Call Centers in Action: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineEven the simplest of transactions often intersect with the call center. My family’s recent switch of television content providers presented five such interactions – with varying results.

The Prequel: This saga began over three years ago. (See my article, “Anything for a Sale.”)  To recap, my wife and I decided to switch television content providers to pick up a new station. The agent I spoke with assured me it was available through their system, but that turned out not be the case. After much effort, I resigned myself to accept that I had been taken advantage of, but my tenacious wife – the righter of wrongs and pursuer of all that is fair – took up the mantle to resolve the situation. Alas, after many hours and a plethora of phone calls, we were still not able to watch the station in question.

To compound the issue, the new provider overbilled us. It took repeated calls, spanning many months, to correct several billing errors and actually realize the charges we contracted for. Again, my determined bride led the charge in this effort, eventually meeting with success. This set the stage for a couple of uneventful years of TV viewing – meaning that our provider did nothing further to sour our perception of them. Eventually, the sting of our initial disillusionment and frustration began to fade. That brings me to the current part of the story.

Customer Disservice: A few months ago, our DVR started misbehaving, occasionally refusing to work as it once had. There were times when it would only record one show at a time instead of two. Sometimes it would refuse to let us watch a show live if another show was being recorded. It would intermittently do other flaky things as well. (I speculate that we overtaxed our DVR with our relentless recording of the winter Olympics, since that was when the problems first surfaced.)

Since we “rent” the DVR, it seemed logical that our provider should replace our defective unit, but the call center agents that my dauntless spouse spoke to felt differently. Their response was to “call us back when the problem occurs.” At the very least, the agents were taking the lazy way out, deferring the problem to a later time – and a different representative. Proper agent training, coupled with a good monitoring and coaching program, would have prevented this type of poor customer service.

Additionally, I suspect that the agents were being tracked as to how many DVRs they authorized replacement for versus how many issues they “resolved” over the phone. Since our problem was intermittent, they could tell us to call back and still mark the call as resolved since everything was working at that moment. Although it is a prudent practice to track the number of replacement DVRs authorized, placing too much emphasis on this measurement serves to motivate agent behavior that is contrary to the customer’s best interest. The result is that a call could be labeled a success even though customer satisfaction was in jeopardy.

A Sale Is Made: Not willing to waste another phone call to this provider, my wife defiantly placed her next one to their competitor – our original vendor. They were happy to take us back, giving us a discount to prove it. Their agents did everything right, patiently answering questions and confirming the details. An installation date was set; I would be the point person.

An Automatic Confirmation Impresses: We were given an appointment window of between noon and four. At precisely twelve o’clock, the phone rang. It was an automated message from our new provider. An installer could be there in thirty minutes if that was acceptable. I said “yes” and was thanked for the confirmation. Not only did this simple courtesy keep me informed, but it also functioned to verify that I was indeed at home, serving to maximize the installer’s efficiency. It was a respectful act, one that I will now expect from all other service companies. The installer and his work were both exemplary.

An Automated Survey Falls Short: A bit after five o’clock, the phone rang again. It was another automated message, stepping me through a series of questions about the install. I was likewise impressed with this unexpected customer service effort. I was happily expressing my pleasure to each yes or no question, when they changed tactics. “On a scale of one to ten, with one being poor and ten being excellent, please rate your overall experience.” I touched ten.

Curiously, the next recording was, “Do you want to be connected with a customer service representative to resolve your problem?” I was dumbfounded by this unexpected twist. I suspect that their IVR only detected the digit one, missing the zero that followed it. Not knowing what to do, I hung up, hoping it would register as an “uncompleted survey” and thereby generating a follow-up call. That did not happen, and I was never able to express my appreciation of the installer’s work. This left me disappointed. This issue could have been easily avoided had they simply sought a response on a one-to-nine scale.

Making a Bad Situation Worse: The next task was to cancel our old service. Although my wife had talked with the agents numerous times to resolve billing errors, they were not willing to take the cancellation from her; she handed the phone to me. I told the agent that we were canceling because our DVR wasn’t working and they wouldn’t replace it. There was a confused pause, as the agent verified that we pay a monthly fee for DVR service. She didn’t said, “I’m sorry” or make any offer to resolve the problem; she merely proceeded with the cancellation.

She began reading the cancellation script. It was innocuous until she got to the part about them shipping me a box to return the equipment, for which I would be charged a $15 shipping fee. That did not sit well with me, and I let her know it. For several minutes we debated my claim that they were charging me to cancel my account. Eventually she acquiesced to my point of view, but she was intractable about waiving the unexpected fees. My efforts to appeal to a supervisor and then a manager were resolutely met with the response, “There is no one here with more authority than me.” I tried every ploy I could think of to avoid the $15 fee but was unsuccessful.

Although I was angry at the situation, I felt sorry for the call center agent. Her management had denied her authority to waive a small fee, thereby avoiding an unpleasant situation. They also provided no options for handling an upset caller. I wonder how long she will be able work in such a pressure-packed and unsupportive environment. I wonder what their agent turnover rate is.

The Conclusion: Call centers, both live and automated, serve as a critical touch point for customer service. They can be used to enhance, as well as discourage customer loyalty. Make sure your call center is one that advances the customer experience.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2010]

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