Monday, May 19, 2014

One hundred eighty seconds

° 2001 United Press Syndicate.

I’d seen the interview scenario before: Two team leaders, neither of whom had the power to hire me, asking boilerplate questions that the real decision-maker would use to determine whether I would have a future with the company. This pair were almost twins, nearly identical down to facial features, except that one positively brightened in response to my warmth and self-effacing humor, while the other remained determinedly serious.

Smileyface asked the question I dread at these kinds of interviews: “What would your supervisors say are your greatest strength and greatest weakness?”

“Well,” I replied cautiously, “my greatest strength is my ability to build relationships with customers. The downside of my approach, however, is that it’s a little more time-intensive.”

Frowneyface, who had been silent up to that point, pounced. “Oh, you take too long?”

This is precisely why I dread that question. On the one hand, I’ve never felt comfortable shading the truth, let alone outright lying. Generally, people have a right to hear the truth and an obligation to tell the truth, leaving aside extreme cases and questions of national security. On the other hand, this interview setup is designed to find reasons to not hire candidates, and I’d just given one to Frowneyface.

To an accountant, the customer service department is an expense; to maximize efficiency, the cost per hour of a phone line must be divided out by as many calls as possible. The word queue is used very much in the British sense: behind the customer you’re talking to, other customers are tapping their feet, impatiently waiting to be served.

One hundred eighty seconds. Or less … preferably much less. That’s the average time you’re given to verify the customer, dope out the issue, resolve it, and get him/her off your line.

Of course some issues are going to be more time-consuming than others. In some industries, specialized tasks or issues that regularly require more time to research and resolve may be referred to a different group with different time standards. Otherwise, the accountant’s bet is that there will be more issues that take less than two minutes to resolve than there will be issues that require four or more minutes. The rest of the time saved is supposed to come from call control — the ability of the representative to keep the conversation focused on the issues.

For many customers, the emphasis on saving time is actually ideal. This customer doesn’t want to be on the phone with you any longer than she absolutely has to be, so the sooner the issue is resolved, the sooner she can get on with her life. The most she requires from the representative handling her call is that he be pleasant, attentive, knowledgeable and prompt; he doesn’t have to be a “chatty Cathy”.

But not all customers are New Yorkers who want you to “cut to the chase”. Many people require more from the person they’re talking to than simple problem-solving; they prefer a less formal, more interpersonal connection even in the simplest and most transient of human contacts. Then there are those for whom the issue represents just the latest in the series of irritants and frustrations that has comprised their day … or worse, their experience with the company and/or the product. (Especially if you’re the third, fourth or fifth person to whom they’ve spoken about the issue — hello, SPOC!)[*] And then, of course, there are those customers who seemingly can’t follow a straight line of thought, or who have to make a Homerian epic out of the explanation.

These people aren’t “time-wasters”. They’re your customers every bit as much as the people who want to get off the phone faster than you do.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for the maxim known as the “Law of the instrument” (aka “Maslow’s Hammer”): “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Because empiriometric science has been so successful at what it does, it’s given an unwarranted level of confidence to people who believe that everything can be turned into a science — that is, convertible into numbers, to be measured, understood and manipulated according to formulae.

Business is especially susceptible to this reductionist bent precisely because it’s driven by numbers, especially those that have currency symbols in front of them. Six Sigma, ISO 9000 and “lean enterprise” are all examples of attempts to make business less of an art and more of a method. Even specialists in recruiting and human resources can’t resist the drive to find metrics and approaches that can make hiring the best candidates less of a crapshoot.

The difficulty with such an approach is that it tends to write off what can’t be reduced to a number as unimportant, irrelevant or even unreal. The “Law of the hammer” describes a cognitive bias, professional deformation (aka “trained incapacity” or “occupational psychosis”), in which one’s view of a problem is limited by the perspective of his occupational specialty. If a hammer can’t fix it, the reductionist might say, it either can’t be fixed or doesn’t need fixing.

The “average customer” is a statistical construct, and statistical analysis is an imprecise, uncertain tool. (In fact, probability theory is our best clue that God has a sense of humor.) Individual people deviate from the mean in ways large and small. Customer service representatives don’t deal with “average customers”; they deal with individual people, each with their unique needs and expectations.

Too much emphasis on call handling time, whether you use a carrot or a stick, can drive the wrong behavior. Representatives become cold and detached, their “I’m sorry to hear that” flat and insincere. Their listening skills fall off; they start herding customers towards solutions that may or may not suit the real problems. They opt for quick fixes that don’t reach the underlying problem which creates the issue, virtually guaranteeing that it will recur.

And why should they search for the underlying issue? There’s no way to measure how many future calls you prevent by solving the real problem. Metrics can track escalations, but who tracks de-escalations, those calls where the representative soothes a raging, cursing customer and saves his/her business with the company? How do you measure business retained — the real goal of customer service? No ability to measure these things doesn’t make them irrelevant.

The customer service rep is the “voice” of the company to the customer, more so than any commercial or PR flack. So it behooves the company to have “voices” that are warm, friendly and engaging, who treat the customer as a friend to be helped rather than as a problem to make go away. As a recent ad for a credit card company puts it, the CSR should “treat you like you’d treat you”.

This means that, at some level, customer service will always be an art rather than a science. Metrics have their place. At the end of the day, though, to really listen to customers and get their feedback, businesses must be willing to invest all the time needed.

Even if it’s more than one hundred eighty seconds.

[*] SPOC = Single Point of Contact; pronounced “Spock”.