For whom the phone rings

You know that feeling, you are unhappy or frustrated with a product and you finally get to the point where you have to call the company to get a resolution. So, you pick up the phone and you get:

  1. A recording telling you to either wait or leave a message
  2. A customer service person who isn't able to answer your question, because they don't know the product well enough and therefore they aren't listening to your specific question
  3. You get that one guy who thinks you are the problem, not the company's product, and he acts like you have inconvenienced him by calling

Instead of helping, you are left more frustrated and, well, probably annoyed – at this point – and if you have a blog, you are probably going to tell the world about the terrible customer service experience you just had.

Seth Godin just had an experience with a call center that he wrote about on his blog, in a post called:

Who answers the phone?

This was my take away line from that post:

“Shouldn't you be rewarding call center operators by how long they keep people on the phone, not how many calls they can handle a minute?”

Seth often says things I agree with, but this one nailed it on the head for me. Back in the mid 90's, I took a seasonal customer service job with a children's educational CD-Rom distribution company.

After only weeks of being there, I had broken the company record with 81% upsells on calls. (Upsells means ‘add-on purchases' – think “Do you want fries with that burger?”)

In this case, the upsells were things the company had put on sale for the week. So, I would let the caller know we also had some sale items and if they were interested, I'd be glad to tell them about them. It was easy and natural for me, because I felt like it was helping the caller. After all, who doesn't like a sale, and the customer was trying to get their holiday shopping done and wanted help finding appropriate gifts.

They were usually delighted to find someone offering assistance, as if that was a rare occurrence. So, I would ask the child's age and interests, then I'd take the upsell list of items for that week and tell them about an item that fit their specific gift-giving needs.

The caller was happy to get their shopping done and I got a dollar for each upsell they purchased, so I figured the company must be happy with me. And two of my managers, Vicki and Mitchell, told me I was not only outselling all the other seasonal help, but I had also outsold all the full time customer service reps, too.

So, you can bet I was surprised when the ‘other' manager came to me and said:

“Bethany, I am very upset with your stats. Why are you on the phone for 8 mins when everyone else's average call time is under 3 minutes?”

I asked if he thought it might have anything to do with the fact I had outsold the rest of the staff and broken the company record. I also reminded him several callers had ask to speak to my supervisor, because – as one told me:

“I have never had such a great experience calling this or any other catalog company before!”

I found out most people reserve the ‘conversation with the manager' call for when they are registering a complaint, so now I make sure I ask for a manager when I get excellent customer service.

But back to that ‘other' manager, it still urks me, to this day. It's not just because it happened to me, though ego-wise, that was a factor, at the time. The real reason it bothered me was because I immediately understood why I had outsold everyone else: It was my first experience within a call center and I was naive to the fact that they were even monitoring my call time, so I just did what was natural and helpful to the client. But that experience made me realize that the company (who by the way closed its doors shortly after that holiday season, due to a merger with Mattel) didn't care about the customer's experience, because they were too focused on the wrong stats.

When I read Seth's post about call centers the above story was just one of my many thoughts on the subject. His post brings up a valid point: who IS answering your company's phone and – even if it can't be the brand manager, as Seth suggests, shouldn't they be trained appropriately, to eliminate the clients' frustrations, not enhance them?

Granted, I know you can't have upper management answer every call or predict every customer's unique situation, but there should be well trained people answering the phone, not the newest hire. And, as Seth points out, there should be a way to escalate a call, when needed.

For instance, yesterday I called my bank. On Saturday, I had been to a restaurant and used my card to pay the bill. The restaurant ran the charge and the bank withdrew the money on Monday.

On Tuesday, the restaurant authorized the same charge, a second time.

Now, I know it was probably an error on the restaurant's behalf, but still that is $72 bucks I'd rather not pay them for twice (especially since the dinner wasn't that great).

When I called my bank, the guy explained it was still just an authorization, but he was going to put me through to the “dispute department” anyway.

When the woman from the dispute department got on the phone with me, it was already handled. Her first words were, “I have a feeling this charge will drop off, but I have already put a note in the account, if it does go through we will dispute it for you immediately.”

That was that. I wasn't required to wait to see if it would get charged to my account, like I had experienced in the past with authorizations (‘just wait and see' mentality). I wasn't told I would have to contact the restaurant, like I had been told in the past (‘it's not our problem' mentality). I was, instead, told, “don't worry, we're here and it's our job to help.”

Wouldn't it be great if that was the answer every time you called a company with a legitimate concern!

Thanks, Seth, for another great and thought-provoking read.

If you have a customer call center, maybe you should be thinking of your staff as ‘marketing representatives' for your company, instead of perceiving the caller as the problem or an annoyance you have to deal with to get business done.

Remember, everyone who interacts with your clients makes an impression…

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