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The Cargo Cult of Business » Enraging Your Customers 101 - Phone Support

Enraging Your Customers 101 - Phone Support

Published on 23 Aug 2005 at 4:00 pm | No Comments | Trackback
Filed under The Cargo Cults of Business, Total Quality Madness, Service With A Smirk, Design, Interface, and Usability, Business and Corporation Related, Information Technology, Branding and Values, Public Relations and Marketing.

[My apologies for not getting this published on our usual Monday/Thursday article schedule. The vagaries of a consultant’s life…]


"Please listen carefully because our menus have changed…"

Chances are good that in those few words I’ve captured the entire point of my article. A recent survey conducted by Public Agenda  indicated that automated telephone systems in general are almost universally viewed as rude and obnoxious. For any company that claims in its marketing literature and annual reports to be "customer focussed", yet allows its primary face of direct customer contact to wear such a derisive sneer, is the blackest hypocrisy. As the Telegraph reports, this issue is a pervasive problem across multiple industry sectors.

Now, let me clarify first off that I’m hardly an authority on customer support best practices and call center quality control. For that, Cargo Cult has been graced with John’s extensive background in those areas. I’ll leave the specifics of call center disaster anatomy in his much more capable hands. However I am, like nearly all American consumers, a helpless victim in the face of the dehumanizing and contemptuous practices that dominate automated telephone response systems today.

Certainly, there is a substantive case for the judicious use of automation to facilitate better engagement with one’s customer base, as indicated in this eWeek article. Walgreen’s is a beatiful example of this with their online prescription order capability. No waiting, the system works flawlessly, and I’ve been told that I can hit zero at any time to speak to a pharmacist. Direct, elegant, and effective, Walgreens’ use of this technology gives customers a faster response and let’s the firm save money, a classic win-win.

In the penalty box, though, we have, well, the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems of just about everybody else. My opening quote is one of the most egregious sins that can be inflicted on us. For consumers who need to frequently engage with a firm (say, a healthcare provider, a financial institution, or a creditor) this is an outreach guaranteed to get the blood boiling and the temper up before the call even reaches a queue. Are the firm’s call center execs so inept at IVR policies that they can’t maintain the same menu items from one week to the next? Is it really that much trouble to give your customers– most of whom are calling you because they have already bought your products or services– the courtesy of giving them a little consistency for their trouble? I mean, think about it, a first time caller will need to listen to the whole menu. Anyone else is a repeat caller, and so deserves all the more courtesy.

Personally, however, my own nails-on-a-blackboard award goes to the hold queues that offer the expected white noise of "The Girl From Ipanema" or some other insipid Musak’ed tune- interrupted less than every 30 seconds by the other phone-rage inducing verbal sneer: "Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line and a representative will be with you shortly."

This is where we have to ask, don’t the so-called professionals setting the policy for these audio torture chambers ever have to use somebody else’s similarly nerve-grating system? Is this a case of some industry Kool-Aid being drunk that makes these people somehow enjoy the experience when they themselves are caught in one of these traps? Do they have some genetic defect that just allows them to ignore the pain and frustration? Surely it’s clear that such approaches communicate the very opposite of what is being said.

As long as I’ve got some sort of generic low-level "carrier wave" coming from the hold queue letting me know I haven’t been disconnected, I can get on with other work. But every time there is a break for an announcement, my heart leaps with expectation that I’m being transferred to a rep, and then seethes with irritation at being slapped in the ear with a pointless message that tells me nothing new. After 10 or 15 minutes of this audio water-torture, I’m seeing red and biting back torrents of abuse when a rep finally does answer. I truly pity the phone support personnel working behind such a brutal, anger-inducing front-end guaranteed to put customers in the worst possible mood.

On the other end of the spectrum, accolades are in order for those firms who give the expected hold times and number of customers ahead of me. This is the pinnacle of making the best of a difficult situation. By telling me whether I will be waiting half a minute or half an hour, they are actually empowering me to make an informed decision about whether I can afford to wait, or whether I should call back later when I have more time or the queue is shorter.In contrast, keeping me in the dark just increases my frustration at not knowing whether I should stay on the line because my call could be answered a second later. That’s great for reducing "abandon rates" for those companies whose call center reporting systems are not robustly constructed, as noted by Mark Ryan on his blog. But it does nothing for helping the customers who are supposed to be the firm’s primary focus.

None of this is rocket science; it’s all common-sense relationship management. What it takes to treat customers with courtesy and respect is not only not difficult to figure out, it’s good for business in every sense in which a firm could want to build positive brand equity. And yet, the use of rage-inducing business practices seems by every indicator to be on the rise. "We’re experiencing unusually high call volumes. Please call back later" is a "Sayyonara, sucker!" get lost snap that I hear all too often. And, thanks yet again to the power of Internet users in large numbers, customers are fighting back, as evidenced by this web site from Paul English which lists "bypass codes" for many of the larger corporate call centers, letting you get a live body on the line as quickly as possible. As I am oft want to say in tribute to the power the Internet has given us long-suffering little guys to throw light on reprehensible corporate practices, you can run but you can’t hide.

I’ve dealt here with those firms who actually bother to allow customers to reach them. It’s worth noting that there’s a whole contingent of blackguard firms out there who make every effort to discourage customer phone calls, in spite of the invaluable source of direct marketing and product data such calls provide. The favorite trick these days is to provide web sites with electronic-only contact information, and no phone numbers at all, toll-free or otherwise. I’m sure those firms are saving money in the short run by keeping their customers at bay. But such a deep strategic error will not go unpunished by the marketplace, and in the long run a firm with lower quality products and better customer support methods will be in a position to displace them.

In closing, I’d like to offer a classic-do’s and don’ts list, just on the offchance that there are companies out there who actually want to build a good customer relationship, but don’t realize just how badly they are screwing it up in the most critical area of telephone support:



Offer a short, intuitive top menu Change menus often or stall the customer with long introductory speeches
Provide decent hold music programming like classical or jazz, not bizarre world music, hard rock, or commercial radio Interrupt the hold status content more often than between musical pieces, which should be 3-5 minutes in length.
Announce the expected wait time statistics that are readily available from almost all call distribution systems Keep callers in the dark about how long they will be kept on hold. If opt-outs for long hold times cause problems for your statistics reporting systems, then change the systems, don’t penalize the customers.
Staff your call centers to maintain short hold times even during peak call volumes Ever, ever, ever disconnect a call because you’ve got a large call volume. Preventing this is what call distribution systems are for.
Make your phone numbers readily available to your customers to encourage them to reach out to you Obscure, hide, or make your telephone contact information difficult to find
Give your customers a sense of progress by moving them through multiple queues of higher and higher priority if the wait times will be long Leave customers stuck in a single queue if hold times will be over 15 minutes
Use a system that allows pre-emptive keying of numbers before menus have finished playing Force customers to listen to a whole menu or announcement before entering information
Always allow hitting zero to bypass the menu system and place the customer directly in a representative queue Prevent the customer from requesting a live representative in preference to the automated system.
Recognize that use of an automated phone system is inherently rude, and that you must work to ease this pain as much as possible for your customers Ever, ever, ever think that smooth, efficient, cost-effective operation of your call center is more important than giving your customers a positive experience in dealing with you.
-- Paul
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