Commentors Point / Counterpoint: Attitude Relevance in Good Customer Service

In response to a recent post in which we posited that a customer’s attitude when dealing with a CSR was important when trying to guarantee good service from the pallid, hateful peons of your local call service center, our comments section experienced a flurry of seven responses, arguing whether or not it made a lick of difference. Here’s a couple of the more interesting ones.

First, reader junyo takes us to task for our pie-in-the-sky idiocy. Well, after the jump, at any rate.

I used to work phone support, which isn’t pure customer service but the same concept, and honestly the biggest factor was management attitude. You’re going to get pretty much the same quality of work regardless, so honestly if being “politely unyielding” makes you feel better, go for it, but there’s what I can do and what I can’t. The only real differences are whether I smile when I’m talking to you and how much impromptu quality control I’m willing to exercise over the people that I’m going to transfer you to.

When we had management that had a “determine root cause, do it quickly but actually solve the customer’s problem” attitude we provided a very high level of customer service. You might wait a little longer on hold, but if I felt it needed it (if you had already called once or twice w/o a resolution) I had the authority to ride a call through all the different layers needed to make sure the current customer was working before I hung up. Riding a call is a bigger deal than most people realize, because the majority of “I had to call 5 times” IMHO come from the blind transfer, with the customer trying to explain something they don’t quite understand to someone that doesn’t really care. When you can have a guide/translator/facilitator things go a lot smoother. Why doesn’t this happen all the time? Well, when we had a shift in philosophy to “get them off your phone, all we care about is call volume” the average level of customer service plunged. Because there’s simply no incentive to stay with you to insure resolution; as much as I might want to help, I get punished for giving you time and rewarded for dumping you out of my queue as quickly as possible. They cut staff to the bone and jacked up the call stats; i.e. expected average talk time of under a minute, which also determined your expected daily case load. Under that philosophy this rep would have either been facing explaining why her average talk time was so high and available time and ticket volume so low for the day, or had to be short with people the rest of the day to compensate. Really good CSRs will sometimes put you on hold, not for the transfer or because they’re waiting for anything, but so that they can jump back into the call queue and retrieve a couple of quick calls that help make up for the extra time they need to spend on your case. But good individual effort only goes so far; it makes for a bright spot here or there. To be the norm, the company has to put a basic emphasis on service, view it as a profit opportunity and a selling point of their product, rather than simply as a cost to be borne.

In response to which, ex-CSR ettinterrapax posited the opposite – a polite customer makes a load of difference.

I worked in phone customer service for an HMO about ten years ago, and my best calls were from people who were polite, nonaccusatory, who kept good records and knew what they wanted (and what they wanted was something reasonable to want), and who had some understanding of the system–both the customer service system and the health insurance system. I could, for instance, get a claim reprocessed relatively easily (and when I left, they were in the process of integrating customer service with some kinds of claim processing, so if I had stayed in that job, I could have done it right then for them). I could tell them what was holding up a claim and what they needed to do, if it was something that they needed to do, to get it moving. I could contact a doctor’s office to tell them not to bill a patient who was covered by us. I spent a lot of time on the phone with billing services, hospital billing departments, like that, trying to get claims untangled. I was glad when I could help people.

What I couldn’t do: change company policy, change state law, change an insured’s employment status, change insurance options that an employer chose for a group plan, change our premiums, change our stock price, or swap people up the food chain, among other things. I really hated that soon after our call center opened, we lost the ability to transfer people to a supervisor or help desk. It made my job very difficult. Of course, no insured is going to believe that this is the case when you tell them. The company made us the bad guys and left us out to dry. Individually, this mattered to maybe one in fifty calls. But combine it with an employer, say, who makes changes to a group plan that affects 15,000 insured and neglects to tell them that they no longer have pharmacy coverage, and suddenly it makes a huge difference in everything.

We got combat pay for that job. After a year, I traded out to claims processing for a pay cut, and I was glad to take it.

Out of curiosity, what kind of caller are most of our readers? Vengeful fire-breathers eager to start snapping spines at the slightest sign of constraint or contradiction on the part of the CSR? Or naive hippies who believe that the monotone lackeys on the other end of the phone are human beings whose quality of service can be improved by the simple expedient of showering them with rainbow puppies and sunshine?

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  1. etinterrapax says:

    I should probably clarify–my experience as far as company management is concerned was not all that different from what junyo describes. I was lucky that call volume wasn’t everything, but it also wasn’t nothing. And as I mentioned, losing our help desk was pretty bruising. Sometimes it wasn’t even just that the customer was a shouter; sometimes a second pair of eyes sees something that the first one didn’t. Management’s attitude did make a difference. But an HMO is a little different from the average consumer business in that we had a lot of regulation to keep the business honest. We employees honestly had nothing to gain from screwing with people. The company attempted to control costs by monitoring our bathroom breaks, but that’s another story.

    And there were always days when I felt like it was the hundredth time I had answered a question that the insured could have answered if he’d just read his coverage manual, and I had to struggle to keep that note of impatience out of my voice. It is exactly because of that experience that I try not to call unless I have exhausted all other options–it is probably my single biggest concern as a customer. I can tell that phone tech support people for computer and peripheral companies get a lot of those questions, because they always seem to treat me as though I’m somewhat less intelligent than a lamp. Who really hasn’t wanted to just record themselves saying, “Yes, I rebooted, and yes, I tried unplugging everything and plugging it back in,” just to save the trouble of repeating it over and over? The problem seems worse since outsourcing, but it’s possible I’m imagining that.

  2. ValkRaider says:

    What I don’t understand is why CSRs seem to forget what it is like to be a customer.

    I know that these people have cellphones and buy stuff from the internet and have cars that need fixing and get computers fixed and pay electric bills….

    Why, when they don the headset, do they lose all memory of what it is like to be PAYING your HARD EARNED money to a company that doesn’t give a squat for a service that they fight you every step of the way when you try and get them to provide it?

    I would think that CSRs would remember sitting on hold for 12 hours to get the erronious charges off their long-distance bill – when *I* am trying to find out why my cell phone number never transferred.

    Ever stop to think *why* might the customer may be mad? Maybe I would rather be playing with my children than sitting on hold with BestBuy online ordering support or trying to guess what the magic button combination is to get me to a Delta Airlines CSR instead of 3000 mindless automated questions…

    Or am I wrong, and CSRs are not actually human – but rather aliens who find sitting on hold and voice prompt hell to be some form of perverse entertainment, and think the rest of us do as well?

  3. The Unicorn says:

    I’ve done enough hard time in the retail sector to have a decent barometer of how to piss off someone who deals with customers for a living. Thus, I am generally the picture of sweetness & light whenever I have to deal with someone over the phone — and usually, I end up getting what I want, but often it takes a long-ass time.

    “Polite persistence” is truly the way to go, whether it’s in-store or face-to-face. True, if the person you’re dealing with is a moron, or hates life, or is actually powerless to help you, you’re stuck. But acting like you’re a CSR yourself can work wonders; usually I end up alternating the key phrases, “I understand, but that just isn’t going to work for me,” and, “Okay, well is there someone else I could talk to who *could* help me?” — both said with a smile on my face. This has definitely gotten stuff taken care of in situations where my boyfriend’s method (which you could dub “Frustrated persistence with steadily-increasing irritability”) has been proven ineffective.

  4. Tex says:

    I think Junyo is right on the money. Management sets the standards of service. I run a customer service department (our customers are internal to our company, but that really doesn’t matter much) and the standard we set is this: Solve the problem within the boundaries of our available resources and existing policies. We also tell our staff not to argue with customers. It’s pointless. The customer has a need that they want met. Whether or not they’re being pleasant about it is irrelevent.

    While we don’t ask our employees to subject themselves to abuse (and we give them all the right to disengage from any customer who turns the conversation abusive and personal) we do tell them to expect that anyone who calls with a problem is starting out from position of irritation and unhappiness. Arguing with them or debating the merits of their concerns with them just antagonizes them and gets everyone off of the subject at hand – the problem the customer was calling about in the first place.

    Now a pleasant and friendly customer is a lot nicer to work for, but if management hasn’t put solving the customer’s problem as job #1 then the CSR is just as likely to be surly and difficult as if the customer is a crank.

  5. OkiMike says:

    In my calling experiences, I noticed that corporate call centers lack support policies that compensate the consumer based on how he uses the product. This error becomes the root of the user’s frustration becuase the company’s solution only really fixes one aspect of the entire issue.

    Take, for example, a computer. It is still common for a company that makes a computer to view its product as a collection of various electronic parts that can fail and be fixed if necessary.

    But what they miss out on is the concept that, one it is purchased, a computer is transformed into an entirely different creation. It can become a vehicle for entertainment, or a way to store that family’s history in data, or the way that’s its owner makes his living.

    A company’s support policies need to compensate for these differences and take action accordingly.

    —————
    It’s true, a call center is the most important interaction a company can have with the customer, second only to perhaps marketing itself. They need to offer real 21st century support that is adapts to the customer’s particular situation.