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Starting over with customer service

I've been writing a lot about this topic lately and thinking about it more. I have a radical proposal for you, but it takes a few paragraphs, so I hope you'll bear with me.

Customer service is broken. Not just because of bad management, though we have plenty of that to go around. Customer service is broken for three reasons:

1. The internet has taught us to demand everything immediately (and perfect). As a result, we expect that every single time we pick up the phone or deal with someone in a retail setting, we'll be dealing with the Senior Vice President of Customer Satisfaction, the head of accounting and the chief of quality control, all at the same time. We expect instant results and undivided attention.

2. The rapid proliferation of choice has taught us to demand that everything should be cheap. As a result, we won't pay extra for superior service, which means companies need to hire cheap.

3. The availability of blogs and other public histories means that it is harder than ever to treat different customers differently. Word gets out.

As a result of these three inexorable trends, companies are on defense. They are forced to add a new layer to their pyramid, and yes, it's on the bottom. This layer consists of lots and lots of people, the cheapest the company can find. These folks are ill-trained, poorly supported and under lots of pressure. There is a lot of turnover (what a surprise) and most are working with nothing more than a simple manual and a lot of metrics.

No wonder customer service is so bad.

Well, one path is to yell louder at the companies, who will yell louder at their staffs.

Another path is to blow it up and start over.

I think the single factor that is killing this process and that is under the company's control is this: the desire to perform all customer service in real time.

In fact, most customer service can be done quite well overnight. You don't like your cell phone bill? (I get a lot of mail about this one). If you knew it was going to be handled properly, you'd have no trouble waiting a few days. Your airline ticket from a trip last week was messed up? Same thing.

Given the choice between amazing, guaranteed service with a one day wait or interminable waits on hold with people who can't really help you right now... well, the choice is pretty easy.

Imagine what happens when we take advantage of the asynchronous nature of this sort of support.

There's still a cadre of people answering the phone, but they are trained to do exactly two things. 1. Make it really clear to the caller that there is a problem, that the caller deserves great service and that things will be dealt with, and 2. Get every single relevant piece of information.

This isn't hard to train for. But yes, it needs and deserves training.

Now, the problem goes into a system (good news on this in a moment). And the problem works its way up the pyramid. Each person who touches it either takes responsibility for solving it thoroughly and completely or passes it up the heirarchy. Any problem not solved within 20 hours goes to some senior level executive who gets it solved or gets fired. (I'm serious).

At the end of the month, there's an easy trail to follow. You can see who solved how many problems. You can see who is passing the buck when they should be grabbing it. You can identify the delighted customers and what delighted them.

And because it turns out to be far more efficient, it's actually cheaper. Which means companies can put better staff on the problems and pull even farther ahead of their competition.

As I see it, there are three things that have to happen for this to work.

1. The frontline staff have to be really good at making this program clear and at gathering the data. They ought to offer the caller a realtime option, but only when it's clear that this offers a significant benefit to the caller.

2. There needs to be cheap and effective software that lets someone start using this without a lot of custom programming. I've found one alternative,(even though they don't actually market it for this use) and I bet there are others. It really works. It's not like me to recommend a commercial product specifically like this, but I'm talking about Fogbugz because I think they've accidentally revolutionized a huge piece of management. What the software does is allow exactly one person at a time to 'own' a piece of a project, a bug, an issue. That person either solves it or pass it off. And the entire process is tracked and timestamped and tickled, so absolutely nothing is permitted to languish.

3. The company can't use the diminished pressure that asynchronous support delivers as a copout to do less. Instead, they have to use it as an opportunity to be overwhelmingly spectacular. Use the money they save to potlach their customers.

If you try it, let me know how it's working for you.

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