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Don't our customer service heroes deserve better?

26th Nov 2015
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“Well, why the *&^(%$ is your system so *&^&&^ing slow?”

That was pretty much the customer’s opening line.  And the call got worse from there.  “It’s always like this,” said Charlotte.  “Every time we send out a price rise email we get hit.”  Charlotte had had enough already and it was only 9.15am.  A bright, enthusiastic graduate, she confessed later over a coffee that she simply couldn’t carry on doing the job she’d fought so hard to get.  “It’s just the constant rudeness and aggression,” she explained.  

Yes, everyone has a bad day now and then and we can all make allowances.  But slowly, over the last few years, the norm for customer behaviour has become worse. Call centre teams need protection from - and help to deal with - those customers who now make a regular case of being over-demanding, unpleasant and unreasonable.

Don’t the unsung heroes deserve recognition?

Customer services teams take a lot of flak.  They’re always in the front line.  They’re the ones customers turn to when there’s a problem - and they fix them - often for no thanks, or worse.  They’re working when everyone else is in the pub or on holiday.  We need to acknowledge that, actually, they’re proper heroes.  That means customers need to realise - and where necessary be told -  that they aren’t verbal punchbags.

We also need to acknowledge that it can’t go on like this.  We need better customers - or at least, ways to make customers realise they can’t go on speaking to other human beings like this.

What’s the damage costing?

The cost is too great to ignore it for much longer.  For a start, there is a clear argument from basic humanity.  It is simply unacceptable to treat other human beings like punchbags because of the job they do.  But there’s a sound business case too.  With call centres losing 22% of their staff in 2014 at a cost of £7.5k in addition to their salary to replace each team member, we can’t afford to go on like this.  That’s £165,000 wasted every year in a 100 seat call centre.

Can you really train customer behaviour?

I believe so: customers are human after all.  Researching this article, I heard about a rude and frequent (vexatious) complainer who finally hit the stops when their complaints reached the CEO's desk.  The CEO locked, loaded and told them that, given the regularity and nature of the complaints, it was probably wrong to offer them a service with which they were so obviously unhappy.  The result?  When the customer later had very genuine cause for complaint, they were polite, respectful and grateful when the issue was quickly fixed.

And that’s why call centre teams need to have top cover from their managers - and boards if necessary - to be able to say ‘No, I’m afraid you’re being rude, Mr Customer.  We can't work together like this, so I’m ending the call.” Yes, the customer will call back, probably more incandescent, but if managers consistently explain that they won’t be looked after until they’re civil, they’ll have to learn.

Let teams use their superpowers to do their jobs

But none of this is any use unless we empower customer-facing teams and treat them like they matter.  “Empowerment” is an overused word - so what does it really mean?  It’s about giving teams the power they need to get the job done.  First, look at the rulebook in your callcentre.  Ask the team which rules are useful and which get in the way of doing a great job.  Then rip up the rules that get in the way and ideally replace them with principles as Ritz Carlton does. The process of doing this is, in itself, a powerful way to increase engagement and empowerment.

Let them sound human

What about scripts and standard paragraphs?  Yes, they have a use and a place, but not as the default. They have a nasty habit of turning the team into a bunch of automatons who simply recite lines without engaging.  Talk to your compliance team - what are the key points you must tell a customer?  Do those points have to be delivered in the same (often Robocoppy) words, or can you still be compliant by helping customers understand the spirit of the words?  It’s a thorny area, but making the team sound like human beings on the phone is a great way to help customers treat them like humans.

Taking ownership

How far can you let agents take ownership of an issue from start to finish?  If other departments are involved, it’s worth putting together a focus group with one person from each department to be responsible for customer experience.  Meet regularly, talk and iron out the problems.  It’s amazing how often other departments won’t even realise there’s a problem and will be eager to fix it.

They know what's really going on - so listen

Then there’s listening.   How far does the business listen to customer-facing teams?  It’s daft not to.  They’re probably THE best source of management information in the business.  After all, they’re where customers come first when there’s a problem.  So they know the issues with your products, with service and what irritates customers about your processes.  Ask them - and listen to and act on the answers.  It shows the team that they matter in a very practical way.

All this is about rebalancing the relationship between the customer and the agent - and between the agent and the business.  It's a message that's coming through clearly from the teams we work with and no matter what, we need to do something.  Not only is the current way of working broken for both agents and customers, but the industry’s lost enough good people.  

Don’t our customer heroes deserve better?

Mark McArthur-Christie

Rubuss helps you build better customer relationships by transforming customer communication, improving customer experiences and by empowering customer service teams through training.

November 2015

With many thanks to Lucy Auchincloss and Colette Porter for their help researching, advice and editing this article.

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