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Is Customer Service
Dead Or Just Dying?

Plus the Top 8 Ways To Insure Your Customer Service Is Not!
By Bob Norton

Where Are Your Company's Customers Now? Only in the top right "Loyalty" is a sustainable business, everywhere else is living on borrowed time.

Examples of Poor Customer Service

Customer service seems to be going down the drain today at more companies than not. It is difficult to have a remote customer experience or transaction with any significant size company without several problems along the way. It is much less of a problem where there is face-to-face contact than on the phone, so I am confining this to telephone service issues.

I recently wanted to add a second satellite dish to my house and also upgrade to a high definition dish with a large, well known company that provides satellite signals direct to your home TV (who shall remain nameless). Although I am still working on this I have now spent over two and one half hours talking to people on the phone and been stood up three times in row for scheduled installation appointments.

Just working out what I would get, because it did not fit exactly into their standard upgrade packages was a hassle. I wanted to do two (standard) things at once and that actually overloaded their ability to handle it! If I had to do it again I think I would order each upgrade separately and make them make two trips so it fit into their standard offers.

What happened to the days when the customer was always right and you never told the customer no, just gave them a price for any request. I think that in many cases freedom has been taken away from CSRs to deal with customers on an individual level. Large size does mean systems, but it does not have to mean a total lack of flexibility. There are many good ways to balance these needs with good design of workflow and systems.

There are certainly valid excuses for not making an appointment due to unexpected work, traffic, parts and many other factors. However when this happens three times in a row you know you have a serious customer service problem. I have now blocked off an entire half day to be home and rearranged my schedule to accommodate their requested installation schedule three different times. Four days after the last appointment was not kept I have did even get a call, never mind priority, to reschedule. You would think in this day and age of technology someone screen would start blinking red but their priorities must be misplaced.

When I called the CSR wanted me to wait another 10 days for another appointment starting the process all over again! Has someone done a "commonsense-ectomy" on these CSRs or have they been totally stripped of any authority to deal with real problems? How can we possibly not be training CSRs and supervisors to accelerate to new levels when repeated problems are occurring for the same customer? How can they not think that strike three is "your out"? They must not have appropriate incentives and disincentives. Or more likely they have a temporary advantage in the market and are abusing the privilege. It will come back to haunt hem for sure.

Appointment #4: Well about 2 weeks later a technician arrived. The first words out of his mouth were "Lets see if we can even do this". Of course I knew that attitude was doomed to failure for sure. Basically he said he was afraid to climb up on my roof and "some stupid kid" may be willing to do that for you, so he did not even check to see if I could get a signal from the HD satellites, which I learned are lower on the horizon.

Appointment #5: Well a very nice guy just left. He climbed up on the roof and came to the conclusion that I could not get an HD dish at this location - Wow - Progress! He also said the work order did not call for anything else so he could not substitute my existing dish for a new two room dish, so I would have to call and reschedule. We spent some time on the phone with the satellite company with no progress there either. He called his office - same deal - waste of time and money.

Call #12 - No option for my upgrade in the automated attendant really - "Need Equipment Installed" - seems pretty basic as a top level menu item to me. When I finally got a person and explained the situation for the tenth time she promised to transfer me to someone who could help. Guess what - I got dropped to a dial tone! Called back again. Very helpful gentleman this time explained "my" problem was the work order only showed the HD upgrade, not the second room installation I had discussed in depth with the first, second and third CSRs. So I scheduled the now sixth appointment for another 11 days out . . TO BE CONTINUED NO DOUBT.

This reminds me of a local restaurant chain that has consistently bad service across all locations. Statistically this can not possibly be the result of anything but bad management and systems. Most restaurants have no problem training people to take your order within ten or fifteen minutes and get food to the table pretty consistently and hot, yet for 20 years they have failed every single time I made the mistake of visiting their establishment. After all there are not many excuses in terms of "layers of management and complexity" here. This chain has for years managed to beat the odds and I will bet ten to one that if I go into any location at all the service will be miserable. It may be failure in hiring, management training or simple procedures, but without doubt failure is designed into their system and culture. They are missing a customer service culture that every company must have today.

Unfortunately neither of these are by any means exceptional examples. Just last week I even had a printing company tell me I could not change or cancel my order after discovering a typo only minutes after the order was submitted. How totally absurd! Yet this CSR thought it was OK to recite a policy that "orders can not be changed or canceled after submitted due to our automation". Can you believe that! AUTOMATION as an excuse to print a defective order. Automation means there is a simple button to push somewhere in the software that purges the order and makes the customer happy with almost no effort so that they can submit the order again and give you business forever! Does anyone really accept this answer and attitude as an excuse? Someone must if they use it. Poor training and management policies are certainly at the root of these problems. On the phone it can be exacerbated by information systems and routing systems that do not differentiate between new callers and repeating callers.

Why Does This Happen?

Often times transactions are designed with the employees in mind instead of the customer. Do you have someone who is suppose to play the customer advocate in every meeting with these kinds of policy decisions? One bank I know makes 25,000 calls a month to customers to poll its customer base about how it is doing. And the brag about doing this. To me it just means they must have never been able to get any good at what they do. This attempt to shortcut the filtering of information between customers and the executive level by providing direct and independent information but it is not as good as a customer service culture that is constantly evolving and improving. This is a valid effort to keep the organization "flatter and leaner" but is probably overkill for most companies. Ironically it is in fact a form of additional bureaucracy to avoid the problems of bureaucracy. Good information systems and watching and understanding key customer metrics like "time on hold", number of calls required to solve a problem and others combined with management actually watching, hearing and participating in the customer service experience is a better and cheaper solution. It makes it easy for larger organizations to be layers away from their customers when they should always have direct contact with them.

Certainly survival of the fittest will take over and put these companies out of business in time, but this does not seem to be sufficient incentive to have employees correct the problems.

Is it possible that employees do not care? Is it possible they are not providing input from the front lines to change these systems? Is it possible, or even likely, that this is management's problem not theirs? I believe that almost any individual can be made to care and be effective in the workplace with proper systems, training and motivation. However, if I am wrong, and we hired the wrong person that is easy to fix and best for everyone in the long run. Easy to say, harder to do - but that's your job to protect everyone else's. I believe when these things happen continuously that management must take responsibility and more importantly action!

Is it possible management does not know these things are occurring because they are isolated from the customer by far too many layers of other people? Some direct bottom to top communication is easy to do.

Often times a lack of competition is a driving factor here. In the case of the satellite TV company they had only one subcontractor, which was two states away from me to handle their installations. This is clearly a poor management decision that is even suspicious. Who would single source a critical element of their business, including all actual face-to-face contact with the customer, to a single vendor without some control and monitoring? This just does not make any sense unless the brother-in-law of the president is running that subcontractor? Can this company really not be watching the average time to install, the number of rescheduled appointments and other simple metrics that would show success, failure and trends?


How Do You Prevent It From Happening At Your Company

I can't be the only CEO in the world who would look for a daily, weekly and/or monthly "flash reports" showing exactly what was happening to our customers that we thrust off on another vendor before they could begin paying us for our services?! Is it even possible that there are significant businesses out there who are not watching critical measures of their own success and delivery? I guess no matter how unbelievable it is it must be happening every day. Is it happening in your business without your knowledge?

Sure these things can happen occasionally, and at good companies the customer gets an apology, a free month and/or a bowl of fruit for their trouble. However, the very fact that these things are happening on most transactions with companies tells me management is loosing touch with some basic principals.

I challenge any manager to make sure they use their own service anonymously on a regular basis (secret shopper) to experience what they have created. My guess is you will be shocked at the many layers of problems you will encounter created by automated attendants that route people in circles, poorly trained customer reps, badly designed policies and procedures that have somehow gotten out of step with the current world.

After all this is not brain surgery, but it does require a lot of blocking and tackling on a regular basis. This is basic execution and requires a certain personality type, sometimes called a "beaver" who does not get board or require constant new challenges. It is a fact too that it is almost always cheaper to do "it" right than wrong, as errors are what drives up the expense. If problems do not show in the actual customer service costs right away they will become apparent in customer attrition sooner or later, costing far more then.

Here is a simple list of things to do to improve your company's customer service, which after all will ultimately define your company's destiny, for we are all literally nothing without happy customers. I guarantee doing these things will actually cut costs and increase revenue and profits.

Top 8 Ways To Improve Your Customer Service

1. Call your own CSRs anonymously and regularly with non-standard requests to see how they react and handle it. Benchmark their attitude, hold times and other key metrics on these sample calls. Outsourcing this function is never as good because qualitative data is lost and the outside company can not know your business well enough to as many improvements in process as you can. It takes some discipline, but it will pay big dividends. This is best assigned on rotating basis to managers and executive level people with the goal of a new round of improvement with each cycle. If you are not finding ways to improve each cycle through this process you are not doing a sufficiently good job and need to dig deeper. Like jury duty there should be maybe a one time excuse to skip it due to a busy schedule, but then no excuse is acceptable the second time around. Nothing is more important than customer service.

2. Define a "flash report" that is distributed daily to key management team members. Color code or highlight problem areas so it can be scanned easily and does not become a burden. Define acceptable ranges and goals for improvement for each number. To be treated seriously people need to know that management is REALLY reading it daily so feedback and questions are critical. It should contain the top 10-20 metrics that prove for certain you are doing a good job with customers. It can not be activities only but must measure and should success. It probably can not be designed solely by the customer service people as they will want to include metrics that are easy to make and hide behind. The CEO would be the best designer of this and should want to define what success is for the CS team.

3. The head of customer service should have a formal meeting monthly to review the results and trends for that month with all supervisors. Senior CSRs should be allowed to represent their perspective and elaborate on why a problem happened to get to the root issues. There should be a case study of a "new" problem which is passed down through the ranks as everyone should learn the right way to handle it. The CEO or VP should show up sometimes, even in larger companies, so that people know this is a priority, not just jawboning, and so that sufficient resources can be allocated to correct problems an create feedback into other departments.

4. Ongoing training is essential! Data captured from all reports and meetings should be used as feedback into the training system. Monthly meetings with every single CSR to review the biggest problems of the month are crucial to sending the right message about how important this is and keeping CSRs current. Sometimes this can be a very positive experience as CSRs get to present a tough problem they solved and how they solved it as an example of best practices.

5. Automated attendants must be monitored closely and tested. Always allow people to get to a human being by pushing "0" at any time. Automated attendants rarely are programmed well. They almost always have ways to get stuck in loops and some people hate them. They are designed to route problems to the right person, not solve them! There will always be problems that do not fit into the standard description and these people need to get through to the best CSRs, not fall between the cracks.

6. Always have minimum performance standards for all key tasks. This applies to both field and office personnel. People who can not make these minimums should be warned and retrained by the top people by tagging along with them. Then they must be replaced if they can not get up to standard. You are doing them a favor as they would be better off doing a good job somewhere else than a lousy job there. Anything else would send the wrong message to the good employees.

7. Attitude towards customers is key. Southwest airlines as kicked butt on larger rivals mainly due to their ability to hire friendly people who want to do a good job! Do your employees look at customers as the problem, not the source of their paychecks? The correct attitude must be projected by all senior management at all times. Sure there can be an occasional joke about a real problem customer you want to fire, but constantly discussing customers in a negative fashion is not acceptable and can even begin a long, slow death spiral for a company. Nip that attitude in the bud right away.

8. Have procedures and systems to accelerate repeating problems to a higher level of service. This activity should be tracked on the flash report as a percentage of total calls with a goal of always improving the ratio regular customer service completes successfully through improved training and case review. These should be your best customer service people and field people. Have a priority system that always gets the toughest and rare problems to your top people quickly, not after the customer is screaming.

You don't need a PhD to solve these problems just have a strong customer service focus, good attitude and strong attention to detail. With the right cycle repeated each quarter or month customer service will improve radically with just these simple steps. In the end they will not cost money either for they will drive revenue higher as customer attrition declines and new word of mouth generates new business.

This stuff needs to be ingrained in the corporate culture so get going today because I guarantee this is costing you many, many customers you do not even know about.