When Did “Common Sense” Go Extinct from the workplace?

When a Customer Service problem becomes an organizational one…

This evening, as I sat down to write this post, I originally envisioned that it would simply extend on some previous posts about Performance Improvement in the Customer Service and CRM arena. But as I thought through the examples I would use to illustrate my points, I realized just how much this issue touches the entire organization and its culture. So while my examples do revolve mainly around CS, I encourage you to reflect on the broader organizational implications, and by all means, feel free to offer your observations and experiences regardless of the process or function they relate to.

In reading articles, blogs and daily posts on Twitter, etc., you’re likely to find that most discussions focus on the newer channels of CRM. And while I agree that these mediums, largely Social Media and IT/ systems driven, I would venture to say that most of today’s frustrations from customers, are more heavily driven by the more traditional channels (via Call Center, or Face to face) for servicing customers. These more basic delivery channels still occupy the majority of interaction, and while I agree that over time we will see a sea change in that trend, we cannot afford to overlook the damage that is still being caused in the most basic forms of customer interaction.

An “all to common” scenario…

Within that context, let’s fast forward to a recent experience that one of my colleagues had with a CSR in an Insurance Company call center. The interaction went something like this:

  • Customer calls, responds to the voice prompts and spends about a minutes in the hold queue
  • CSR- “Thank you for calling xyz company, would you mind if I placed you on hold?”
  • Customer- “Well actually (click- customer is now speaking into dead silence), I am in my car and I really can’t hold because I may lose a signal and I don’t want to lose my place in the queue”
  • CSR (returns after about 3 minutes into the dead space)- “Thank you for calling xyz company, can I have your account number please?”
  • Customer- “Well let’s back up. You asked me a question of whether I could hold or not, but didn’t give me the opportunity to answer…Did you really want an answer because I was about to say that I could’t hold”
  • CSR- (dead silence/ implies some level of frustration)…followed by “Sir, can you please just give me your account number”
  • Customer- “Like I tried to say, when you clicked off the line, I’m in my car and don’t have it handy. Can you look it up by my phone number or some other way?”
  • CSR (exhales audibly as if inconvenienced)- “Fine, give me your phone number”
  • Customer: “xxx-xxx-xxxx”
  • Rep: (after proceeding through 3 steps of a verification process consuming another 30-45 seconds)- “OK, How may I help you?”
  • Customer: (Explains a bit about his recent storm loss, a roof leak in his kitchen caused by severe “ice damming”- about 2 minutes…)
  • Rep: (asks a few more questions)- what state/county are you located in?,When did the loss occur?, etc.
  • Rep- “Oh wait a second, are you calling about a home loss or an auto loss?”
  • Customer: (with slight sarcasm) “Well, last time I checked, “Ice damming in the kitchen, and roof leaks” don’t usually happen in cars and boats…”
  • Rep: “Well you’re in the auto claims area”
  • Customer: “Maybe I am, and I’m sorry about that, but the system didn’t give me an option to make that distinction”
  • Rep: “Yes, I know, its the same number for both”
  • Customer: Ok
  • Rep: “…so I am going to have to transfer you and will be a bit of a hold since they are quite busy today”
  • Customer: “Well, ok then, please transfer me”
  • Rep: “No problem, but before I do, I have a few questions…”
  • Customer: “Ok, but I’m in a hurry, because I said I’m in my car and I may lose my signal, and I don’t want to through all this again. In fact, Is there a direct number to the homeowners area if we get disconnected?”
  • Rep: “No, you’ll have to go through the same process; …but this will only take a few more seconds”
  • Customer: “…ok, but…”
  • Rep: “Is this your first time calling our claims center?
  • Customer: “yes”
  • Rep: “Were you happy with the serviceI provided you?”
  • Customer: “Ummmm…No, not yet” (again with a little more sarcasm)
  • Rep: “Sir I’m just trying to do my job”
  • Customer: “I know, but…”
  • Rep: “On a scale of 1-5, how would you…”
  • Customer (connection lost. Reason unclear.)

Now, while there were many areas of breakdown here, I would say there were three key ones in this specific exchange. Can you determine what they were?

Breakdowns abound…

First, the rep asked a question, for which she really had no desire to accept an answer to. No doubt, this is a process breakdown that starts with the company and the script it provides the rep with. But after the sarcastic response, and the fact that the customer was on his mobile (a scenario which is very common these days), she should have concluded that forging ahead with the “process” was going to have a bad result. I’d have to give the company an “F” for design of the process/ script, but I’d also flunk the rep for not recognizing the situation and course correcting as appropriate. (By the way, if this type of question is on your script, then either design your process to accept an answer, or change the words to, “sir I have to put you on hold for about x minutes”).

Second, was the verification process being deployed before finding out the right queue the customer needed to be in. Another clear “moment of truth”, if you will, that really failed the customer in this instance, mostly because there was no way for the customer to prevent it. The customer was now “hostage” inside of a “black hole” with no way out, and a cell signal that could very well crap out and leave him with having to replay this ugly scenario. Again, an “F” for the designers of the process, with little if anything the rep could have done to change it at that instance. So my grade for the rep would really have to be an “incomplete”, until I could see whether or not the rep actually communicated the process flaw to the company’s higher ups, and the nature and urgency with which she did so.

But the third breakdown was the main failure point in my view. If their were such thing as an “F-“, I’d hand it out to both the company and the rep. Sadly though, proceeding to a “survey” before the process is even started, is actually something that I experience very frequently. And every time I experience it, I have the same reaction: Anger, followed by amazement, followed by pure resignation to the fact that, for some companies, this is “as good as its going to get” under their current leadership.

Think about this for a second. We have actually allowed an objective of performance improvement  and the tools that enable it (which is really the basis for gathering customer feedback) become its most debilitating barrier to improvement. By asking (sometimes begging) for feedback as the process is playing out, it becomes very visibly all about YOU and not the CUSTOMER. And this goes well beyond “survey madness”. How many times is the customer simply trying  to get transferred to the right person, but instead has to withstand a 5-10 second “expression of gratitude” that often feels like 5 minutes? If we had better vehicles for tapping into the real needs and emotions of the customer (like those “dials” they ask people to use during presidential debates and speeches to detect emotional swings), we’d quickly learn that this stupid “exit interview” we put our customers through before a call transfer, or  upon completion, does NOTHING more than serve the company’s ego.

Organizational and Cultural implications…

Now while most of blame for all of this lies on the leadership of the company, the processes that are behind this madness, and perhaps even the CS community in general (we can’t let the vendors who design call centers, those who write the scripts, and the “survey happy” researchers off the hook here, can we?); I believe the employee carries at least some burden for the mess this continues to create. At some point, common sense needs to take over and put a stop to this. And as unfortunate as it may sound, in these types of cultures, that catalyst sometimes needs to start at the transaction/ front line level.

Ultimately, yes, this is a leadership problem. And its leadership that must create a culture of autonomy that will allow a front line worker to essentially do the manufacturing equivalent of “pushing the stop button on the assembly line”. And, yes, for it to become an embedded organizational value, that will take a lot of work in everything from skills and training, to processes and systems, to fundamental leadership values and behaviors.

But to the front line worker and lower levels of management, I think it is incumbent on you to take a risk, step out of the comfort zone, and apply some common sense to our everyday transactions. Often, management needs you to take their blinders off, and see the problems in clear daylight. And front line employees can be a catalyst in making that happen. But in the end, it will no doubt require stepping out of the  comfort zone.

And while it may be a bit naive to expect employees to take that kind of risk in this economy ( the risk that management will “punish that kind of speaking up” and /or continue to deploy a process as fundamentally broken as the one above), I think survival of the business might very well depend on it.

-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 Lee Silverstein on March 2, 2011 - 12:40 am

    Bob,
    You touch on many key issues here, however the 4 key words are “under their current leadership”. It reminds me of the expression “the fish rots from the head”. I would venture to guess that in the scenario you described that the culture of this organization does not empower, or even allow, the associates to “go off script”. It’s not far fetched to assume that employee moral and retention are major issues with this company. Sadly, until the leadership changes nothing else will.

    Lee Silverstein

  2. #2 by Bob Champagne on March 2, 2011 - 1:12 am

    Thanks for the comment Lee. The leadershp crisis is hitting a feverish pitch, as this scenario occurs all around us all too often, inside of companies we continue to put on pedestals. While i concur, and often focus exclusively on the leadership dynamics at my clients, I was trying to point out here that a parallel effort needs to occur at the work-face. While effective change “should” always start with leadership, employees and front line supervisors often use that as a reson to not act with common sense. Time for employees at all levels to step up and catalyze change. Some of the best and most pervasive changes i’ve seen started from bottom up or inside out with some key (and perhaps “ballsy”) change agents.. with leadership catching on somewhere in the early going. A bit unorthodox from.a change perspective, I know.

  3. #3 by BAM on March 2, 2011 - 2:34 pm

    Bob,

    You make some excellent points hear; but, I would offer a little different perspective.

    1. Processes (scripts) are (should be) logical steps to achieve a specific goal. Not all scenarios require all steps of the process to be completed to accomplish the goal. Unfortunately, it is drilled into the practioners of the process that they will follow every step or suffer some sort of consequence (remember this call may be monitored for quality purposes).

    2. The consumer in this story played a part in the lack of goal accomplishment also. Remember, in any transaction there is always a supplier and customer. As the conversation goes on, the role of supplier and customer is reversed with each transaction. Was the consumer a good supplier by using a potentially tenuous cell connection?

    • #4 by Bob Champagne on March 2, 2011 - 3:49 pm

      BAM- Thanks for your comment. I actually thought about your second point as I was writing. But after deliberating on it for a while, I started to think “why would someone call from their car given the likelihood of a bad connection?” Of course you could also ask “why would a customer, with all the self service technology out there, why even call at all?

      Fact is, in today’s world, I think people are squeezing every ounce out of their dead time (like in traffic or a long commute) to avoid having to take time away from critical office activities or family, etc…We simply don’t know WHY people still call, be it choice or necessity. IMO, all we can really do is try to understand them better, and offer choices to other lower cost channels IFF they are “easier for the customer”. But then it’s the customer’s choice…and at that point (assuming we have good info and the right CRM mindset), we should assume the customer made the choice of that channel for good reason.

      Many CS organizations haven’t taken the time to understand why and how customers make these choices. If we understood the behavioral dynamics a little better, there would be many things in this transaction that would look different, starting perhaps with a process that was “designed” to better deal with that kind of call medium.

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