Managing to Get the Best

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

The world of Customer Care continues to evolve. Automation has greatly reduced costs and many simple tasks have transitioned to online or other “non-human assist” tools. This has greatly reduced the cost of specific transactions in the Contact Center. But when the customer requires a higher level of assistance, the Contact Center is on the hook to provide it and those costs are going up. Costs may be increasing, at least in part, due to hiring people that lack requisite skills to resolve customer issues effectively and easily. In many organizations, fundamental hiring requirements have changed little over the decades in spite of how the customer’s experience has changed.

“In a world of self-service, talented reps matter more than ever.”This sounds a bit counter intuitive, but the authors of “Kick Ass Customer Service” published in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review (Dixon, Ponomareff, Turner, and DeLisi) feel that the more self service offered, the more complex the role of human service providers becomes. According to the article, “81% of all customers attempt to take care of matters themselves before reaching out to a live representative.” This leaves the front line to resolve only the more complex issues. Contact Center leaders must ask themselves whether they have the right people in the right place for the job today.

The authors identified seven “types” of reps found in today’s Contact Centers, as summarized and ranked below.

  1. Controller – Outspoken and opinionated; likes demonstrating expertise and directing the customer interaction (proportion 15%)
  2. Rock – Unflappable and optimistic; doesn’t take difficult conversations personally (proportion 12%)
  3. Accommodator – Meets people halfway; involves others in decision-making; eagerly offers discounts and refunds (proportion 11%)
  4. Empathizer – Enjoys solving problems of others; seems to understand behaviors and motives; listens sympathetically (proportion 32%)
  5. Hard Worker – Follows rules and procedures; likes working with numbers; is persistent and deadline oriented (proportion 20%)
  6. Innovator – Identifies ways to improve processes and procedures; generates new ideas and options (proportion 9%)
  7. Competitor – Focuses on winning, outperforming colleagues, and changing others’ views (proportion 1%)

Rankings were determined by interviewing more than one thousand representatives across multiple industries,   studying how the various “types” do their jobs, and assessing the performance of all types. The name alone of the top-ranked Controller sends shivers down the backbone of some business leaders. Who wants to manage a bunch of people whose hallmarks are being “outspoken” and “opinionated”? However, these characteristics were found to be most effective when it comes to problem solving. These folks tend to be driven to deliver fast and easy service, proactively diagnose situations, and customize solutions while considering the customer personality. They were perceived as competent and unscripted by the customer. In spite of these attributes, the Controller represents only 15% of the total frontline rep population.

The Empathizer is the number one type of rep actually hired to do the job (32%). While Empathizers enjoy solving problems for others, this groups ranks 4th in effectiveness. I can almost hear the mutterings … How can this be? Don’t we NEED people that understand and listen? The challenge put forth is that the Empathizer takes longer to resolve issues, offers too many solutions, and continues to ask customers what they want rather than find effective ways to tell them what they need.

I find a very big “missing piece” in this story, in spite of the accuracy of the authors’ findings. The challenge may lie not in the front line, but in management. Contact Centers are notorious for promoting from within. Logic follows that if Empathizers are the number one type hired into the Center, they may also be the number one type elevated to positions of leadership. It is not likely that an Empathizer will hire a Controller.

Empathizers may be very well liked by the reps they “serve,” but they are largely unknown at the senior level. Why? They are not likely to elevate issues because they truly believe they may be “bothering” the leaders.

Consider an organization where Contact Center growth includes programs being handled by the Contact Center because other departments can’t do it, don’t have time to do it, don’t have the people to do it, or (the unspoken)  simply don’t want to do it. Just send it to the Contact Center! Here’s an example. A Customer Care Contact Center designated to support nationwide delivery of goods is told it will now provide (without any consultation) technical support to a subsidiary of the parent company on a system they have nothing to do with! What a great idea … NOT. However, the manager simply accepts the load and makes no case about the absurdity of the notion because well, they are not that kind of person. So they take it on, don’t complain, and subject their frontline people to a situation of near guaranteed failure.

Here’s another example I witnessed first-hand. A Contact Center rep contacts the dispatch team in a Distribution Center, explains the customer issue, and is met with, “What do you want me to do about it?” Well, the Empathizer rep just takes the hit. I ask how this unacceptable interaction will be escalated. She tells me that she won’t escalate because they “don’t want to throw anyone under the bus.” When I check in with the manager, she uses the exact same phrase, “Don’t want to throw anyone under the bus” and adds, “We like to handle these issues ourselves.” Sadly the “handling” never happens, escalations never materialize, and the long-standing abuse continues … abuse of the customer, abuse of the brand, and abuse of the position.

Before we can worry about the profile of the rep being correct, we must look at management. If we have the RIGHT people in those roles, the enterprise may have a shot at getting the RIGHT people on the front line.

Many executives have effectively tuned out the Contact Center because (unbeknownst to them) they hire and advance leaders that are likely to be complacent; they don’t complain or make waves. They view the Controller as a threat. Since many Contact Center leaders are promoted from within, the dominant Empathizers advance to leadership roles where their tendency is to make do with what they get rather than make effective cases for what they need. Consequently, the operation’s stability and scalability are at risk. This year, tell it like it is!

Enterprises must work toward a strategic plan for the Customer Experience that addresses the true depth of organizational and operational requirements for a well run and properly provisioned Contact Center to transition the Center to the status of strategic asset. It is requisite to identify the desired leadership skills to properly execute, deliver, and report. Then we may see a path to actually hiring the best reps for the job.

My Best,