Lame Customer Service Excuses and Hidden Masterminds

The next time a customer service rep says, "The computer won't let me do that" or "The system tells me what to do," remember this: Behind every such phrase is a set of processes designed, or at least endorsed, not by computers but by human beings somewhere in the corporate hierarchy. The system may tell the reps what to do, but someone told the system what to do. These are the kinds of explanations I heard recently during two snafus with a car rental company that advertises its world-class service. In one, the car I was supposed to get was released to another customer because my flight was delayed. This is even though I had given the company my flight number. It would have been a simple matter for the rental agency to have kept track of my flight's status, but "the computer" hadn't thought of that. In the other, I wasn't allowed to use my usual corporate rate to rent one-way during the busy summer season. To pick up here and drop off there, I would have had to pay approximately an order of magnitude more. Granted, there was a certain logic behind this policy, having to do with ensuring a ready supply of cars at airports to accommodate tourists. But the policy alienates the corporate customer, risking a huge loss of lifetime value, in order to serve the transitory vacationer. "The computer" hadn't thought of that either. What has happened is that in the name of speed and efficiency, local managers and their employees have been equipped with web-based technologies, which is potentially a good thing: The right kind of system can empower workers to improve the customer experience and engage in a dialogue with the clientele. Instead, poorly conceived technologies take decisions away from managers and employees, disempowering them and turning them into script readers. Any chance of a dialogue vanishes. The real decision-makers — the people who designed or endorsed the system — are hidden away in the corporate labyrinth, invisible to both the customer and the agent and accountable to neither. More and more aspects of our lives are dictated by systems designers who can't hear our complaints and probably wouldn't be able to relate anyway. It doesn't have to be that way. Especially now that websites are able to provide vast amounts of information and field a large percentage of customer inquiries, customer-facing human beings have a special role to play: as problem solvers. After a customer has bounced around on the website for a while without getting the solution to a particular problem, the company should provide access to an employee who will listen and can make things happen. To enable this, companies should follow three steps:
  • They should support their customer agents with technologies that are flexible and adaptive and that use case-based intelligent reasoning to anticipate customer and agent needs. Companies such as eBay, PayPal, and Symantec utilize virtual agent technologies with natural language and AI techniques to zero in on the correct answers to questions and improve the customer experience.
  • They should reduce the experiential gap between employees and customers. With much of the corporate world's customer interactions handled by offshore call centers, reps are often incapable of relating to customers' needs. They don't know what it feels like to be a road warrior or to lose a client because of a late flight and an empty rental-car lot. Companies should provide simulations and situational training so that reps can walk virtually in customers' footsteps. The Bank of Montreal Financial Group uses simulations and coaching to improve its call-center operations, and a similar strategy was adopted by Primera Therapeutics. This goes for executives too, by the way — CXOs should make a regular habit of using their companies' customer service, just as a mere mortal would.
  • They should recognize the value of dialogue with customers. Companies that are truly customer-centric, like Zappos and Netfix, do this. For example, their policies include no scripts and no time limits for call-center interactions. At Zappos, the result has been Net Promoter Scores so high they don't provide any guidance on areas for improvement, according to CEO Tony Hsieh.
Service at this level is a powerful differentiator. It speaks to the need in all of us to interact with sentient beings — beings who will actually help us, rather than reading from lame scripts or spouting lame excuses.
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