How Many Angry Customers Are You Creating at $15 Each?

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John Burton, a Director of Product Management on the CRM Team at SAP, posted an article yesterday entitled “Uh, Oh! Call Center Reps Gone Wild!

In it, John writes rather colorfully about the apparent lack of balance in many organizations between efforts to create great customer experiences, on the one hand, and enforcement of corporate policies and procedures, on the other. Unfortunately, call center agents and other front-line employees are often caught unnecessarily in the middle of these sometimes-competing forces.

What is even more unfortunate I think, and I believe it is safe for me to suggest that John would agree, is that it doesn’t need to be this way.



The Customer Contact Council, a division of the Corporate Executive Board Company, a global leader in research on loyalty in the service channel, issued a research study two years ago supporting the proposition that the most valuable action a company can take to boost customer loyalty is to reduce the amount of effort the customer is required to expend in connection with the interaction. Matthew Dixon, Karen Freeman and Nicholas Toman have written about this research succinctly in the article “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” published in the Harvard Business Review.

The research is compelling – more than any other factor, lowering customer effort creates loyal customers.

Reading John’s blog post and recalling the low-effort research reminds me of an actual example of how all of this plays out in the real world of companies, call centers and customer experience.

Angry-Customer-Argument-Call-Center-Rep

One of our clients had implemented a $15 mail-in-rebate for one of its popular product lines. The price point for the product is approximately $175. In order to receive the rebate, the customer must cut the UPC code off the product box and send it in along with the rebate paperwork.

Just two small problems. First, the box contains three separate bar codes. As you might expect, a meaningful number of customers send in a bar code other than the one required by the company. Second, not all of the purchasers of the product save the product box. So, these customers send in all of the required materials except for a bar code of any kind.

Company policy for mail-in-rebate programs dictates that rebates are not to be processed for any customer failing to submit all of the required materials. Period. No exceptions.

Call center agents field dozens of calls every day from angry customers inquiring about the status of their rebates: “I sent the stuff in six weeks ago! Where’s my $15?”

Angry-Customers-Call-CenterImagine the call center air filled with these kinds of customer loyalty-inducing responses to that question:

  • “I’m sorry, sir, in order for us to send out the rebate, you have to submit the UPC code. There’s simply nothing I can do about this.”
  • “Oh, you didn’t save the box, ma’am? Gee, I really do apologize, but our policy requires that you send in the UPC code.”
  • “I really wish that I could get that $15 to you, sir, but unfortunately my hands are tied.”


As we conducted due diligence interviews with groups of call center agents to learn more about their challenges, frustrations and ideas, it became clear that policies like this one were often making it difficult, if not impossible, for the agents to do what their supervisors, managers and company executives were asking them to do; namely, create a great customer service experiences.

So we asked the company’s management a relatively simple question about the bar code policy, something along the lines of “Why in the world are you doing this?

Actually, I believe we were a bit more tactful, but that was the essence of the question.

After some informal investigation, company management reported back to us that the mail-in rebate policy apparently had been implemented at the behest of one of the company’s finance executives about ten years ago. This particular executive had long since left the company, but the policy had survived for a reason or reasons that current management could not readily explain.

Angry-Customer-Call-Center

Within 24 hours, the company announced to call center personnel that the rebate policy had been modified such that call center agents would have immediate and full authority to waive the UPC code requirement based on the information they gathered during their conversations with the customers and their own assessment of what was in the company’s best long-term interest. A reassessment of the entire rebate process would also be undertaken in an effort to simplify and streamline the rebate process for the customer.

Whether you’re a customer, a call center agent or the company, what is there not to celebrate about this outcome?

While call center agent behavior certainly plays a central role in any strategy to reduce customer effort, companies can help their agents (and themselves) by taking a good hard look at any company or call center systems, processes, rules or policies designed primarily for the company’s or call center’s benefit and making modifications necessary to put the customer in the center of the interaction, not the company or the call center.

What kinds of systems, processes, rules or policies are in place at your company or call center that you suspect or even know create angry customers for no good business reason?

Are systems, processes, rules or policies handcuffing your call center agents and impeding their ability to provide a low-effort solution for your customers?



If so, are you doing anything about it?

Remove obstacles for your call agent agents, and they will do the same for your customers.

4 COMMENTS

  1. As a long-time business analyst, one of the core questions I have learned to ask on any project is “Why do we do it this way?” I find that the majority of the time, we don’t have a compelling business reason to justify it. Often it’s legacy policy, prior studies/leaders suggested it, or just plain ole’ “that’s the way it’s always been done.”

    If more of us who are in positions to provide information and insight (not just data) to our company leaders would be willing to simply ask “why” more often, we could save our customers, and by association our agents, significant effort. We CAN reduce customer churn due to thoughtless pokes-in-the-eye.

    BTW, we loved the CCC study about Customer Loyalty and, even 2 years later, think they are right on the money about effort being the linchpin, not satisfaction or exceptional agent interactions. So far our internal studies have validated it but it’s an uphill battle to convert leaders. Keep spreading the word!

  2. Thank you Lisa, and it’s great to hear that you’re “fighting the fight” for the benefit of your customers.

    Curious as to how you handle those uphill battles with leadership. If you have a moment, I’d love to hear about what do you do when you encounter obstacles, brick walls, etc.?

    In any event, thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

    Scott

  3. Thanks for asking Scott. Over time, I’ve learned that the direct approach is not always the best when trying to persuade leadership.

    Fortunately for us, our leaders know they have a weak spot in knowledge of the customer experience. They know it’s important, but it’s so much easier to measure handle time and number of calls. Customer experience is often pushed to the back burner in pursuit of “better numbers.” Our Finance dept does a great job of keeping the cost of those metrics in the forefront.

    I am blessed to work in our CS Quality department. My job is to be an advocate for our customers and by proxy, our agents. I have learned that to do that effectively, I have to balance the needs of the business (topmost in leaders minds) with the needs of the customer, or no one listens.
    During the past couple of years I have been consistently incorporating two main ideas in all of my projects: the COST of customer effort, and the agent experience.

    In 2008 I was part of a project team that developed and implemented a customer callback measure that we use as our primary gauge of customer effort (based in part on 2007 CCC research around Resolution). We were extremely fortunate to have a VP at that time who recognized the value of knowing callback rates and who advocated for it as a key company metric. While I know callback rate isn’t all their is to customer effort, for us it’s a great place to start.

    I include that measure in every project we produce, even if it is not a part of the project business case. Additionally, I hold agent focus groups for EVERY project. The voice of our customer-facing employees has a significant impact on our leaders when presented in the context of a topic they are already interested in. Sometimes I even throw in a 2-minute call snippet so they can HEAR it as it truly happened. When they can see/hear the two together along with the cost to the business for doing it “the way we’ve always done it,” it’s easier for them to make a decision to change a process as a win-win for all.

    Although there are plenty of times this approach doesn’t work as effectively as I’d like, in the last 4 years our department has gained a rock-solid reputation for putting together analysis that presents a balanced business/customer experience. As we speak, I have 3 projects in queue – our leaders know they need to hear what we give them about customer effort because they can’t get it anywhere else.

    Bottom line? Dollars talk. By incorporating “the cost of customer callbacks is…” I am speaking their language. THEN I fold customer effort and the agent experience around the cost conversation because I have their attention.

  4. This is really insightful, Lisa. Thanks for taking the time to share your approach. Sometimes middle management has to spend so much time and effort fighting the internal battles, it's a wonder there's enough energy left to implement the initiatives themselves.

    Love the idea of inserting call snippets so leadership can hear with their own ears what's happening on the front lines – a touch of "undercover boss” is a great way to demonstrate the ground truth and build support for projects.

    Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

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