Help Me, Please!

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

A Personal Perspective on the Customer Experience

It had been quite a while since I personally had to contact anyone in Customer Service … that is, until this week when I had the opportunity to interact with six Contact Centers. I now have a fresh perspective. Bottom line: experiences vary widely from business to business. However, the elements of good and bad experiences have much in common.

My six experiences were all voice contacts. One call was for Technical Support after having my account “locked” for my own protection! I struggle a bit with user names and passwords!! That was a good call with little delay, a qualified responder, and a problem solved. I did not mind at all that the agent was not a vivacious “interactor!” He more than made up for that with his knowledge and quick resolution; the company also helped by providing a short delay.

The Platinum Travel unit of my credit card company also did a good job. I had a complicated travel situation that involved several contacts. (If you manage a complex operation, not all contacts can be “one and done.”) The first was easy and the agent made a point of telling me she was putting all the notes of travel dates, etc., into my record so that when I called back the information would be there … a nice proactive touch!

When I did call back I had to ask the agent to be transferred because the sound mitigation was nonexistent; the side noise was distracting enough for me to ask to be connected to another agent which she gladly did. The next agent’s line was as quiet as the first’s was noisy. When I asked, “How come?” the agent told me it was because he was a work at home agent so there simply was no side noise to be heard.

The side noise heard in the initial contact was not in a Contact Center off on a distant shore. It was in Phoenix, AZ where I am guessing some genius decided they could save money on headsets by buying a “cheap” version. Or perhaps they could sit more agents by using tiny cubes stacked up next to each other. Well guess what? These are bad, bad places to try and save money. Headsets need dual microphones – one to pick up the agent’s voice and the other to mitigate (minimize) the side noise – and that costs more! Many times inexperienced purchasers don’t recognize the difference. As for squeezing agents on top of one another, that is just another short-sighted solution. Contact Centers saving money in areas like this may ultimately pay a whole lot more than can be saved because of the number of times information must be repeated. And that is hard cost in minutes, with even higher costs to the experience and the brand. Noisy is NOT the expected environment for “platinum” service. While the agents were all excellent, the environment cast a poor reflection.

I had to call two major airlines. Delta had a long delay, but the agent was qualified for the relatively simple task of cancelling a flight due to a sudden illness. It will be weeks before I am able to determine whether his recommendations for action violated any of my trip insurance guidelines.

I would say the best call of the six was my second call with Emirates Airlines … a quick answer and an informed, engaged agent who provided excellent service and addressed many questions I didn’t even know I had. Taking a proactive approach, the young man appeared to understand what the passenger may not know enough to ask!

My two worst calls were both to insurance companies. One was a provider of travel insurance; the company had a speech enabled IVR configuration which one might think was designed to make sure the caller never made it out of the automated system! The system had me repeat responses … repeatedly … and made it nearly impossible to find any way to escape to an agent. These configurations incite irritation in the caller; once exhibited to an agent, that irritation can make the call longer and much less pleasant.

When I finally finagled my way to an agent it might as well have been a robot. He essentially read from a script which pretty much redirected the caller (me) back to the website to resolve the question. It is not customary for me to purchase travel insurance; in fact I bought it quite by accident while booking the flight. As fate would have it I was stricken with the flu the night before my departure. Right now I feel like it will be a miracle if I ever settle this claim! However, more attempts to interact will require good research and good research always brings good results.

The absolutely WORST call I had was with my medical insurance provider. I recently spent 18 minutes on the phone; I received a FINAL NOTICE on a policy that was most definitely not delinquent! Otherwise, I can assure you I would not have waited on hold for so long. (Caller tolerance for delay is closely related to the reason for the call.)

I was on hold for 1,080 seconds, during which relatively inoffensive music was playing except that every 45 seconds the pointless “Your call is important to us” message played for roughly 22 seconds. I heard that message 24 times … yes, 24 times! I ask myself why it is so difficult for people to correct something so simple. All this particular technology configuration (how about mis-configuration?) managed to do was irritate the hell out of me when I was already irritated!

When the agent answered, I made some crack about the delay and that I listened to the recording of how important I was 24 times. The next thing out of her mouth was NOT “I apologize for the delay.” No, she went right for the fight and said, “WELL, WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” I intentionally put that in CAPS because it was a demand not a request. From a human perspective, she decided to terrorize rather than empathize. Now the spiral of emotions headed in a very bad direction! All she had to do was “empathize” with me. It sounds so easy, but for some (and maybe many) it is not.

Sadly the interaction did not get better. The agent couldn’t find my “account” (I’ve been insured by this company for literally decades) and took a posture as if I was misrepresenting my status. When I said, “You cashed my check,” she decided it was time to “scold” me: “I’m just trying to do my job” and “You need to calm down so I can ….” Well, I am a bit of a tough customer since I bring to these encounters not only my personal but my professional interest. I confess that the agent did not finish her sentence; I interrupted her to ask if she felt it appropriate given the circumstances to “scold” me. She denied doing any such thing.

Interestingly enough, when I told the agent it wasn’t WHAT she was saying that caused my impatience; it was that she said everything with “a sharp tongue.” For some reason, this seemed to cause her to reflect and she proceeded to find my account and straighten out the issue. It is hard to feel good about the outcome with the time and emotional energy I had to spend on an issue that was 100% the company’s own doing. No apology … must be a company standard.

After all this, I am able once again to confirm that success in managing the Customer Experience is a matter of balancing the human and the technical. If you have great humans and crummy technology the experience suffers; if you have technology configured in such a way as to cause customer frustration the inevitable occurs. And if you can’t staff to avoid lengthy delays, please STOP the recorded announcement from looping back endlessly every x seconds. It is an easy fix that greatly reduces caller frustration. Finally, teach de-escalation skills to your agents. Demanding, scolding, and reprimanding have no place in Customer Care as those communication approaches ultimately damage the Customer Experience.

My Best,