Get off the customer service hamster wheel

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Growing up, I had a hamster. Its cage included a hamster wheel. You know the type: a circular wheel held on a stand, and runged or ridged to allow the hamster to grab hold as they ran–and did my hamster love to run on it. Unfortunately, this was often in the middle of the night. (Which may have led to my decision to only ever have the one hamster.) While this was great exercise for the hamster, it never really got anywhere: just endless circles in place.

Society picked up on that. The term “hamster wheel” found it’s way into popular culture, defined as:

Any situation that seems to be endlessly without goal or achievement.

Dictionary.com

At times, addressing problems in customer service can seem a lot like being stuck on a hamster wheel. Customers call, email, or chat with agents about the same problems, day after day, with no end in sight. In the end, no progress is made, and it all begins again the next day.

How the wheel happens

Though perhaps natural for the hamster, we know customer service shouldn’t be a repeated cycle that never ends with no progress. This happens because the root cause–the underlying source of the problem that forced the customer to call, email, or chat–continues to exist after customer service provides a workaround.

That issue is typically as a result of an error, omission, or process that occurred somewhere outside customer service. Perhaps it’s a widespread billing issue caused by an error in finance. It might be confusing directions in the manual written by the documentation team. Or maybe incorrect order tracking information is being automatically emailed to customers by the shipping department.

In any one of those scenarios, it would be very easy for the customer service policy to be to treat issues without looking for that root cause. Customer service agents would address them–issue a credit, provide instructions, or look up a tracking number–and move on to the next customer, ignoring the point that a larger issue actually exists.

It spins and spins…

The first time agents respond to these scenarios, it might appear to them to be an isolated incident. Lacking proper case tracking, internal collaboration, and trend analysis, indicators of the issues being widespread would be missed and a proper triage and diagnosis would not occur. As a result, customer service agents are forced to respond to these same issues.

This over-and-over has a financial cost to the company. Agents are paid to address the same issue. Costs are also associated with service delivery, such as the telephone, email, and chat communications channels.

There’s an employee cost to consider, as well. Customer service agents can easily become bored or frustrated when they are forced to address the same issues day-after-day (or run on the hamster wheel). That sentiment might manifest itself in a poor attitude and tone as they serve customers. Ultimately, it could lead to departure, resulting in the loss of knowledge and talent.

… and tumbles over!

This brings us to an even greater cost at stake: the customer experience. Those suffering from the issue are impacted. When the root cause is not addressed, future customers will also encounter it. The volume of calls, emails, and chats on the same problem grows, and the wheel is now spinning out of control. Add to this other customers contacting customer service who might have a different question or problem but must wait to reach customer service due to the volume of calls, emails, and chats and the wheel becomes unsteady and falls over.

If it sounds like the stakes are high, it’s because they are. Companies today are competing to provide the best possible customer experience–from the products and services themselves to the service necessary when a problem crops up. What might seem like a minor yet recurring issue to a company is all it takes to create distrust, detractors, and a poor reputation.

The answer to avoiding the wheel

Preventing the hamster wheel starts by looking beyond customers and their questions and issues as isolated instances. Cases must be tracked and the reasons for customer contact categorized and monitored. By doing so, trends can be identified early on.

From there, customer service must engage with other internal teams–like finance, documentation, and shipping. Working together, recurrent customer issues are triaged to identify the underlying root cause. From there, a plan is made to permanently resolve it. Granted, some customers will have suffered from the issue prior to its identification and ultimate solution. However, by addressing the root cause, future customers will never encounter it.

Customer service practitioners know the cycle of customer problems can seem never-ending. As the business and its processes change, new issues will emerge that impact customers. But there is hope. When customer service works collaboratively with other departments to identify and address the root cause, issues are eliminated and the impact on customers and the business can be minimized and the hamster wheel effect is avoided.

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