What Will They Say?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineWhat will your agents say to make a sale? The answer might surprise you. I recently had two telephone sales experiences that didn’t turn out as I expected. The first related to changing satellite TV providers. An abrupt network lineup change left my family without their two favorite shows. In the midst of unsatisfactory interactions with my current provider’s customer service department, a direct mail piece arrived from a competitor. It offered a seemingly attractive price, free installation, and new equipment, including a DVR (Digital Video Recorder).

Upon calling the prospective provider, I talked to a helpful and confident agent named Karl. My first query was about this missing network. Karl assured us that they did in fact carry it. We quickly established a rapport and he addressed my secondary questions. I confirmed my understanding of what Karl said and placed my order.

A few days later, the installer arrived and set up the system. He quickly gave me an overview of its operation as the programming guide was downloading. I asked for the channel number of the network in question. “I don’t know offhand,” he said, “but it’s there someplace. If you can’t find it, call this number.” He handed me an information sheet and left.

Thirty minutes later and frustrated, I dialed that number. “I’m sorry,” the agent said. “I can only help you with installation issues, and this isn’t an installation question. You’ll need to call the provider.” (I had apparently bought from an authorized agent.)  The provider’s call center told me it would be an extra $5 a month to get that network (which ultimately turned out to be incorrect). Mad at this unexpected news, I called my buddy Karl. Unfortunately, he was no longer my buddy. “I only deal with sales questions,” he stated curtly. “I can’t help you,” and he hung up.

My wife, who is tenacious in righting wrongs and fixing the unresolvable, took over the quest to watch the missing network. Over the next few days, she called Karl, the service department, the installation line, and the billing department, as well as all the other numbers she was given. Several days and countless hours later, she resigned herself to accept that we had been had.

There is much to be learned from this saga. One seemingly small miscommunication had widespread and far-reaching ramifications. One agent’s words resulted in more than a dozen follow-up phone calls to multiple call centers, not to mention a new customer who is angry and unhappy.

At the same time, a similar scenario was unfolding. Again, it involved a transaction made over the phone; again, an agent was willing to say anything to make a sale. I have had a long and largely favorable history with this company. Though much of my interaction with them is via a self-service website, there is sales and technical support available by email and phone. I had been long contemplating a particular service for which, by design, only limited technical support is provided.

Rarely does this company call me. Fortunately, Alex’s timely call was about the very service I have been cautiously contemplating. I shared my concern over the limited support provision. He dismissively acknowledged that reality and quickly downplayed its significance. He told me the service was easy to use and that after a short learning curve, I would be up to speed and proficient. He promised to walk me through the setup, preconfigure as much as was feasible, provide instructions over the phone, and do whatever he could to make the migration to this service go quickly and smoothly.

Based on his representations and promises, I placed my order and confirmed my credit card number. We scheduled a time for him to begin his tutelage of me. Within seconds, I received an email confirming the credit card charges and I began preparations for his training. Alex never called. The following day I called him and left a message; no response. This went on for several days, with each subsequent voicemail message containing increasingly stronger language and pleas that were more urgent. My final message was quite terse and rightfully accusatory.

After being snubbed yet again, I called their main number. As calmly as I could, I insisted to the unsuspecting agent that I be immediately connected to a manager. A bit nonplused (he didn’t know who Alex was), but willing to assist, he gathered the requisite background information and transferred me to his supervisor, Dennis.

Dennis, although responsible for a different department, immediately and sincerely apologized for Alex’s transgressions. Furthermore, Dennis promised to refund all my money if I wasn’t completely satisfied with the outcome. He was both assertive and definitive in his course of action: Dennis would be the point person in dealing with and resolving the problem; Alex’s supervisor would be having a “talk” with Alex; and I would be assigned a technical guru to help me with the product I ordered. In the end, I opted for the refund, since Dennis took time to understand my objective and offered me a less-costly and easier way to achieve it.

The learning outcomes from these stories are both helpful and illustrative:

  • Training: If the miscommunications were out of ignorance, then better training could have averted both ordeals. Unfortunately, the payback from training is not directly quantifiable, whereas sales numbers are. This is a dichotomy that call center managers must acknowledge and grapple with.
  • Call Monitoring: Making active call monitoring a management mandated priority (and not just lip service) might have caught these errors, could have eliminated these rogue agents’ self-serving focus, and certainly would have minimized all agents’ propensity to lie.
  • Incentives and Measurements: What gets measured gets done and what gets paid for gets done more. These miscommunications were likely intentional, a calculated lie aimed at making a sale. Unfortunately, call centers’ metrics and reward systems often unwittingly serve to promote and foster activity and performance that is detrimental to an organization’s overall best interests. The big picture must be continually considered; agent measurements and compensation must to be aligned with a long-term perspective.
  • Avoid Ripples: There is a ripple effect when a mistake is made. This occurs both within the organization as more and more people are pulled into the problem, as well as outside the organization as more and more people are told about the problem. Both take their toll. Frontline reps need to be empowered to act and to solve pressing issues, not encouraged to end the call just so they can take the next one in queue.
  • Effectively Resolve Problems: In the first example, no one ever said, “What would you like done to resolve this?” No one ever suggested a course of action or recommended a solution. In the second case, it was obvious that Dennis had been trained in effective problem resolution; plus, he was practiced and proficient at its implementation. He apologized, expressed empathy, took decisive action, and shouldered the responsibility for resolving the problem – even though it rightly belonged in a different department. The people he elicited for assistance were both supportive and efficient at effectively meeting the common goal of turning a bad situation into a desirable conclusion.

The preceding are recommendations that all call centers should follow. They may not produce short-term gains, but the long-term results are inescapable: results that are in the best interest of your call center – and your job.

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 April 2007]