“Please Enter Your Number. Please Enter Your Number”; Contact Technology Shouldn’t Be This Hard


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Here’s one of my favorite examples of the customer, technology and contact centers not being in sync. Customers kept calling my client’s toll-free number to find the closest store where they could buy the company’s hot new products. The voice response system prompted, “Please enter your five-digit ZIP code.” But after a pause, the system then said, “I’m sorry, can you please enter your five-digit ZIP code?” and the same thing happened.

It was like the movie, Groundhog Day, only not as funny because customers either hung up and shopped elsewhere (resulting in lost revenue, frustrated customers and probably negative word of mouth for the company) or they returned to the main menu, selected the option to speak to a customer support agent, waited to be connected and then asked the agent for the closest retail location (resulting in additional telecom costs, upset customers and far higher expenses) once the agent asked, “How can I help you?”

We brought this to my client’s attention, and there was a lot of head scratching about what was happening—until one of the IT guys piped up. He said, “We took down the store locator database last year because there were so many changes to make to it.” After a shocked silence, the marketing and customer service managers firmly told IT to restore the functionality and keep it going because, yes, there were a lot of changes in store, based on the fact that the company was going to double the number of outlets in the next year!

There was a lot of head scratching about what was happening—until one of the IT guys piped up.

It really shouldn’t be so difficult to bring the customer, technology and contact centers in sync, should it? Unfortunately the wild pace of business and balkanization of roles has increased the odds of them not being in sync. And unfortunately for increasingly unhappy customers, the odds are that they will encounter more disconnects because companies are now replacing older analog or early digital systems with IP-based solutions, engaging third-party hosted providers or using outsourcing firms to complete portions of their support.

Repeated repetition

Ever wonder why, after entering your account data into a voice response or IVR system, you need to repeat it to the contact center agent? This still happens a lot to me, so I always take a moment to tell the agent, “I just entered all of this into your system, so how often do customers have to repeat it to you?” Almost always I get the same answer: “It happens all the time, I’m sorry to tell you.”

Then I ask “Do you ever tell anyone about this?” to which I get this telling response: “They don’t want to hear about it, anymore. … They don’t do anything about it.”

The incriminated “they” might be IT or the agent’s own support organization, but the meaning is clear: Companies are not communicating about bad customer situations they know about, even when customers express frustration to the company. “They” are either too focused on bringing on board new systems (and are no longer interested in fixing stuff that doesn’t work: the age-old “build instead of repair” culture I see all over the place) or, worse yet, “they” are not willing to listen to feedback on what’s been delivered (the prima donna culture that I also encounter) or what could be delivered (the “I know best” culture). Yet if “they” took the time to listen, “they” might also discover that their company can save money and keep customers much more loyal by installing simple solutions or fixing what’s no longer working.

This is getting more difficult when third-party companies are involved in system development or support operations. Outsourcing firms often have their own preferred routing or CRM solution, and the company fails to integrate them with its own architecture; hosted firms might not have sufficient skills in computer-telephony integration that could obviate much of the need to re-enter customer data with a support agent. Tight budgets exacerbate this situation by limiting funding for systems or application integration or investing in what my old MCI colleague John Rushing calls EAI—enterprise architecture integration—which would capture much of these out-of-sync problems.

But key to making sure that customers, technology and contact centers are in sync is something very simple: communication. Getting IT, marketing/sales and support operations in the same room, on the same development teams and on the same email summaries and reports will, at the very least, ensure that everyone is aware of what’s going on. Now, if only “they” would pay attention, too!

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 Amazon.com'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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