Why customer service sucks, and 6 steps to improve it


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Why does customer service suck so badly? If proclaiming “Customer Service Is Vital to Business Success!” was all it took, we’d all be receiving amazing service daily. But we’re not.

Is it that people who work in customer service are lazy? That they just don’t care? Or have repeated telephone cord near-strangulations damaged some critical part of their brain? Perhaps.

Customer service sucks because companies create terrible environments for their customer service teams.

Some call centre employees are forced to use fake anglo names, others work from rigid scripts, some have timed toilet breaks. Should we be surprised that people treated in this way don’t always produce exceptional service?

“But my company is not like that!” you exclaim, “We have table tennis and casual Friday and hilarious desk signs! Our team have very generous toilet time allotted, with rollover minutes!” All of this is no doubt true. But if we look more deeply, the reality of typical customer service roles is clear.

6 Common Customer Service Team Challenges

  • Very little control over the incoming workload—they can’t reduce the number of tickets because that is caused by the decisions of the marketplace, of other teams in their company or sometimes just the phase of the moon.
  • Little influence over what tools they use.
  • Minimal decision making authority.
  • No clear connection to the company’s overall vision and goals.
  • Limited interaction with, and respect from, the rest of the company.
  • Ill-defined or non-existent career paths.

Recently I read three books that all cover the areas of motivation and job satisfaction. Each author lays out their three core principles, and the crossover is obvious:

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
Cal Newport lists the essential elements for career success as autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.
Dan Pink’s three elements of motivation are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The Truth About Employee Engagement by Patrick Lencioni
Pat Lencioni reveals the three ‘miserable job’ warning signs to be irrelevance, immeasurability and anonymity.

Autonomy—having options and choices. Competence, Mastery—a sense of measurable skill and progress. Relevance, Purpose, Relatedness—a desire to be known and to be connected to a larger meaning.

The message could not be clearer: You cannot expect exceptional performance from employees who are not having their needs met. Many companies try to replace autonomy with a very clear script – you say these words because we have determined they will get an acceptable result to us at a known cost.

That is a system that “works” as long as you have new people to pour into the top of the funnel, as the older ones are scraped out of the grinder at the bottom. The best employees (and the ones who have options) will leave quickly for more satisfying work. The outcomes of such a system are predictable; we’ve all experienced “systematized” service from such companies. Acceptable at best, rarely better and often much worse.

If you want to create that sort of system, you can just buy it from any number of outsourcing consultancies. Is it possible to create a different type of service organisation, though? One that is sustainable and profitable, and satisfying for the employees?

I believe it is, though not without ongoing effort and investment throughout the business.

Creating an environment that produces exceptional service
Great service comes from engaged, competent, motivated teams, and can be a truly hard-to-replicate advantage in a crowded market. Here are some ways you can create that environment for your customer service team, and reap business-wide benefits.

  1. Involve your customer team in product decisions: they can use their unique customer knowledge to powerfully shape your product.
  2. Give the team authority: let your agents decide what action is appropriate in any given situation (and give them training and support to make the right call).
  3. Provide clarity of purpose: make sure your whole company understands why customer service matters, and act accordingly.
  4. Put some money on the line: Invest in staffing so you create enough space and capacity to allow your team to provide exceptional service. Check out the 2017 Customer Support Salary Study for some insight into how support teams are paid.
  5. Watch your metrics: If you only measure speed of reply and speed of resolution, then that is what will take priority. If you want people to focus on building lifetime value, loyalty and deeper understanding of your customers, measure that too.
  6. Create service diplomats: give you customer service team a role as emissaries to the rest of the company, sharing customer knowledge and bringing back product and company knowledge to the front lines.

Every company will tell you customer service is important, but talk is cheap. Building an environment that grows great service naturally is not cheap, but it pays off for years.

What level of customer service is your environment producing?

Mathew Patterson
During his early career in web design, Mathew realized the power of customer service to build stronger relationships, improve results and create great experiences. After 9 years building a service organization for email marketing app Campaign Monitor, Mathew joined the Help Scout team as customer service evangelist, preaching the good word on customer service and contributing to Help Scout's range of customer service tools.


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