For many years now, I’ve been strongly recommending that all CEO’s and other members of the Senior Management team regularly monitor the conversations in their customer contact centers. Sometimes, they take me up on it and discover that the exercise is more than worth the doing. As one CEO succinctly put it: “You hear things on that hotline you just don’t hear anywhere else!” For those that haven’t taken the time yet themselves, let’s bring the contact center right into their office. Is this happening on your support/service line? If so, what should you do about it?
Agent: “Hello, my name is Joe, from Support in Bangalore. How may I help you today?”
Joe has a heavy Indian accent; his words are understandable, but the voice is unmistakably foreign. Many American consumers will have an immediate and largely unconscious reaction to his voice – they will form an assumption just from the accent that he will not understand their words or their problem. Joe therefore comes to bat with a good possibility of at least one serious strike against him from the beginning when it comes to getting good customer satisfaction scores.
He’s done the right thing in immediately declaring that he’s located in Bangalore, but the customer will probably suspect that his name really isn’t “Joe.” (On top of the ‘He won’t understand me’ assumption, there’s probably now a suspicion that he’s pretending to be somebody the caller will accept.) Unfortunately, Joe does not take the opportunity to establish rapport with the caller at this critical Opening phase of the conversation. Given his accent, that’s a serious mistake for him.
The caller may not have picked up on it yet, since the opening sentence was very short, but Joe is also using a canned script. Customers hate that, and can nearly always quickly recognize them. That first line is something the customer will expect to hear no matter where they call, and therefore probably won’t react to it – but the use of a script substantially ratchets up the risk of customer dissatisfaction.
Caller: “Um, I’ve got a problem with my computer. It, uh, won’t boot.”
Notice the hesitation? Joe didn’t ask who was calling, so the chance to establish rapport between them has been missed. The caller is already uncertain as to whether or not they’ll be able to accurately describe their problem so that “Joe” will be able to help them. By not taking a few seconds to establish rapport at the beginning, Joe has set himself up to fail.
“Joe:” “Are you telling me that your computer won’t start at all?”
Joe has now gone immediately into the Information Gathering phase of the call, using a testing question to elicit further input from the caller. The question is good, but the combination of the phrasing and the accent emphasizes the distance between them.
Caller: “Uh, well, it starts to boot up when I press the power button, but then it just stops and doesn’t do anything. I mean, it worked last night when I downloaded some files but now it won’t boot up and it’s got all my files on it and I don’t have a backup and I’ve got a paper that’s due today!”
The caller is panicking, sensing the distance, speaking more rapidly and her tone is going up – she’s afraid that Joe is not going to be able to help her after all. The failure to establish rapport at the beginning is going to make Joe’s job a lot harder in keeping control over this call, and will probably cost him considerably on the satisfaction score at the end of it. If she’d been waiting on hold for anything more than two or three minutes, her reaction would probably have been far stronger.
“Joe:” “It may be that you’ve got a virus.”
Ouch! Very Bad Move, Joe. Not only did you move away from the purpose of the second phase of the call, which is to gather data, you also just fed your caller’s fear and jumped to an unwarranted conclusion all at once. By misdirecting the caller’s attention, you risk losing control over the call and adding unnecessary time to the total duration, which will cost you points in your performance stats. You also, for anyone with any technical savvy, just signaled a possible serious lack in your expertise by the unwarranted suggestion. (Note: Joe’s other call recordings shows this to be his favorite “safe” diagnosis; it offers him an option for getting off the phone quickly while leaving the responsibility for the problem, and its solution, squarely on the customer’s shoulders.) If that customer had been stuck on hold for a long time before getting through to him, Joe’s mistake could have led to an immediate demand to speak to a supervisor.
Caller: “Virus? How could I have a virus?! I’ve got an anti-virus package on my computer and I’ve never had a problem before. I’ve got to get my computer running quickly, I told you – I’ve got a paper due today!”
Another jump in the caller’s vocal pacing and tone, her fear is rising. The stage is now set for a “Screamer” call. She doesn’t seem to know enough technically to realize that Joe’s comment about the virus is a “safe-exit” line for him, but she clearly doesn’t like the sound of it. Her confidence in him takes another hit. Will the fear turn to anger?
“Joe:” “What operating system are you using? Windows-98? ME? XP?”
With this query, Joe tries to recover from his misdirection and regain control over the conversation. Luckily for Joe, very luckily, he succeeded.
Caller: “I’m running ME. When I push the power button, it starts to boot and shows me the Windows screen but then it just sits there forever.”
The caller’s tone and speed slow down a bit. Joe has asked a question that she understands and that seems appropriate to her. He’s got another chance; what will he do with it?
“Joe:” “Can you boot up in Safe Mode?”
This is not a bad question, but Joe apparently doesn’t realize how close he came to a disaster and a demand to escalate. He’s still totally focused on the technical problem as best he can understand it, and is showing absolutely no interest or concern for the caller’s feelings.
I’ll cut out a couple of their comments here for brevity’s sake. The caller didn’t know what “Safe Mode” was, so Joe had to explain it to her. She was successful in getting her laptop to boot up via that method, and in using the disk repair utility afterwards to fix what turned out to be some corrupted disk sectors on her computer’s hard drive.
Caller: “Wow! It works! I can see my files.”
Relief is written all over the caller’s voice, both in tone and in pacing. She’ll be able to do her paper; the day has been saved, her fears have proved to be unfounded.
“Joe:” “That’s very good. You should make a backup copy of your files always.”
Joe’s voice shows relief as well, he’s gotten through another support call and found an answer that works.
Caller: “Yes, I know. I’ll do that after I finish my paper.”
“Joe:” “Thank you for calling. Goodbye.”
Although Joe managed to get the computer to boot, and was successful in using the disk repair utility to fix the corrupted sectors, he now makes another error in skipping one of the most significant phases of a call, the Wrap Up. While the customer’s fears have been relieved, her experience of the call is now all about the simple removal of those fears. She got lucky, and she knows it. Is she motivated to brag to her friends and associates about how well the people at XYZ computers took care of her? No, for Joe really didn’t take care of her, he just found a quick work-around for the immediate issue. The problem wasn’t fixed, and the caller will have no sense of an ongoing relationship with XYZ, for to them, she’s just a voice on the phone with a problem. When it comes time to buy a new laptop, or if a friend speaks of buying a new computer, will she remember Joe fondly and want to buy or to recommend another XYZ machine? Not likely.
What would have happened if Joe had not been able to find a way to get that computer to boot? He very probably would have had a Screamer on his hands, and the call would have been escalated at least once if not more, wasting even more time for all concerned and leaving a very bad impression on the customer. That experience would powerfully motivate her to make sure that everyone around her got to hear about how bad XYZ’s Support had been so that they would never buy anything from the company again. If the customer had been a blogger, or active on any of the online forums or newsgroups, the dissatisfaction might have negatively touched hundreds if not thousands of potential customers. All from a single, badly handled, phone call.
A Laundry List of Errors
Both Joe and XYZ’s Senior Management team are at fault in this scenario. What should have been done long before Joe ever reached for that phone?
Let’s start with Joe. Joe himself needs to realize that his heavy accent will affect how his customers relate to him and take appropriate action right from the start of every call to minimize the potential negative effects. Since callers are probably going to instantly assume that he’s foreign and that his name isn’t Joe, he needs to address that issue first. The immediate goal at the start of every conversation is to establish rapport with the customer and to get them to be comfortable with his accent. To do that, Joe needs to give his real name, and then quickly say something like “Most of my callers just call me ‘Joe.'” He should then go on to say: “if you have trouble with my accent, please tell me – I’ll be glad to repeat anything you’re not sure of” or something similar. The opening needs to be in Joe’s own phrasing so that he’s comfortable with it and can always deliver it smoothly. Such a beginning projects a sense of confidence that customers are looking for, and Joe should move ahead by asking the customer’s name and where they are calling from. Once he has the name and the location, Joe can nicely conclude the opening phase of the call by using the caller’s name back to them with a quick comment or question about the caller’s location. The last step is to signal the movement into the next phase, Information Gathering or Investigation, by asking: “And how can I help you today?”
As noted above, Joe’s control over the conversation was tenuous at best. He nearly lost it over the virus question, and the only thing that got him through the call was luck. He lacks technical expertise, but the more important issue is that he thinks his role is only Break/Fix. His operating mode is to take the call and get the customer off the line as quickly as possible. While the technical expertise will come in time, if he continues in the job, the lack of customer-handling skills is unlikely to improve without management intervention.
The Buck Stops Here
Management has several serious faults on their list. It’s readily apparent that the above conversation took place because Management chose to outsource the first level of the customer contact center to Bangalore. While this may have seemed necessary in order for the company to stay competitive, it does not excuse the error of putting an untrained and ill-prepared rep on the line with no thought for the possible effects on the customers.
Joe has no idea of what his role is beyond the answering of technical questions to the best of his limited ability. Senior management has failed to establish a connection between what goes on in the customer contact center and the overall corporate strategy for the profitable relationship with the customer base. The absence of that strategic profitability connection leaves the management of the center without any real basis for their operational metrics. How fast should calls be answered? What customer satisfaction levels should be maintained, and how should they be measured? What purposes is the canned script supposed to serve? What data should the center be gathering in its interactions, and where should it be sent?
The process of a customer support call begins long before anybody reaches for the phone. The call in the scenario above obviously did not know what to expect when Joe picked up the phone. Her expectation was that the support rep would instantly make her problem go away, and when Joe seemed to falter, the customer’s confidence in the company and the product instantly took a very substantial drop. Management’s failure to properly set those expectations in the mind of the customer and to make sure that the contact center was prepared to meet them set the center, and Joe, up to fail. As a result, they risked not only the loss of a customer, but the damage that a disgruntled customer might do to the reputation of the company and product in the form of word of mouth advertising.
The basic fault here is lack of planning and oversight throughout the process. Senior Management didn’t properly plan for how to handle the customers after the sale. Joe didn’t plan for how to handle his callers before the phone rang. And because Senior Management was not actively monitoring what was going on in the company’s customer contact center, these faults remained invisible to everyone but the customer.
Dollars and Sense
The cost of the call described above includes both the immediate costs for Joe and his center, and also the lost opportunity costs from the failure to perceive the call as anything more than a Break/Fix incident. The total is probably very minor, a few dollars. But when you multiply the cost of a call like that by hundreds or thousands, it doesn’t take long before you’re talking about Real Money.
Do you have a Joe working in your customer contact center? A whole team of Joes? Are you sure  of your answer?