Head Customer Frustration Off at the Pass to Avoid Online Showdowns


Poor customer service can lead people to do some crazy things, like virtually stalking a CEO. Instead of going through the usual customer service channels of company Web sites and/or call centers, many folks are taking matters into their own frustrated hands and seeking relief on blogs, online forums, Facebook, Twitter and other social channels. It puts some teeth into the threat of broadcasting your customer travails to everyone you know if that includes hundreds of followers on Twitter and a couple hundred more friends on Facebook.


That's exactly what happened to fellow IT Business Edge blogger Loraine Lawson, who after many hours on the phone with representatives of our local cable provider and a couple of fruitless visits by technicians, posted a comment on the CEO's blog. This after working her way through the ranks of service techs and asking for a free upgrade, which had resolved connectivity problems for several of her neighbors. She wrote:

He did offer, however, to keep sending techs until the problem is fixed. Of course, at this point, the techs ARE part of the problem. I'm not sure how one more helpless, clueless tech wanting to check my cable connection is going to help. I admit it: I blew my stack. I eventually hung up on Daniel. I have loved having Insight cable Internet, but I'm going to have to move to DSL because I can't endure such awful, ineffective customer service.

There, there, honey. We've all been there. I should note that Loraine was not alone in her connectivity issues. Most of her neighborhood was suffering through them as well, as can be seen by five pages of comments on an neighborhood forum. In taking her problems online, Loraine became part of a trend that inspired Salesforce.com earlier this week to announce it was adding the ability to monitor, search and respond directly to customer comments on Twitter via its Service Cloud, a tool that already offers similar capabilities for Facebook, LinkedIn, Google and other social media.


In my Salesforce post, I wrote that companies could lessen the need for this kind of a tool by simply providing better service through the traditional channels. After all, it's highly inefficient and expensive for companies to do whatever it takes to solve one-off problems like Loraine's. In her case, that involved dispatching a tech to her house to monitor her service for several hours late at night (after what was likely an involved trouble-shooting session somewhere up the line) and several days of solicitous follow-up calls to ensure the problem had been solved. By making it appear as if broadcasting problems through social channels is the only way to get them fixed, companies also tacitly encourage the behavior.


This brings me to a MyCustomer.com article from February that focuses on fostering a proactive problem-solving approach in call centers to cut down on the number of customer calls. Much like a good Web site, for example, if you can help customers answer their most common questions themselves (through clear and informative FAQs or other means), you can free up agents' time to deal with more complex issues like Loraine's. The article references a company called E_ that has achieved some pretty impressive results with such an approach. It now receives 61 percent fewer calls to its billing helpline, manual billing backlogs are 60 percent lower, and Direct Debit review queries have fallen 50 percent. And impressively, there's been an 80 percent increase in the number of customers who say they're more likely to stay with the company following a billing inquiry.


Taking this approach might get expensive, but it doesn't have to. The author suggests starting with creating an agent panel and/or administering agent surveys to identify a list of the most common customer calls. Then begin looking at the root causes or triggers for those calls. The advice: "Actively look for the problems that occur during the customer journey; talk to agents, departments or partners outside the contact center; work to develop options for routing that journey differently through policy, system or call handling process changes."


A surprising number of fixes may be relatively cheap and simple. For instance, if customers frequently complain about late deliveries, agents may need to begin telling them to expect delivery in four working days rather than two to three days. The author writes:

The critical component here is communication. Go back to the beginning of the customer journey and tell people what you intend to do differently. Rather than waiting for customers to call about their bill, for instance, alter the wording of the letter to create more clarity. Your customers won't ring you if they aren't confused about the bill in the first place.

As with any other process improvement initiative, don't forget the metrics. When you identify a problem and implement a fix, measure the number of customer contacts again before you further tweak the process. Getting some quick wins will help make the case for a broader improvement initiative.