I recently had to call my Internet provider because my monthly bill had gone up unexpectedly by around 20%. I remember being particularly busy that day with work and other responsibilities, but I figured I had better make time to call them while I was thinking about it or I would forget and find myself paying the higher price because of my own folly.
As I made the call from my cell phone in the car, I had my paper invoices from the provider spread out on the passenger seat in case I needed to refer to them and made the call as I sat in a client’s parking lot. A previous call with this particular company did not go so well because I wasn’t prepared with documentation, and I did not want to go through that pain again.
The customer service agent who took my call was very warm and friendly and actually quite helpful. She explained that I had been on a special promotion (even though I was not a new customer) and that she would have to transfer me to Promotions to get my special price back. She asked my permission to put me on hold and went about trying to make the connection with one of her colleagues in Promotions.
After about three minutes or so, the elevator music stopped abruptly and I realized I had been disconnected. Since I had arrived early for my meeting and had the time, I decided to take a calculated risk and call the company back. Not surprisingly, a different customer service agent answered my call. This customer service agent was a little edgier than the first (but not impolite), and she gave me the same spiel.
I was put on hold again and after about four minutes I was successfully linked to yet another customer service agent in Promotions, who again was pretty polite and friendly. He said he would take care of me in just a few minutes. After putting me on hold a couple more times, he apparently worked some sort of magic that would put me back on a “new customer promotion” even though I was not a new customer and as I said, I actually had been enduring this relationship for about four years.
Before I hung up, the customer service agent thanked me for calling and then politely, but rather sternly, admonished me to mark my calendar 11 months forward and be sure to call back then to request to stay on the promotion; otherwise, I would quite likely have to go through this whole process again. I thanked him for the warning. The call ended and I was able to make it to my client meeting on time.
My objective in recounting this experience is not to bash my Internet provider – the company’s customer service agents are usually very polite, and I usually end up obtaining what I need from them after some varying degree of effort.
But that’s the point, isn’t it?
The interaction I described is pretty typical of dealing with a customer service operation and customer service agents. First, I have to notice something is wrong with my bill … then after I get over the fact that I am perturbed about it, I make a phone call, tell my story, am transferred, lose the connection, tell my story again to a different customer service agent in another department, and only then is my problem somehow fixed.
To top it off, in this particular case, customer service agent number 3 even warned me to expect the entire experience to happen again next year unless I did something.
I felt a little like I had just left some sort of gypsy fortuneteller who had pronounced a curse of High Effort on me as the price of continuing my relationship with this company under a new customer promotion. How about offering me a promotion just for being a continuing, faithful customer? Or just rewarding my four years of consistently made on-time payments with a Low-Effort Customer Experience?
I believe the question that service providers who care about customer retention, customer satisfaction and (dare I say it, even customer or brand loyalty?) will face throughout 2012 is this: “How can we differentiate ourselves by creating atypical customer experiences?” How can we begin solving the “customer service dilemma” by providing an exceptional customer experience instead of one in which the customer must mark his calendar 11 months into the future to avoid a price increase? In other words, how can we go from typical to transformational?
Most customer service operations need transformation. Why? … because most consumers no longer have the time or the tolerance for the typical customer experience interaction.
I would suggest that in order for service companies (or for that matter, anyone doing business) to get out of the “typical trap,” they need to look at their entire customer service operation, from systems and processes to rules and procedures to the ways in which their customer service agents approach their customers … and think transformation.
In my particular case, again, the customer service agents were not rude. They actually wanted to help me. Still, I did not walk away from the transaction feeling particularly good about my customer experience. When it comes to the customer experience, it is not the “nice” that sets a company apart. A customer service agent’s pleasant disposition is a basic customer expectation, much like clean dishes at a restaurant – we all expect to receive clean dishes, but that by itself will not earn the restaurant any points in our review.
No, nice does not impress me anymore. What I am looking for in a customer service experience is effectiveness, a sense that the customer service agent and everything about the customer experience is focused on understanding my needs, both my practical and emotional needs, and requiring as little effort from me as possible to reach a solution.
If most companies are going to achieve that outcome, it is going to take more than what is typical, more than a new CRM system, and more than a two-hour “soft skills” training class for their customer service agents. It is going to take a fundamentally different approach to the customer … a New Conversation, one that is wrapped around the Low-Effort needs that we all have as consumers. It will be an approach that does not require the customer to protect his price point by putting something on his calendar a year from now to remind him to call back.
For most customer service operations to get out of the typical, it is going to take fundamental transformation. Here is hoping that for your company, 2012 is the year for that transformation!