Confessions of a Customer Service Agent – Management Support?

In the third of our four-part series entitled “Confessions of a Customer Service Agent” – The Social XChange investigates the role of management and the level of support, training and engagement they offer to their service professionals.  The data for this analysis was compiled through a survey of more than two dozen agents during Customer Service Week, October 7-11, 2013.

More than 80% of the customer service representatives surveyed related situations of little or no training, lack of knowledge about the product line and outright  indifference from management on the need to improve these areas.  In addition, many of the representatives we surveyed found career opportunities were far and few between and the ability to update their own “knowledge base” was extremely limited.

“Poor training” was a common theme from those surveyed, as many were given no more than a quick “walk through” when they started their job (retail stores were the worse offenders with almost no sales or “service” training).   If a formal training period was included, it was often shortened due to “business need” – the “need” to utilize the new hires as soon as possible whether fully trained or not.

For retail service professionals, “not knowing” can be extremely difficult with the customer standing in front of them and becoming visibly frustrated.  Any hope of pleasing a customer at this point is simply part of the “breakage” that management understands will occur with new employees.

For call center agents, the training they received was generally enough to get them “on the floor” but if they needed time to read over new material or master new processes, the common response from supervisors was simply “you are needed on the phone”.

Lack of advancement or career path options were additional pain points for a majority of agents.  In retail, companies are apt to advance service professionals due to shortages or if management is stretched too thin.  This generally results in customer facing representatives being moved up (with little or no advancement in pay) to “leads” without the requisite training for the position.

In call centers, the job is to be “on the phone” so cross training with other departments is a difficult proposition.  The irony is that monthly scorecards can be greatly affected by the agent being off the phone which in turn hurts their chances to move on to another department.

It appears that instead of ramping up training courses and ensuring that only the best become front line employees, there is a sense from those surveyed that management simply accepts a certain amount of employee attrition, customer inconvenience and that “only the strong will (or should) survive”.

The key management takeaway from this feedback – there is a clear need for more comprehensive training including product knowledge, tool usage and role-playing – items which are critical for agent success.  The representatives surveyed for this study were adamant they have shared this information time and time again with managers, directors, even vice presidents and corporate leadership, to no avail.

Our conclusion is that either companies do not understand the value of vigorous training and informed workers or they simply do not value customer relationships enough to ensure their front line personnel are prepared to resolve customer issues.

Monday: Part 4 of our Series – If Customer Service Agents were in charge.

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Customer Service vs. Customer Recovery

One of the topics that The Social XChange is exploring in greater depth with Social 3.0 is the difference between customer service and customer recovery.

What is the difference you may ask? For companies such as ZapposSouthwest Airlines, and State Farm, customer service begins with the first sale or interaction and they gain and retain a customer with that initial experience.

In other words, if you get the initial transaction wrong (billing issue, defective product, or a bad internal process) then the client may have to call back, write or chat on your website, use self-service, or post to Social sites in order to have their situation corrected.  This creates a “customer recovery” opportunity.  You broke it, you fix it, but this effort may not save the long term customer relationship and certainly increases customer frustration.

Unfortunately, this is the way most customer facing centers are built – for recovery.  The alliance of FSM (Finance, Sales and Marketing) has long believed that customer service is a “cost center“, built to deliver “world class” customer care by fixing what went wrong on the front end of the transaction while increasing customer satisfaction and retention.

With every new product, price or process put in place, FSM calculates “breakage”.  Breakage, by definition, is the amount of customers affected by a defective, wrong or incompatible product, a price increase or simply a new internal process that benefits the company at the expense of the customer.   The number of people who will leave due to breakage and the number of people that customer facing agents “save” are also calculated.

In most cases, the focus for FSM is squarely on recovery – so it begs the question “how does this increase customer satisfaction?” Eventually, many customers will uncover the fact that they are not receiving “customer service”.

So therein lies the disconnect between customer service and customer recovery.  Unless the emphasis is to fix processes which cause “breakage” on the front end, a company will not be able to truly be known as “world class”.  All companies make mistakes and a flexible “recovery” plan is vital, but it should not be the focus of ones efforts.  Understanding the difference between service and recovery is critical, especially when a company gets only one chance to make it right.