I make no apologies for the fact that this week’s post is something of a rant. But in venting my spleen I hope to offer some invaluable and sincere feedback to customer service managers everywhere.
Over recent weeks, I have had numerous phone conversations with front line customer service staff working for utilities, telcos and financial institutions. From my personal experience, these companies appear to be among the most frustrating companies to deal with, but my comments could equally apply to retailers, hotels, travel agents, software vendors, local governments or logistics companies.
Here are my suggestions on how customer service managers could improve their performance:
1. Train team members on the full product or service life-cycle – There is nothing worse than being passed off to a never-ending chain of “specialists”, people who know only their own few centimeters of the billing or fulfillment process (albeit their knowledge is probably several kilometers deep…). I am not saying they all have to be experts at everything, but having at least a common and consistent understanding of the end-to-end process would be a great start.
2. Update all team members on latest product and service changes on a timely basis – Following on from the above, I get really annoyed when given contradictory information from different client-facing employees, especially when the person I am speaking to is clearly not up-to-date with the company’s own offerings.
3. Tell the teams not to keep blaming the “system” – For one thing, the “system” is only as good as the humans who designed it. For another, the “system” is not some abstract or imaginary force over which nobody has any control. Often those designers are their colleagues. So in criticising the system for any shortcomings, the customer service representatives are in effect criticising their fellow employees and by extension, the company itself.
4. Listen to customer feedback relayed by the front line employees – For the most part, customers actually want to help service providers to do better. They don’t give their feedback so it can be ignored and disregarded – they would like it to be acknowledged, followed up and acted upon. No doubt most front-line employees would also like to think they are being taken seriously – but often I think there is an element of “shooting the messenger” which dissuades employees from raising genuine customer feedback and criticism with their managers.
5. Give customer service teams clear parameters to exercise their discretion – I understand that organizations require consistency, and they also expect adherence to operating guidelines and protocols. However, it gives me very little pleasure to have to go over the head of a front line employee to speak to a supervisor or team leader, who then ends up making their subordinate look ineffective because they have the “power” to reverse that erroneous charge on my bill. Rather than forcing customers to escalate issues in order to get attention from further up the chain of command, how about providing front line teams with more individual discretion as to how they can resolve customer complaints? I once heard of a major hotel chain that empowered front desk employees by granting them a program and quota of refunds, rewards, upgrades, discounts which they could allocate and award as they saw fit to address guest issues.
6. Learn to be more customer-centric, not product-led – So many service providers like to believe they focus on the customer. In fact, we know that customers are managed according to the products they purchase and the services they subscribe to. How often are internal systems jargon and inward-looking product terms used as a justification for a particular client outcome? To me, this demonstrates that many organizations are not interested in serving their customers – they are often rigidly organised around product processes and internal systems.
7. Don’t expect customers to train customer service staff (and certainly not for nothing) – Finally, we know that many organisations record in-bound customer calls. Sometimes, they bother to listen to the recordings. Occasionally, they might even contact the customer to seek more information. But rarely, if ever, do they contact their customers to say they listened, they heard and they did something about the issue. Sure, feel free to use my customer feedback for “staff training and coaching purposes”, but please give credit where credit is due. A voucher or a discount off my next bill would be a nice gesture!
While most retail markets are competitive, and customers have at least some choice between providers, the reality is that we all need access to gas, water, electricity, telecommunication and banking services. All of these sectors are highly regulated (and in some cases they also enjoy government protections), which by necessity reduces the amount of choice. Wouldn’t it be nice if these powerful and monopolistic companies used their enviable market position to benefit their customers, rather than taking them for granted?