In my first and second posts, I wrote about how to know if one’s organization is belching noxious customer service fumes and how to clean up the worst of them. In this post, I’ll discuss how to use those remaining, hard-to-clean-up emissions to drive your organization forward. This will not only improve one’s customer service, but has the very real potential to improve products and operations to the point where customers quit antagonizing the organization over poor customer service, but actually promote one’s products to their network.
I had the good fortune to be employed by Amazon.com in its early days (1999-2001) as a logistics manager, a project manager, a technical facilities manager, and finally as its Head of English Customer Services (CS) in Europe (three of those all at the same time with three separate bosses… ahh, the life of a start-up). To my good fortune as a consultant, I have been contacted by many companies that say they want to be the “Amazon of X.” Normally, what they mean is that they want to be as ubiquitous and forward-looking as Amazon in customer services and operations in their chosen field. Unfortunately, many of the people I speak to really don’t want to do the hard work to become the Amazon of their field. They are looking for shortcuts and tricks of the trade. Amazon.com is the king of “real CS” in taking CS problems to organizational fixes. The best way to fix the problem is to fix the source of the problem which, by the way, often fixes more than the evident CS problem. In my ongoing analogy, Amazon uses its exhaust as a turbo-charger. (It also uses the forward momentum that these actions create as a super-charger too, but that is for another post)
Turbocharging means fixing the underlying problem and not just providing a palliative to the customer for that particular situation. Providing a palliative (installing a catalytic converter in my previous post) may be required when you first find out about a problem. However, if pain relief is all one is providing and leaving the pain-causing situation in place unaddressed, the problem will continue to occur. That normally results in the following; customers appreciate the palliative (or not), but grow to expect that kind of pay-off as part of the deal. However, they still post on social media their problems and your palliatives. You may gain a reputation for fair-play, but that is also the new expectation. Eventually, and I have been in more of these meetings than I care to recount, the company will eventually focus on the high cost of CS relative to Revenue. This leads to the all-too-predictable responses of never-ending phone-trees, poorly designed self-help pages, and other cost-per-contact “fixes.” They bury the problem in a maze of confusing and misdirected KPIs that mask the problem. These frustrating technologies and processes inevitably slow sales, new and repeat, and are a veritable breeding ground for customer antagonists.
When I enter these situations, I often see the frustration on executives’ faces when their CS team is telling them that they are meeting all of their KPIs, but the Net Promoter Score (NPS) is falling, along with sales. Other departments are pointing to how bad CS is in dealing with customers. The CS team is doing their best with a limited budget and tool-set. They aren’t lying. They are measuringsomething. They may even be making headway in cleaning up the exhaust. Multiple meetings to address the issues result in a ton of actions for the contact center. New KPIs are proposed. However, the underlying problems never seem to get resolved. Where to begin?
Here is my take. To start, the organization’s product director, program director, and operations director need to be at the solution meeting. The focus needs to be on the reasons for customer contact, including customer search terms on the self-help pages. Convert the organization’s language to customer language. Look at the top 10 reasons one-by-one and determine, with the responsible people in the room, what actions would improve the customers’ situation. Then, quantify the total cost to the organization in time, effort, and lost sales. Yes, in simple cost terms, a problem may cost you $2.43 X 936 contacts a week, but what about lost sales from customer abandonment and countering social media meltdowns? What about improved reviews and recommendations? Once the key problems are identified, quantified, and total costs calculated, do the same with the proposed fixes. What would be the total cost to fix the problem, technically and/or operationally? Finally, make the CS projects report through the normal program management channels. Give them the visibility they deserve.
At this point, I often hear howls of protest from the also-busy product, program and operational teams. “But, we have our own problems and budgets!” That is why the leaders of each need to be in the room. CS is not the product and operations, but it is a good indicator of their health. All cards need to be on the table and organizational decisions on time and resources need to be made. This gets to the nub of my analogy. If the organization is spewing noxious exhaust, fixing the muffler is a start, but it cannot be the end point. If the CS total cost does not compete favorably with an honest assessment of other projects against the organization’s strategy, so be it. If they are competitive, they go on the list like everything else. Trust me, this outcome will happen sooner or later, through one means or another, many of them unpleasant. The question is whether one makesit happen or it happens to one.
Finally, there is often another, unspoken, problem. The CS leader, either by organizational design or professional experience/development, is not the equivalent of the operations head, the product head, or the program management head (especially in technical organizations). This is deadly. Ironically, this often comes about due to the CEO or COO making a junior CS Manager report directly to them as a way of showing that CS is important to the CEO/COO. Often, the CS manager is in meetings with Director level appointments and simply does not have the knowledge or courage to be a forceful advocate for his department or, more importantly, the customer. I’m not saying promote them to make it even. If they are too inexperienced, that will make things worse, not better. I’ve also seen some pretty savvy CS Managers hold their own in a room of senior directors. Each organization is different, but in one way or another, the CS head needs to hold his own. As an executive, if your CS head is not senior enough, either in rank or actions, get him a competent boss who is. If the CS lead has the title/authority and experience, but is not holding his own, get yourself a new one.
There are many specific techniques that fill in the gaps of what I discussed, but it is certainly the core infrastructure of what I have done many times. Good luck with your own turbo-charging.