A Little Help, Please, for Customer Service Reps

Ann All

Remember in the movie "Jerry Maguire" when the Tom Cruise sports agent character begs Cuba Gooding Jr.'s athlete character to "Help me help you." I imagine that's the way many contact center agents and others on the front lines of customer service feel about their relationships with their employers.


Earlier this month I cited results of a recent ContactBabel survey that seemed to indicate most customer service representatives genuinely want to help you but can't because underlying technologies and processes don't offer them enough support -- and in some cases, make it more difficult to solve customer problems.


Similarly, marketers surveyed last summer by the Chief Marketing Officer Council and the Customer Experience Board faulted "deficiencies in IT, back office or operational systems that subvert marketing claims and fail to meet customer demands and expectations." The CMOs knocked IT for data scattered across organizations in multiple silos and "inadequate or incompatible IT systems or databases." These shortcomings contributed to unmet needs and expectations, cited by 59 percent of CMOs as customers' biggest pain point.


Even companies that integrate their systems to give agents a fuller view of customer data don't always empower agents to actually help customers. As Strativity Group founder Lior Arussy told me when I interviewed him in July, just 39 percent of respondents to a Strativity Group survey said their employees had the tools and authority to solve customer problems. He said:


That is a shocking statement. Basically 61 percent of employees show up to work and the best thing they have to offer customers is their smile.


As Arussy noted, with self-service channels (like the Internet), companies are, in essence, outsourcing Tier 1 support to their customers. So, he said:


... When they seek human interaction, they are looking for somebody who can break the rules or think outside the box for them. They want somebody with the authority to get the job done. If you outsource Tier 1 to the customer, they want you to be ready with Tier 2 when they need help.


The combination of inadequate technology and lack of authority makes for frustrated customer service employees and contributes to the costly attrition problem experienced by so many call centers. Adding even more to their frustration, writes The Clemmer Group's Jim Clemmer, author of several books including "Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Performance," are band-aid approaches such as "smile training." (Ick. Really?) He writes:


An airline manager attempted to address the problem of declining customer satisfaction by issuing a directive urging staff to smile and be nicer to passengers. A flight attendant's response showed how that manager just didn't get it: "We're smiling in spite of the fact that we're doing our job one, two or three flight attendants short, with equipment that often doesn't work properly and with a product that has deteriorated."


This simply won't fly (sorry for the bad pun) when it's front-line employees' willingness to go beyond the minimum of what is required of them that keeps customers coming back and may even spur them to tell others about their great experiences. Smart companies create what Klemmer calls a "culture of commitment, where front line people reflect to the outside the intense pride and ownership they are experiencing on the inside." Klemmer includes some bullet points illustrating the connections between internal and external service and wraps by writing:


A company's external customer service is only as strong as the company's internal leadership, and the culture of commitment that this leadership creates. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, our service or brand promise can't fool all of our customers all of the time. If the service messages are out of step with what's ultimately experienced by customers, marketing dollars are wasted. And customer dissatisfaction rises right along with staff turnover.


As I wrote earlier this month, companies need to start thinking about customer service as a differentiator that can set them apart from their competition. A couple of caveats, though: Master the basics of good customer service before trying to move to the next level, and don't promote service capabilities to your customers if you can't back them up.

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