How to succeed in customer service

By Felix Salmon
April 17, 2009

Equity Private was moving some boxes recently, and found her notes from an interview with a super-smart customer-service manager. This is wonderful stuff, and should be disseminated as widely as possible: I can’t imagine why anybody would want to keep it quiet.

We found that if our Tier II and Tier III customer service professionals followed a pattern of methodically listening to the customer, asking smart questions about their experience, then taking responsibility for the issue and following up religiously and immediately with the customer we quadrupled our post incident satisfaction figures.

For a while we fired almost on the spot anyone who we caught uttering words to the effect that the problem was “not my department, Sir.” We did away with canned lines like “I’m sorry you are having difficulty,” that sometimes were repeated four or five times in a customer interaction because some former manager had written it down on a “customer interaction guide-sheet.” We threw that sheet away and that immediately changed the dynamic. Our agents had to listen more carefully. Also, we fired a lot of agents who couldn’t work without the guide-sheet. That worked wonderfully, actually.

We made our agents ask the customer how they best would like to have things resolved. What could we do to fix matters? On reviewing some of the tapes early on after that change, there were long pauses, five, even ten seconds, I thought were recording errors. I even had our vendor check the equipment. Those were, in fact, shocked customers trying to absorb what the trick was to what they had just been asked. No one had ever done that before. We also found that we gave out far fewer refunds and almost no refunds for ‘irredeemable’ incidents this way.

The two elements here, information flow to and from the customer and giving the customer some agency in the process, defuse the vast majority of incidents quickly and with high satisfaction scores. When we biased the response more to the information side for female customers and to the agency side for male customers we boosted our scores in both groups another 10-15%. You’re not writing this down are you?

I don’t have a problem with giving more information to women and more empowerment to men. People like what makes them happy, and if it works, great. I’ve certainly noticed from the other side of things that when my wife is on the phone to customer service, she always gives a pretty long version of the story, even if it’s not particularly germane to what she’s asking for: I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that extra context and information is simply more valuable to women than it is to men. Similarly with haircuts: women often like it when their haircut takes a long time and they’re fussed over, while in my experience men generally consider that, ceteris paribus, a quicker haircut is always superior.

It’s simply human, though, to highly appreciate any customer-service agent who listens to what you’re saying, follows up with you, and takes ownership of the problem. It’s entirely intuitive that such behavior would result in much higher customer-satisfaction ratings than rote apologies and by-the-book responses. But the problem, I reckon, is finding reasonably intelligent staff who are capable of doing this — and reasonably intelligent managers who will empower, rather than micromanage, those staff.

Dare I hope that the combination of rising white-collar unemployment and increased adoption of telecommuting technology will have a salutary effect on customer-service operations? I’m not holding my breath, but it would truly make the world a better place.

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