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?