The Perfect Time to Reinvest in Process and People


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Companies that shirk customer experience during down economies do it at their own peril, providing ample reason for their customers to experiment with other providers and switch allegiances. Instead, this is precisely the right time for companies to reinvest in customer experience, cleansing their system of all “dumb contacts” and their underlying reasons and retraining all of their customer-facing employees to exhibit appropriate empathy, and to look for potential customer defection.

After all, these employees are probably also affected by the downturn, nervous about their futures, so if they feel neglected it will come across to the customers and most likely lead to their turnover once the economy rebounds.

Reduce Customer and Employee Stress

Let’s look at two steps that companies can take to reduce customer and employee stress during the down economy.

The first, big step to take is to eliminate “dumb contacts.” What are dumb contacts? Put simply, this is when customers contact the company for assistance but there is no value for them or for the company. For example:

  • Billing systems that present two amounts to pay on the statement, confusing customers who scratch their head and then pick up the phone, or send an email message, to ask “how much do you want me to pay?” Even if the company is using “autopay,” if the statement shows different amounts the customer will need to contact the company to find out how much was deducted from their account.
  • Online flight confirmations that don’t show all of the legs, or omit previously approved seat upgrades, frustrating the frequent flyer and/or perplexing the casual traveler who calls the reservations center to confirm their status, and this also intrudes on order-taking, a double whammy!

Over the past several years, we have examined closely the value of customer contacts into customer support centers and the results shocked us: 29% of the volume handled represents “dumb contacts,” ones that with some forethought and (oftentimes) simple re-engineering or program error checks can be completely eliminated. Imagine how this would reduce the stress for customers and the stress for the customer service agents who have to answer the phones or respond to email messages that are repeat requests for the same broken issues—plus, the cost savings are dramatic, much more so than seeking productivity improvements.

Eliminating Dumb Contacts

we have examined closely the value of customer contacts into customer support centers and the results shocked us: 29% of the volume handled represents “dumb contacts”

Companies can address dumb contacts using a simple four step process: (1) categorize all customer contacts based on their value or irritation to the company and to the customer, with the “irritant/irritant” group = “dumb contacts” to eliminate; (2) set up cross-functional teams to attack each and every “dumb contact,” if necessary applying root cause analysis; (3) report the reduced rate of “dumb contacts” on a “CPX” basis, or contacts per driver X where X = customers, orders, devices, etc; and (4) celebrate the reduced rate of “dumb contacts” inside the company and with customers alike. These and other approaches are described in more detail in my book The Best Service is No Service: How to Liberate Your Customers From Customer Service, Keep Them Happy and Control Costs (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, March 2008, with co-author David Jaffe).

The second step that companies can take, also a big one, is to retrain all customer-facing and –supporting employees to become more empathetic and to spot disaffected customers on the verge of switching. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal (“Toyota Keeps Idled Workers Busy Honing Their Skills,” October 13, 2008) confirms the value of investing in human resources during the down economy—in Toyota’s case it makes sense to prepare them for the inevitable upturn, and in all companies’ cases it makes sense to reassure worried workers so that they don’t leave. While it’s true that fewer employees and managers can afford to quit when there are fewer job opportunities, once the economy rebounds watch out!

Soft Skills Training

What sort of training do we mean? There are many courses now for “soft skills” and “negotiations” and “listening,” all aimed to shift the employees’ attention from problem-solving or sales to the holistic view of what’s happening with the customer. One of the classic products involves a harried woman calling her insurance company to ask if she could delay paying her next invoice—generally an open-and-shut case with the answer typically “no”—when the customer service agent heard a young child crying in the background. He asked the mother if that was a newborn and when the mom replied “yes, twins!” the agent noticed that the kids weren’t covered on her policy so he took time to add them and reassure the mother that she could pay later. The upshot? A delighted customer, maybe one for life, a happier agent since he could do something nice for the worried mom, and additional sales—even if it meant delaying payment for one period.

This retraining will pay other important dividends such as employee re-engagement (see again the Toyota article) and empowerment (see again the insurance example), and a less stressed workforce that sees management invest in them during the hard times.

Eliminate dumb contacts and train your most important resources during the down economy—two big steps to reduce customer and employee stress.

This article is part of “The Importance of the Customer Experience in a Down Economy” and is published here with permission of Customer Futures. In this free publication, eighteen international thought leaders make the case that a focus on the customer is not a fair weather endeavour, but rather an essential competitive strategy that is especially important in a down economy. Download from Research Library.

Bill Price

Bill Price is the President of Driva Solutions (a customer service and customer experience consultancy), an Advisor to Antuit, co-founded the LimeBridge Global Alliance, chairs the Global Operations Council, teaches at the University of Washington and Stanford MBA programs, and is the lead author of The Best Service is No Service and Your Customer Rules! Bill served as's first Global VP of Customer Service and held senior positions at MCI, ACP, and McKinsey. Bill graduated from Dartmouth (BA) and Stanford (MBA).


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