented? To avoid long lines? Reduce wait times? Or both?

    As a customer, it matters not whether I’m standing in line or seated comfortably in a chair waiting for my number to be called. Although I’m concerned with the wait time, I am as concerned whether my “request for service” can be resolved efficiently and effectively.

    For customer service we have a clearly defined input (customer + service request), a process (company service representative + service request process / mechanism) and an output (satisfied customer + service request resolved / completed). The objective of lean in this case is to satisfactorily resolve customer service requests in an efficient, effective, and timely manner.

    A company that purposes to be a service provider must provide competent, trained, and fully qualified staff and they owe it to their customers to ensure this is always the case. Effective resolution of a service request depends on competent staff. This point should not require any further explanation.

    Efficiency on the other hand is a different story. At the “store front” level, line ups are probably the greatest annoyance for most customers and is definitely an area that deserves more focus.

    There are a number of models that have varying degrees of effectiveness:

    1. Drive Through – Single Queue – “First Come – First Served” – Wait time is dependent on the number of cars ahead of you and the infinitely variable size and complexity of each order.
    2. Retail / Grocery Stores – Multi Queue – “First Come – First Served” – Wait time is reduced but still dependent on the number of people in line ahead of you and the number of items purchased.
    3. Variations of Retail Multi Queue – Express Lane for 8 items or less. Open more registers if where a line exceeds 5 or more customers.
    4. Single Queue – Multi Station Services – “First Come – First Served” – Next Available Window – Wait time is reduced but is based on the number of available or open stations.

    The “Sign In – Take a Number Process” follows the premise stated in point 4 above. While this may appear to be more effective than the other methods, the companies that use this strategy may still fail to provide efficient service.

    I note that Tim Horton’s (one of our most popular coffee shops) measures / monitors the time it takes to process every drive through order. Although they have a Single Queue process, resources are likely managed to accommodate and minimize the time required to process even the most complex orders to maintain or improve throughput.  Drive through services are typically subject to peak demand times and require flexing of resources to accommodate demand during these peak periods.

    What is not transparent to us, “the customer”, is whether the “sign in” systems are tracking when the number was taken, how many are already in queue, and what the current average wait time is.  If a number tracking system is being used, does a mechanism exist to trigger the deployment of more staff to open more stations to accommodate demand above a certain threshold?

    A few weeks ago I had first hand experience where a “sign in” number system was being used. I somehow knew that I would be waiting for a while so I decided to record the time whenever a new number was called. I noted that on average, the time between calls was approximately 10 – 12 minutes.  I noted minimum and maximum service times as well.

    Based on the duration of each “request for service”, I correctly calculated the approximate time that I could expect to be served (over an hour of wait time). I also noticed a sign on the wall stating that all service windows close promptly at 5:00 pm. In other words, even though you had a number, depending on what time you arrived, it may not be even be called.

    What was unclear to me is why numbers continued to be dispensed at the Kiosk when even I as a first time visitor knew the chance of being served was highly unlikely. I should mention that through casual conversation people became aware of what I was doing. It didn’t take long for them to start asking me what time they should expect to be served.

    I would like to think that someone should be able to determine patterns in demand for services and when peak demand occurs. In short, the companies that want to get this right will learn to flex their resources to meet the demand for services and thereby sustain a relatively balanced and predictable throughput.

    I published “10 Ways to Enhance Customer Satisfaction” in November of 2009 that was inspired by continued negative drive through experiences. Strangely, just over a year later, I have noticed positive changes. Welcome to “X”, my name is “Y”, how may I help you today? In my post “1 Way to Exceed Expectations” I share a recent positive experience – a radical change to customer service.

  5. #7 by Bob Champagne on February 27, 2011 - 9:51 pm

    Thanks Redge for your in depth, and well thought out comment. On reflection, I think the issue I was dealing with had less to do with the queue, and more to deal with how little the company appeared to know about the customer and the process, as evidenced by:

    1.their systems (not being able to access the info I needed despite it being a fairly common question)
    2. The attempt to push me to a self service process, before the process was able to effect it successfully
    3. the response of the rep himself ( to say something as idiotic as he did as the process was failing both of us)
    4. the pricing model itself (overage fees being thousands of times the cost of a bundled fee)- a premium is one thing, but could you imagine a utility selling a fixed amount of energy for 5 cents per kwh, but if you went over charging you $2.00 per kwh? I know the cell companies are managing capacity issues but there are many ways to do that other than via these methods.

    The reason I thought Lean tools would be effective here, was based on my premise that a clear understanding of the process and root causes (the real route causes, not the symptoms that look like causes),was the main issue here….i.e.by living in the problem a little longer. Instead, I think we tend to jump to the solution based on what we “think” the customer needs.

    Re: exceeding expectations and delighting a customer, I’ve got some specific views on that which may appear a bit counterintuitive. I plan on writing a little on that in the week ahead. I’ll link to your post when I do that and we can continue the dialogue then.

    Thanks again!

  6. #8 by Redge on February 28, 2011 - 2:52 am

    Hi Bob, I appreciate your feedback. I mentioned the queue in response to Brian’s comment and your subsequent reply to the Sign In process.

    Regarding your experience, I initially saw this as an employee competency issue as evidenced by your exchange: The statement “Sir, I’ve not had a question like this before” and that $20,000 didn’t seem to be cause for concern or even unreasonable was more than concerning. If this is a common question, then the employee’s responses and inaction cannot be justified or substantiated.

    From a company perspective, systems should be seamless but they aren’t. This is not a unique problem to ATT. I have discovered the same problem with my own carrier where it seems that any task beyond paying your bill is a major undertaking.

    One of the reasons for this disconnect is that some of the franchise / store fronts are “affiliated” to the carrier, not wholly owned, and as such, have limited or restricted access to data that would otherwise be available on the parent system (this is true at least in Canada).

    Although the data needed was available, albeit the process was slow, the question you were seeking to have answered should not have been a complex task. Our local store front actually has a direct line that allows customers to immediately connect with a company representative at the corporate office to resolve concerns that cannot be handled at the local level.

    Herein lies the opportunity. Do the local customer service centers document the requests that they are asked to deal with but could not answer? Does the corporate office track referrals from the local stores? Does the company maintain a lessons learned database where information is shared locally and across the corporation?

    Although it may not be possible to anticipate every question that a customer may have, feedback and documented referrals could serve a starting point for creating a lessons learned database. From what I can gather, these service companies do not have the infrastructure in place to support this effort.

    Detailed procedures should exist for commonly asked questions that would allow a customer service representative to resolve the concern. Without the feedback referred to above, the process to create this documentation will never be initiated.

    Every system is comprised of Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs, and Controls where each aspect reflects Voice of the Customer. From a lean perspective, the learning happens on two fronts: 1) resolving the immediate customer concerns and 2) understanding why the need for this functionality was not predicted.

    As I have learned through my experience with Toyota, anticipating concerns and predicting outcomes are critical aspects of effective system design. Where the system is already released and working, an effective feedback / reporting mechanism is required that extends to the original system engineers / designers to continually upgrade it’s performance.

    I’ll look forward to discussing this further.

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