John Burton, a Director of Product Management on the CRM Team at SAP, posted an article yesterday entitled “Uh, Oh! Call Center Reps Gone Wild!” In it, John writes rather colorfully about the apparent lack of balance in many organizations between efforts to create great customer experiences, on the one hand, and enforcement of corporate policies and procedures, on the other. Unfortunately, call center agents and other front-line employees are often caught unnecessarily in the middle of these sometimes-competing forces. What is even more unfortunate I think, and I believe it is safe for me to suggest that John would agree, is that it doesn’t need to be this way. The Customer Contact Council, a division of the Corporate Executive Board Company, a global leader in research on loyalty in the service channel, issued a research study two years ago supporting the proposition that the most valuable action a company can take to boost customer loyalty is to reduce the amount of effort the customer is required to expend in connection with the interaction. Matthew Dixon, Karen Freeman and Nicholas Toman have written about this research succinctly in the article “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” published in the Harvard Business Review. The research is compelling – more than any other factor, lowering customer effort creates loyal customers. Reading John’s blog post and recalling the low-effort research reminds me of an actual example of how all of this plays out in the real world of companies, call centers and customer experience. One of our clients had implemented a $15 mail-in-rebate for one of its popular product lines. The price point for the product is approximately $175. In order to receive the rebate, the customer must cut the UPC code off the product box and send it in along with the rebate paperwork. Just two small problems. First, the box contains three separate bar codes. As you might expect, a meaningful number of customers send in a bar code other than the one required by the company. Second, not all of the purchasers of the product save the product box. So, these customers send in all of the required materials except for a bar code of any kind. Company policy for mail-in-rebate programs dictates that rebates are not to be processed for any customer failing to submit all of the required materials. Period. No exceptions. Call center agents field dozens of calls every day from angry customers inquiring about the status of their rebates: “I sent the stuff in six weeks ago! Where’s my $15?” Imagine the call center air filled with these kinds of customer loyalty-inducing responses to that question:
- “I’m sorry, sir, in order for us to send out the rebate, you have to submit the UPC code. There’s simply nothing I can do about this.”
- “Oh, you didn’t save the box, ma’am? Gee, I really do apologize, but our policy requires that you send in the UPC code.”
- “I really wish that I could get that $15 to you, sir, but unfortunately my hands are tied.”
As we conducted due diligence interviews with groups of call center agents to learn more about their challenges, frustrations and ideas, it became clear that policies like this one were often making it difficult, if not impossible, for the agents to do what their supervisors, managers and company executives were asking them to do; namely, create a great customer service experiences. So we asked the company’s management a relatively simple question about the bar code policy, something along the lines of “Why in the world are you doing this?” Actually, I believe we were a bit more tactful, but that was the essence of the question. After some informal investigation, company management reported back to us that the mail-in rebate policy apparently had been implemented at the behest of one of the company’s finance executives about ten years ago. This particular executive had long since left the company, but the policy had survived for a reason or reasons that current management could not readily explain. Within 24 hours, the company announced to call center personnel that the rebate policy had been modified such that call center agents would have immediate and full authority to waive the UPC code requirement based on the information they gathered during their conversations with the customers and their own assessment of what was in the company’s best long-term interest. A reassessment of the entire rebate process would also be undertaken in an effort to simplify and streamline the rebate process for the customer. Whether you’re a customer, a call center agent or the company, what is there not to celebrate about this outcome? While call center agent behavior certainly plays a central role in any strategy to reduce customer effort, companies can help their agents (and themselves) by taking a good hard look at any company or call center systems, processes, rules or policies designed primarily for the company’s or call center’s benefit and making modifications necessary to put the customer in the center of the interaction, not the company or the call center. What kinds of systems, processes, rules or policies are in place at your company or call center that you suspect or even know create angry customers for no good business reason? Are systems, processes, rules or policies handcuffing your call center agents and impeding their ability to provide a low-effort solution for your customers? If so, are you doing anything about it? Remove obstacles for your call agent agents, and they will do the same for your customers.