12 ideas to make calling customer service less hellish

Satisfaction with customer service hasn't improved since 1976. With increasingly complicated, sensor-laden products, who do consumers call for help?

Two weeks ago, I had to do something that I don't really enjoy. No, not a visit to the dentist or cleaning the basement. I had to call customer service.

I called two companies. One call was for a malfunctioning computer and the other was regarding a cell phone plan. In each instance, I spoke with three different people. Both calls started off similarly, "Hi, my name is XYZ, how can I help you?"

For the computer company call, the first two customer service representatives could not address my question directly and directed me to a third representative. At each hand-off, the reps briefed each other on my problem so that I did not have to rehash my story. My problem was not solved but at the end of the phone conversation I thought that it was time well spent in finding a solution.

The experience with the cell phone company was quite different. After the first representative was unable to answer my question, I was transferred to another department. I was asked to state my name and question again. After a few minutes of discussion, I was transferred to another department. Again I was asked to state my name and problem. By then, the sound of my name was not very pleasant to my ears and I refused to comply. Things immediately went downhill and soon the conversation was over. I hung up with no answer and have since mentally blacklisted the company.

In each case, my problem was not addressed but my perceptions of the companies (not just the customer service) were vastly different. In the first case, I felt like a team of representatives was working together to help solve my problem. They were communicating with me and each other as if they are all together on the other side of the phone call. In the second case, I felt like a hot potato that was being tossed around. The people I spoke with had no prior idea of my problem, were simply following a script and were not in a position to simply say that they could not help me. I had to make that determination myself and terminate the call.

My experience does not appear to be an outlier. Fifty-seven percent of respondents of a Consumer Reports survey about their experiences with customer service centers report hanging up the phone without a resolution. A list of consumer complaints about customer service can be found here. All this while another study claims that consumer satisfaction is at the same level as it was in the 1970s. Fifty-six percent of respondents reported feeling like they walked away empty-handed after complaining to customer service.

It would be a dramatic improvement if companies made serious attempts to address less than half the customer complaints linked above. Still, here are some additional suggestions on how companies can improve on their customer service.

1. Drink your own champagne. Try experiencing your customer service yourself. Doing this may be the single biggest step towards improving your customer service.
2. Use interactive voice technology judiciously. If the system has not understood the customer the first time around, just try to connect the customer to a live person. People respond in different ways when an automated voice does not understand them. They usually start speaking loudly and slowly, which may work better with actual people but does not help automated speech recognition much. Try this out with Siri.
3. Provide the best possible estimates of waiting time. Most people don't mind waiting. It is the uncertainty that annoys most. If a five-minute wait time is actually going to be 10, let the person know. If possible, give them a choice to stay on the line, be called or sent a text when a customer representative is free. If a person calls within x seconds of receiving a text, they are immediately connected to a representative.
4. Manage hand-offs. When transferring a customer from representative to representative, the burden of carrying their information forward safely and accurately should be the company's responsibility, not the customer’s.
5. Make waiting a bit less boring if not enjoyable. For example, allow the customer to choose a genre of music, news or trivia while they wait for a customer representative.
6. Manage staffing levels better. I suspect the volume of calls regarding a product follows a bathtub pattern or some other predictable pattern. Plan ahead.
7. Look for events that help customer conversion. A pleasant experience during a stressful time is going to be remembered. For airlines, weather disruption is an excellent opportunity to drive away customers or cement their loyalty. Allowing customers to change their flights without paying the customary change fee is awesome but how about making sure that customers can reach a representative at this busy time?
8. Empower representatives. Customers can sense pretty quickly if the customer representative can actually help them. If not, the popular refrain is to ask to speak to a supervisor. Allow your front-line representatives freedom to help the customer. If you don't trust them with that level of responsibility, why are they your first responders? Consider Nordstrom, which has one rule for its employees: "Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules."
9. Teach customers how to complain. Create a series of videos for customers on the page where the customer service number is hidden to show how to get their point across efficiently. For example, where they can find the model number for a device, what the various components of a product are called, etc. Customers do not make it easy when they call in to say “My X is not working,” but from their point of view that is the only concern in the world right now. Help them see how you can help them.
10. Use shorter surveys. When following up with a customer for feedback, keep your survey short and quick. Identify the essential questions that help you assess your customer service and only ask those. Having somebody answer pages and pages of questions to collect fine-grain data will more often than not lead to incomplete data.
11. Offer better rewards for answering surveys. Instead of offering customers a one-in-5,000 chance to win an iPad for completing a survey consider offering a 1-in-50 chance to win $5. Better yet, let customers choose which offer they want to take.
12. Follow up. Instead of, or in addition to, sending a “how did we do” email”, call the customers whose issues were considered to be unusual or difficult and ask them if they still have any concerns or issues.

    Currently almost all of the issues with customer service are for singular products. This will likely change with the Internet of Things (IoT). Hubs and sensors for the IoT sold in stores today are generally made by the same company. However, as the number of IoT-enabled products (i.e. sensors) grows they are unlikely to come with their own hub and will be based on a particular platform.

    For example, what if my bathroom motion sensor fails to trigger my coffee maker in the morning? How do I diagnose this problem? Who do I call? The motion sensor company, the coffee maker company or the platform company? The morning coffee example is inane, but what if connected home-use medical devices fail to communicate? Which party will handle the problem? Addressing such issues will require manufacturers, designers and standards committees to work together to address these issues very early in the product life cycle.

    User-centered design and empathy are the start of any effective customer service experience. As products become more complicated, customer service is a critical component of what every company sells. Cheap, ineffective, robo-menu approaches to service are ultimately costly. Just ask my now former cell phone provider.

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