A while back, I participated in a round of judging for a Customer Service and Support awards competition. It was both an honor to be asked to participate, and a real inspiration to read so many great stories of dedicated Customer centricity. I got a few good ideas from some of the stories that were told, and frankly the future does look bright for Customer Experience, if you know where to look.
That said, one thing I saw several times stood out to me and was a bit of a surprise. There were a number of submissions whose authors touted the brand’s having hired a number of new Customer Service or Support team members as evidence that they’re doing a bang-up job of CX.
I can appreciate that the effort to make sure Customers don’t have to wait long to interact with an agent is a noble thing to do. After all, nobody likes sitting on hold waiting for someone to pick up. More agents will likely mean, ceteris paribus, less waiting (and surely less waiting than if you had fewer agents). But is adding to your Customer Care center’s headcount really the big win you think it is?
Sure, if you’re adding tons of Customers to your rolls, you’ll likely need more support agents. That kind of stands to reason. But even so, only kind of.
You’ll recall the old Maytag commercials where the repairman laments (and sometimes enjoys) his lack of work, so dependable are their products? There are literally generations of commercials, the message having outlived many of the actors (one of whom, trivia fact, is a fraternity brother of mine) who’d portrayed the iconic character. There’s something to that.
On a couple of the award submissions, the author had listed not only the number of new support team members the organization had hired, but also the growth in their Customer base. That at least offers some color to the picture, but it still remains unsolved: How many more support team members are needed as you grow? As the denominator in the agents-to-Customers ratio gets larger, instinctually you want to keep up. But even when you grow is it necessarily good that you simply add proportionally to your support headcount as you go along? I’d argue not necessarily so.
While higher volumes of Customers mean more people with your product or partaking in your service, why should it lead directly to a greater need for support? If your systems and processes are built for growth, there’s no reason the increase in your Customer base should coincide in a strictly direct fashion with your growth in support personnel. In fact, growing support suggests that the need to fix your Customers’ issues is outpacing your projections.
Now, I don’t want anybody to get fired of course. But I didn’t come across any submission that identified efficiencies and improvements made to their company’s internal systems and processes that made Customer Care less necessary in the first place, freeing up members of that team to, say, transfer to the product division or move into sales or operations.
It’s not altogether snarky (because it’s mostly aspirational and fanciful at that) to suggest that good CX should drive CS out of business to some degree (which rests alongside the cliché that, a Customer Care call is evidence of a failure of CX, which while cliché, is cliché for a reason: It’s somewhat true). But frankly, I’d say that, absent more context, simply adding headcount to your Customer Support, Care, Success, or Service teams doesn’t necessarily demonstrate your dedication to Customer Experience…in many contexts, it may mean you’re doing it wrong!
Organizations are made up of only three things: money, capital assets and people. People are the most important because they manage money and capital assets.
In a totally different context, legendary film and stage actress Mae West, known for her double-meaning quotes, once said: “It’s not the men in my life that count, it’s the life in my men.” In other words, and translated for CX application, it’s support quality and proficiency that have value, rather than quantity of staff. Too many companies are falling into outmoded Theory X employee patterns when they determine that having more service representatives (often given narrow authority, which irritates and annoys customers) is superior to having better service representatives.
When service employees are well-trained, enabled, and empowered to proactively address and resolve customer issues, that’s the desired model. My paradigm example for doing this was MBNA Bank, where their company mantra for all employees was “Think of yourself as the customer.” Somewhat like Zappos today, service representatives were given both extensive training and wide latitude to work with customers. This produced high levels of customer loyalty, profitable business outcomes, and superior brand advocacy.
When I read Nicholas Zesler’s article, I felt like I had traveled back in time. Same words “evidence that they’re doing a bang-up job of CX = increased number of new Customer Service or Support team members” I have heard many times.
Once upon a time, C-level executives’ example to give importance to customer experience was: “We structured our organization according to customers. We created vice general managers as Retail, SME, Commercial and Corporate”.
Worse still, some commented on the “customer centricity of the bank” by looking number of words as “customers, sustainability, Internet, efficiency, mobile, social and digital” in bank’s annual report.
Increasing numbers of Customer Service workers may actually be the natural result of not delivering real value to the customer or even worsening, not improving the customer experience.
As you have pointed out, the efficacy of adding customer support staff depends on the intent and the business reasons. “We’re hiring” announcements from companies routinely brighten my LinkedIn feed. I suspect partly to solicit new talent, and partly to proselytize a company’s vitality. It’s possible that the companies you referenced mentioned their hiring activity without being reciprocally committed to promoting positive customer experiences – but in my experience, that’s rare. What’s unclear from your article is whether beyond augmenting staff, these companies implemented other strategies and tactics in pursuit of customer centricity. Regardless, I don’t believe the award candidates’ braggadocio constituted a foul, or signals any particular dysfunction.
There is clearly more to this story. Throwing bodies at a challenge is rarely a good long-term solution. Improving CX is complex and requires a systemwide strategy that includes a host of components, including leadership commitment and engagement, support systems, service standards metrics, targeted selection, effective training, feedback tools, inter-unit partnerships, etc. Headcount must reflect culture change requirements, not lead them,. What is winning the war in Ukraine, number of soldiers or battlefield tactics and support? Even though he is way outnumbered by Russia, we never hear President Zelenskyy ask for more soldiers!
I agree – adding headcount may be an indicator that a problem is getting worse not better. Why are people calling in the first place? Because they cannot solve their issue otherwise. Baseline measures across the customer journey is a way of knowing whether your CX enhancements and interventions are having an impact.
Unless your services and products are perfect, you are are always going to need customer support. Self service is only get you so far. So how many is enough. The right metric in my opinion is can your customers get the answers they need or the problem resolved in a time frame that is reasonable. If that’s one person or 10,000 depends on the complexity of your offering, how many failure points exist, how clear are your processes communicated to users, the presence or absence of other stakeholder dependencies, and how many customers do you have.
AMEX has figured this out. Tesla has not.
The point of this article is wonderful:
“I didn’t come across any submission that identified efficiencies and improvements made to their company’s internal systems and processes that made Customer Care less necessary in the first place, freeing up members of that team to, say, transfer to the product division or move into sales or operations.”
That paragraph should be in block quotes or featured in an image.
I stand with Nicholas Zeisler’s wise heads-up here.
Why? Most inquiries to Customer Service happen after a CX fail.
Hence, the importance of high competency and high efficiency is indeed great.
1. Customers’ quality of life is lower because of the need to request help: time on hold, frustration and negative feelings trying to figure it out, repetitive efforts in your IVR and verifications, etc. etc.
2. Your value proposition was not met when something they received was unclear or did not work: FAILED CX.
3. Your brand integrity is suffering: people did not get what they thought they were buying into in a straightforward way: FAILED brand promise.
4. Your churn is increasing: only a percentage of customers facing the same problem contact you, while the others defect to an alternative.
5. Your Marketing and Sales budget/effort must increase to make up for all of the above, shifting away precious budget from pure value creation
6. Your people are trouble-shooting: value-rescuing instead of value-creating. Free them up for more enjoyable work.
All readers: It’s 2023! Let us please quit equating Customer Service with Customer Experience. There is an experience within the service transaction, but the actual experience of customers is an end-to-end journey from the point that they decide they need to get something in their life or business until they deem that need to be extinct.
CS does not equal CX. CX is not a subset of CS. Remedial spending does not signify customer-centricity. It signifies sloppy management.
It is far better to focus on mining CS data to continually fine-tune the mindsets of every single work group in your ecosystem in accordance with customers’ expectations so that they PREVENT CX/CS issues.
That is our goal. That is how to minimize costs and maximize revenue and maximize relationship length and strength. (i.e. Customer Lifetime Value = company value) Every article I write is about this: I welcome your comments on them as well as this.
I got a good chuckle from Andrew Rudin’s comment, “We’re hiring” announcements from companies routinely brighten my LinkedIn feed. I suspect partly to solicit new talent, and partly to proselytize a company’s vitality.” I too suspect this to be true.
Thanks for making us think, Z! As someone working in a contact center, one metric I’m trying to watch closely is “customer contact rate.” In other words, what percentage of our total customers contact us on a monthly basis? My thinking is that if this can remain static or decrease as the company grows, we’re doing something right in CX — and hopefully, we slow the need to add more FTE to our contact center. As much as I wish self-service would close our contact center, I agree with Dave Fish that it only takes us so far. We need to continuously focus on our top call drivers and reduce or eliminate the need for customers to contact us. I also get excited when we can instead put members of our contact center in a position to proactively help customers in specific points in the customer journey!
I’d submit that, given the relatively low percentage of customers with issues who actually express them to suppliers – https://customerthink.com/customer_complaints_learn_the_real_value_of_getting_the_whole_picture/ – ‘customer contact rate’ may be a somewhat unreliable and unreadable service support metric. In fact, though it might appear somewhat counterintuitive, it is often better for organizations to encourage more, rather than less, issue-related contact.
I have at least three observations:
Our latest National Rage Study (Wall St Journal March 8, 23 – Customer Problems Hit a Record) found that the two biggest frustrations of those with problems is “being forced to listen to long messages” and “figuring out how or where to contact the company.” Companies are hiding the 800 number and having much longer queues. The customer then wants an explanation, assurance that it won’t happen again and an apology. The CSR usually can only give the apology. This leads to 43% of customers reporting they raised their voice to a CSR – many using not nice language.
The causes, noted in a number comments posted above are more complex products, very poor customer education and onboarding, lack of marketing transparency on limitations, finance skimping on CSRs – still viewed as a cost center, A continuous improvement process can mitigate many of these – Allstate and Aflac are two good examples. A rigorous analysis of the revenue and word of mouth impact of service, backed by good research, can convince even cynical CFOs and CMOs. See my previous post on appealing to greed to get the necessary resources.
Self-service has a place. I’ve written about how AARP has increased usages while maintaining record levels of member satisfaction.
The critical challenge is to make self-service effective with a very easy exit to human service with fully empowered CSRs using flexible solution spaces that provide the clear, believable explanation leaving the customer feeling treated fairly. See my upcoming post on empowering CSRs to say NO effectively. Should be out in a day or two.
Many on this comment thread are equating customer support with problem resolution. Granted, problem resolution is a generally a major task for customer support operations, there are many companies that provide customer support to deliver customer engagement. Case in point: As a vegetable gardener and woodworker, I routinely contact companies regarding the products I use – even when I am not experiencing product problems. There are financial services companies that augment staff around tax time because that’s when they experience an uptick in tax-related questions. Other examples are plentiful both in B2B and B2C. From Nicholas’s article, I can’t determine whether additional customer support hiring is emblematic of poor product design, out-of-control product defects, or something else – such as necessary action to provide good customer service and positive experience.
Thanks to Nicholas for a provocative post, and to everyone for thoughtful comments.
My take: Adding support staff COULD indicate a sincere interest in improving the SERVICE experience, at least in the short term. Service/support teams bear the brunt of problems elsewhere in the organization. So while those problem should be fixed to reduce the need for support, that takes time. Meanwhile, customers need help!
But it could be a costly “band aid” on more systemic problems, as Lynn and others have noted.
I also agree with Andy that service is not just about solving a problem. I have had some great service interactions via chat recently that had nothing to do with a failure or a complaint. I just had questions about how to best use a product, and the staff was very helpful, which increased my loyalty.
One of the major ongoing issues with customer support operations is that they, and the employees in that function, are too often passively considered and treated as necessary costs of doing business rather than key, contributory enterprise assets (https://customerthink.com/employee-advocates-their-role-as-committed-company-assets-active-communicators-and-key-contributors-to-stakeholder-value/).
And, whether this functional group is fielding customer queries/issues or addressing and resolving problems/complaints, to help optimize their value-producing effectiveness, I’d suggest that there are three priorities:
1) investment, in the form of training/mentoring and technology support
2) latitude, support, and empowerment to act on behalf of customers, and
3) evolving to a culture that is truly stakeholder-centric, where there is enterprise-wide focus on customer value delivery
Whenever customer service-related topics come up, I’m reminded of a famous quote by total quality icon W. Edwards Deming, who wisely said: “Every employee in the company has one of two jobs, to support the customer or to support someone who does. There are no other jobs.”
The problem I have with the original piece and this thread is that basically the same points could be raised with a few tweaks if the contest submissions cited CUTTING the size of their service and support teams. Absent specific context regarding increases/decreases in the customer base, the demand for service/support, service/support efficiency numbers, and customer experience with service and support it is impossible to make a prima facia case that more or less staff in these function is a sign of success or failure.
Perhaps their service/support functions were doing an absolutely abysmal job in the past because they were understaffed and these contestants were able to demonstrate to leadership that this was a critical failure adversely affecting business results? I don’t know if this is true . . . and I don’t know from the piece if this is not true . . . and my bet is that the contest submissions didn’t include this either.
Nicholas, I enjoyed this read. Frankly, I agree wholeheartedly with your final statement…”But frankly, I’d say that, absent more context, simply adding headcount to your Customer Support, Care, Success, or Service teams doesn’t necessarily demonstrate your dedication to Customer Experience…in many contexts, it may mean you’re doing it wrong!”…
I suggest that before adding the people, we look back upon the proverbial “3 legged stool…people, process and technology”. Often times fixes to processes and tuning to technology can go a long way in enhancing the CX experience and this can happen long before hiring and training are completed. Thank you for the read.
I go back to Chris Zane’s quote, something along the lines of “service is what happens when the experience breaks down.” I agree with Nicholas that good CX should reduce the need for CS. Good CX design includes removing waste, operational efficiencies, and process improvements – those things that support and facilitate the experience. So throwing more people (CS) at the issue (more calls to customer service) is not the answer. Fix the root of the problems – some of which may require more/different people (skills) – and your contact center volume should go down.
Great take on customer service, Nicholas, although I fear that some may misquote you (intentionally or otherwise) in an effort to solve the wrong problem – and simply switch their investment into non-human service channels.
We’ve been in a perfect storm for a while now. Technology growth continues at dizzying speed, creating endless learning curves on every front. The is combined with the inexplicable trend toward minimalism in product-use education ; the inexorable push toward self-serve, crowd-sourced solutions; an aging population and the limitless amount of misinformation available on social media.
You are absolutely right that the best investment an organization can make is to eliminate the root causes of the need for service. While they are working at that, their short-term investment should also include strategies to prevent their increasing service recovery situations from creating customer defections.
“To place an order or to ask questions, please press 1 for Customer Service.” – that was the outbound message I heard when I contacted Prairie Nursery (https://www.prairienursery.com/) this morning. Based on that anecdotal event, I’ll extrapolate and say that some businesses evidently don’t think of Customer Service as existing to primarily address product flaws, delivery problems, and quality mistakes. Rather, they regard Customer Service as a valuable liaison between themselves and their customers, and, done right, create a hard-to-replicate differentiator – not a cost to be crushed, or necessarily emblematic of things gone awry.
Perhaps an alternative approach in wrestling with the “Customer Service Headcount conundrum” is to envision new and effective ways to deploy it for competitive advantage.
BTW – my call to Prairie Nursery took about 12 minutes, and was both pleasant and informative. I’ll be placing another order within 30 days.
This statement is perfectly right for companies that need to be system and process driven : “If your systems and processes are built for growth, there’s no reason the increase in your Customer base should coincide in a strictly direct fashion with your growth in support personnel.” While I worked with Carrier Air Conditioners at Chennai, South India way back in between 1998-2005, we had a blue book that guided us with respect to customer support engineers at our dealer’s place. We used to audit them for adequacy – 1 service engineer + 1 technician for 200 TR (Tonnage of refrigeration) of air conditioning equipment that the particular dealer was maintaining under warranty or Annual Maintenance Contract. Anything short of that and “customer service” was in jeopardy. Thus in addition to the infrastructure, spare parts that dealers were supposed to maintain, this guideline for manpower also had to be religiously maintained.