Customer Service and the Human Experience

By Rosanne D’Ausilio, Ph.D.

With continued attention on customer service, customer retention, and lifetime value of the customer, it is no surprise that contact center operations continue increasing in importance as the primary hub of a customer’s experience. The contact center is still the most common way that customers get in touch with businesses. In fact, the well-respected survey organization, Gartner, reports that reports 92% of all contact is through the center.

While much attention has been focused on the technology and benefits of providing multiple channels for client contact, little consideration has been directed to handling the human part of the equation – training agents to field more than just telephone communications. With the explosion of e-commerce, the need to reinforce keeping the human element in the equation is paramount. Certainly now more than ever, customer-centric service is a necessity.

Twenty-five years from now clients will still be human beings, still driven by desires and needs. Virtual environments do not create virtual clients. Except for the simplest transactions, some clients still need to be connected with and nurtured by another person. Amazon.com has learned this. They employ hundreds of traditional customer service representatives using phone lines to help customers with questions that cannot be dealt with online.

In today’s competitive marketplace there is little difference between products and services. What makes the difference, what distinguishes one company from another, is its relationship with the client. Who has the responsibility for representing themselves, their companies, and perhaps their industry in general? Front line representatives.

The ability of a company to provide human-to-human connections continues to be critically important. The fact remains that the voice is the most natural and powerful human interface, real time or otherwise. That isn’t going to change any time soon.

To our clients, people are inseparable from the services they provide. To them, the person on the other end of the phone is the company. It is no wonder, then, that companies with superior people management invest heavily in training and retraining, reinforcing the human element.

Yet customers still leave. The latest statistics on why are:

  • 45% because of poor service
  • 20% because of lack of attention
  • 15% for a better product
  • 15% for a cheaper product and
  • 5% other

This means that 65% (the first two items) of your clients leave because of something your front line is, or is not, doing. This is the good and the bad news. It’s bad news because that’s a high percentage. On the other hand, it’s good news because there is something you can do about it.

It is agreed that people, processes, and ‘state-of-the-art’ technology are what make companies work. For me, the people process is most important. After all, people truly make the difference. Never lose sight of the fact that we are human beings, not merely ‘human doings.’ The fact is, 70% to 90% of what happens with clients is driven by human nature, not technology. Technology is meant to enable human endeavors, not to disable them.

Extraordinary service, or lack thereof, separates the good from the great companies. More and more organizations are turning to the contact center as a strategic player in the competitive landscape. The contact center is already reinventing itself to become the heart of a company’s customer facing operations.

Empathetic Responsiveness: The ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and see their point of view – not agree with them, not make them right and your company wrong – but hear what they are saying is key. After all, every one of us needs to be heard while being treated with dignity and respect.

I think of a call as an ABC process. ‘A’ represents the customer presenting their question, request, complaint, or problem. ‘C’ is the ultimate resolution. Most times ‘B’ is either skipped or left out –because of metrics, calls in queue, or simply because you know the answer before the client has even finished speaking. ‘B’ is where the agent acknowledges what they hear – be it anger, frustration, or fear. It may even be a simple “thank you for taking the time to call and bring this to our attention.” After all, if a client calls in to complain, you have the opportunity/challenge to turn them around. If they don’t call, and only complain to other people, you have no opportunity. Does going through ‘B’ take longer? Not at all. It allows you to move the customer to a more productive interaction and close the call. I’ve heard many callers repeat their opening paragraph (A) again and again, while at the same time the agent is trying to get them to resolution (C). Red alert! Acknowledge what is behind the words and you will move them quickly to ‘C.’ You can’t go from A to C without going through B.

If all clients wanted just the facts (and some do), they could ascertain the information online.  Most people want the human interaction, someone to hear them, someone to care. Most callers want to hear a simple response such as, “I’m so sorry that was your experience. My name is Rosanne and I’m going to do my best to help you.”

Self Service: When asked in a recent study, “What is the biggest barrier your company encounters to self-service effectiveness?” only 14% of the customers replied they don’t know about it. This means that the 86% who do know about it and attempt to use it (1) find it too hard to navigate, (2) can’t find the answers, or (3) don’t trust the system or the answers they do find.

Research shows that customers prefer to deal with companies who are the most consistently accessible. When clients experience a level of service from email and chat support, for instance, that equals or exceeds voice support, then and only then will they gladly migrate to those channels to resolve their problems and inquiries. To increase clients’ satisfaction, be sure to:

Phone: Have a ‘zero out’ option on your system.

Website: Have your phone number or a button to speak with a human.

Email: Rephrase the issue in the opening paragraph.

Purchasing Processes: In an interview with Delia Passi Smalter, the former publisher of Working Woman and Working Mother magazines (Incentive Magazine, 2003), she distinguishes the purchasing processes women and men go through. The biggest one, she says, is that women need to feel more of a connection to the agent; they need to trust the corporation and the brand. Price becomes secondary. A woman takes in a lot of information, including recommendations from friends and family, company and brand reputation, feelings about her contact person, and how the brand will affect her life. Men instead, take a systematic approach, allowing outside influence to some degree, but mostly they are focused on price.

One of the most influential documents in the world, the U.S. Constitution, begins with “We, the people…” Yes, ‘we the people’ are what makes the difference.

Rosanne D’Ausilio, Ph.D., is President of Human Technologies Global, Inc.

[From Connection MagazineApril 2004]

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