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News, tips, and trends to help you reach that next level of customer service.

Entries in service failure (41)


The lazy customer service manager

I’m feeling a bit lazy. My mission is to write this blog post, but I really don’t want to invest the effort necessary to write a good one. The way I see it, I have three options:

  1. Republish something I’ve already written for someone else
  2. Embed a funny YouTube video that somehow makes a point about service
  3. Draw inspiration from someone else.

Let’s go with option 3 because I already have someone in mind: The Lazy Customer Service Manager. Before I go on, please excuse any snarkiness. I’m too lazy to edit that out today.


The Lazy Customer Service Manager: A Profile

I’ve met a lot of customer service managers. The great ones work tirelessly to help their team deliver world class service and the results speak for themselves.

The lazy ones work tirelessly to find shortcuts. Most of those shortcuts don’t work. Their results speak for themselves too.

Here are a few examples.

Perfect Attendance Awards

The idea behind this motivational gimmick is that people need extra motivation to come to their lousy jobs on a regular basis. This seems to be especially popular in call centers. Perhaps this is because very few people have ever said, “You work in a call center?! Is it as glamorous as it sounds?”

The lazy manager thinks, “I know how to solve our absenteeism problem. We’ll create a perfect attendance award where everyone who has perfect attendance for a month will be entered into a drawing. The winners of the drawing will get to spin a prize wheel for a chance to win fabulous prizes such as candy, gift cards, and (ironically) a day off with pay.”

That was a real example. I so wish I was making this up.

Great customer service managers take a slightly different approach. They focus on making the workplace a great place to be so people will naturally want to come to work. 

Suggestion Boxes

There are a number of reasons why the lazy manager will put out a suggestion box. Perhaps the manager read an article somewhere that the best companies ask their employees for input. Maybe Office Depot is having a sale on suggestion boxes. It could be that the manager is just looking for a way to get employees to stop complaining directly to him. The possibilities are endless.

One lazy manager I knew thought he was enlightened when he promised to post a written response to each suggestion on the team bulletin board. This practice quickly stopped when the vast majority of suggestions turned out to be complaints about working conditions, co-workers, and even the boss.

Again, I really wish I was making this up.

Great customer service managers skip the suggestion box and talk to their employees on a regular basis. They recognize that a true “open door” policy requires them to walk through their door and create an environment where employees will be comfortable enough share their candid opinions.

Incidentally, I did Google “suggestion box” as part of my exhaustive research for this blog post. Sharlyn Lauby has a good post on her HR Bartender blog called 7 Considerations for Suggestion Box Programs.

The Angry Memo

Serious customer service issues can sometimes arise. The lazy manager often addresses these issues via an angry memo that’s emailed to everyone on the team or perhaps posted on a bulletin board. Typically, only one or two people on the team are actually to blame, but the lazy manager finds it safer to get everyone involved rather than speak privately with the people who really need to hear the message.

One example comes from a restaurant in Boston where the owner allegedly posted this memo on an employee bulletin board in response to a bevy of customer complaints:

“You are the LOSERS!!!” … “Change or be changed. Please, don’t force your termination for the holidays.”

You can read more about the story on Patrick Maguire’s I’m Your Server Not Your Servant blog.

Great customer service managers skip the angry memo and constructively address issues as soon as they arise. For example, a customer complaint might be treated as a learning experience and met with a discussion on ways to improve service quality.

What are other characteristics of a lazy customer service manager?

Some might call this last part lazy since I’m basically asking you to finish this post for me by leaving your comments. I prefer to call it crowd-sourcing.

Whatever the term, please do share your own examples of signs that a customer service manager is being lazy.


How a corporate policy crushed service

We often concentrate on the individuals serving us when we think about service quality. But what happens when dumb corporate policies hinder employees’ ability to serve?

This is one of those stories. 

My wife, Sally, recently bought a Tumi briefcase. They’re more expensive than typical bags, but they have a reputation for outstanding quality.

Unfortunately, this bag didn’t live up to that reputation as a zipper pull tore off after just a few weeks.

Sally brought her bag back to the Tumi store so it could be repaired under warranty. She was told it could take up to four weeks because they had to ship the bag back to their repair center in New York.

Losing her briefcase for a month wasn’t an option, so Sally spoke to the store manager in hopes of finding a more acceptable alternative.

Could they give her a loaner bag? No.
Could they give her a new bag? No.
Could Sally get the bag repaired locally and send Tumi the bill? No.

These policies were clearly created by a spreadsheet jockey. They appeared to be the model of efficiency from an aggregate, corporate point of view while completely missing how nonsensical they were in this type of situation.

The store manager was very friendly and I think she really wanted to help. But she was also determined to adhere to the corporate repair policy.

Sticking to these policies cost Tumi a few things:

  • Sally won’t buy a Tumi product again.
  • I was in the market for a new suitcase but ruled out Tumi too.
  • Negative word of mouth.

She eventually left the store without getting her bag fixed. The broken zipper pull was an annoying reminder of Tumi’s poor service every time she traveled.

Sally took her bag to Index Urban in San Diego last Saturday to get repaired. She knew she’d have to pay for the service, but it was worth it to get her bag back in just a couple of days.  I went with her because I still needed a new suitcase.

John, the owner, greeted us when we came in. He wrote up a repair bill for Sally’s bag and then helped me pick out a new suitcase. I went with a Briggs & Riley. They’re expensive like Tumi’s, but unlike Tumi they come with a real lifetime guarantee. And, I know I can take it back to Index Urban if anything does happen because they do repairs onsite.

We were happy customers at this point, but John sweetened the deal by throwing in monogrammed luggage tags for both of us.

The repair technician was off until Monday and John promised to give Sally a call once the technician had a chance to look at the bag. He surprised her with a call early Monday afternoon letting her know the bag had already been repaired. Even better was John waived the repair fee because he felt bad about our experience with Tumi!

Unlike the Tumi store manager, John wasn’t constrained by inflexible corporate policies because he was also the owner. Here’s how that paid off:

  • I bought a suitcase.
  • All of our future luggage purchases will come from Index Urban.
  • Positive word of mouth.

We can’t all be the owner, but I wonder how much better service would be if more employees were empowered to act like John? I do know that Tumi would still have two customers.


Speed kills first contact resolution

Nobody likes having to contact customer service for help resolving a problem. It’s doubly aggravating to contact them a second time because the issue wasn’t fixed. I can’t even tell you how frustrating it is to contact customer service 16 times on one issue.

First Contact Resolution, or FCR, measures the percentage of customer problems that are resolved on the very first contact. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a high FCR rate is a good idea. Customers are happier and companies are able to work more efficiently.

Surprisingly the metric has been slow to catch on. One factor holding back its adoption is speed.

A recent poll conducted by the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) found that FCR ranked fifth among metrics shared with frontline call center employees. Two speed-based metrics and another efficiency-based metric ranked ahead of it.

Source: ICMI

The two most popular metrics for front line employees tell call center agents when to work faster. Many reps will speed up their interactions when there are a lot of calls in queue. This in turn allows them to improve service levels (the percentage of calls answered within a set amount of time).

Schedule adherence is an efficiency metric. It calculates the degree to which call center agents are working their assigned schedule. Agents may be less likely to spend time fixing a difficult problem if they feel pressured to immediately take the next incoming call.

The impulse to work faster can hurt FCR. Employees take short cuts, speed up their interactions, and try to multitask their way through an avalanche of work. All of this can make it harder to spot the important details that are the difference between First Contact Resolution and Endless Back-and-Forth. You can see an example of this in my breakdown of an email service failure.

I recently attended the Contact Center Conference & Expo where FCR was one of the hot topics. However, I was only talked to a few people who were actually measuring FCR in their contact center.

One of those people was Kathie Gerrard from MTS Allstream, a business communications provider in Canada. Gerrard told me that their FCR initiative really took off when they stopped emphasizing another speed-related metric, Average Handle Time (AHT).

 “A few years ago, we identified FCR as a key performance indicator and began to set improvement targets. Although we’ve seen improvements in our FCR results, we’ve found that monitoring average handle times contradicts FCR. AHT metrics encourage reps to shorten the length of the call instead of focusing on resolving the customer’s issues.”

MTS Allstream still tracked AHT behind the scenes even after they stopped emphasizing it with their reps. Gerrard told me that they haven’t seen a significant increase in AHT since shifting their focus to FCR. Her observations suggest that the extra time required to resolve a customers’ problem completely is often negligible. It’s the pressure to wrap things up quickly that actually causes the service failure.

Gerrard also told me MTS Allstream had widespread executive support for their FCR initiative. This isn't always the case. Another call center manager I spoke to at the Contact Center Conference & Expo told me his executives resisted moving to FCR because they had invested so much money in technology that measured speed and efficiency. They understood and felt comfortable with metrics like calls in queue and average handle time.

How do you get your executives on board? Show them the money. Here are a few ways that FCR can lead to financial results.

  • Reduce Waste: 23 percent of the average call center's budget goes to repeat calls. (Source: SQM Group
  • Increase Revenue: 66 percent of customers will spend more for excellent customer service. (Source: American Express)
  • Retain Customers: 19 percent of customers are at risk of leaving if their problem isn't resolved on the first call. (Source: SQM Group)

Slowing down to speed up is counter-intuitive, but the numbers don't lie. Speed can kill first contact resolution. 


Applebee's customer proves the customer is always right

Applebee’s is the latest company to be caught up in controversy over a receipt. This time it was a server who took a picture of a customer’s receipt and posted it online.

By my count, this is the fourth receipt-related service failure to go viral within the past twelve months, but this one adds a few new plot twists. The public outcry was largely directed against the customer who wrote “I give GOD 10% why should I give you 18” in lieu of a tip. The server who posted the photo was fired, but an online petition urging Applebee’s to reinstate her is gathering steam. And, I’m not even sure Applebee’s is at fault for what’s happened so far (more on that later).

What I do know is this incident offers further proof that the customer is always right.

The true meaning of the customer is always right
It’s unclear who first said “The customer is always right.” I tried to learn the answer while doing research for my book, Service Failure, but the best I could do was narrow it down to a few business leaders from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One of the best examples was a quote attributed to the legendary retailer, Marshall Fields. He purportedly said, “Right or wrong, the customer is always right.”

The Applebee’s customer was clearly wrong, but we wouldn't be talking about it if the server hadn't photographed the receipt and posted it online. The server neglected the advice from Marshall Fields when she went out of her way to prove the customer was wrong.

Poking a sleeping bear
Proving a customer wrong is generally a zero sum game. It tends to escalate the situation by engaging the customer’s defense mechanisms and can trigger powerful emotions such as frustration, embarrassment, or shame. In many ways it’s like poking a sleeping bear where nothing good will come out of it, but a lot of bad things are likely to happen.

In this case, the Applebee’s customer was told by friends that her receipt was posted online. This led to strong feelings of shame and embarrassment and now the Applebee’s customer was an angry bear.

Angry bears don’t apologize for their misdeeds. They call the offending restaurant and roar and roar until someone gets fired. In this case it was the server who posted the receipt online who lost her job.

Why Applebee’s isn’t (entirely) to blame
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post suggested an employee’s viral service failure is the company’s fault. That still holds true, but from the perspective that most people have heard about the Applebee’s receipt incident but don’t know the names of the individuals involved. 

The negative publicity generated by this incident may be part of the cost of doing business. The Applebee’s restaurant in question is a franchise, which means that Applebee’s doesn’t have direct managerial control over the restaurant’s employees. They also took swift action to address the issue and even confirmed that the server in question had been fired.

The situation has created some unfortunate PR challenges for Applebee’s. I’m just not sure what else they could have done. (Ideas, anyone?)


A service failure reveals surprising customer service trends

On the Friday before Christmas my wife, Sally, headed to Newark Liberty airport for what she thought would be an uneventful flight home to San Diego. What followed instead was a string of bizarre delays lasting nearly nine hours that could only be caused by a company as inept as United Airlines.

Throughout the day, Sally texted me frequent updates on her flight status. I captured her messages in a blog post that turned out to be my most read post of the year.

Sally finally made it home safely. As she recounted her ordeal over a late dinner that night I realized that her experience reflected a few surprising customer service trends. Perhaps most surprising of all is that Sally intends to remain a loyal United Airlines customer (more on that later).

Trend 1: Communication is more important than the problem
Research posted by Rob Markey on the Net Promoter System blog just one day prior to Sally’s trip suggested that the way airlines handled a flight delay had a larger impact on customer perception than the delay itself. More specifically, passengers were much more understanding when the pilot provided frequent, clear, and empathetic updates.

This is exactly what happened on Sally’s flight. The pilot and the rest of the flight crew were absolutely terrific and the passengers generally remained calm as a result.

Trend 2: Anticipatory Customer Service
In his book, High Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, Micah Solomon describes the concept of anticipatory customer service where companies predict customer needs and proactively address them. Anticipating a customer’s needs gives companies an opportunity to provide unexpectedly good service or fix a problem before it gets even worse.

By the time Sally’s flight landed, the passengers on her plane had received an email from United Airlines apologizing for the delay and offering their choice of travel credit or frequent flyer miles as compensation. Sally has experienced her share of challenges in the past trying to get a response from the United Airlines customer service department, so it was a pleasant surprise to receive a proactive resolution.

Trend 3: Not all customers are equal
A day prior to Sally’s trip, Adam Toporek wrote a post on his CustomersThatStick blog explaining how all customers should expect excellent treatment, but they can’t all be VIPs. In the real world, Toporek explains, some customers will receive better treatment and service than others and deservedly so.

Sally certainly had some advantages over other passengers on her flight from Newark. She was relatively comfortable in her first class seat with plenty of legroom, a power outlet to keep her computer and phone charged, and attentive service from the flight attendants. Sally also knew from comparing notes with other passengers that she received a higher compensation offer in her email from United than the people sitting next to her.

Sally received better treatment than her fellow passengers because she is Premier 1k frequent flyer member. To earn this status, she had to fly more than 100,000 miles on United Airlines in 2012. This frequent flyer level comes with perks like complimentary first class upgrades, but Sally had to spend many hours and many flights sitting in coach to get there.

Final Trend: Why Sally is still loyal to United Airlines
Last November, Bruce Temkin shared new research that reveals some companies’ customers are more loyal than their customer experience ratings suggest they deserve. United Airlines was 19th on Temkin’s top 20 list. One of the explanations offered by Temkin was that people may be more loyal to a company than reasonable when there aren’t a lot of acceptable alternatives.

This is exactly why Sally will continue flying United almost exclusively. United Airlines offers a flight schedule that best meets her overall business travel needs in terms of cost and convenience. Her frequent flyer status also ensures she spends less time waiting in airport check-in and security lines and receives frequent seat upgrades. Looking at the big picture, Sally would have to spend more money and travel with less convenience to avoid flying United Airlines.

One Final Note
United Airlines might pat themselves on the back for earning Sally’s continued loyalty. What they may not realize is they still lost a customer that day – me.

I flew enough miles on United Airlines last year to earn their Premier Silver status. I plan on traveling a lot more this year and that status would have come in handy. However, unlike Sally, I have several good alternatives that make it easy to say I won’t be buying a ticket on United Airlines anytime soon.