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Customers Come with Baggage
Pre-interaction factors significantly affect customers' perceptions of service interactions
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When consumers contact customer service, more than half (53 percent) of their perceptions of the outcome is determined by factors that happened prior to that interaction, according to research from CEB, which was acquired by Gartner last year. That means that only 47 percent of any customer interaction is shaped by what agents actually say or do during their time with the customer.

These pre-interaction factors include customers’ perceptions of the company’s service capabilities, their perceived value to the company, the consistency of the information they received about their issues, their enjoyment in contacting the service organization, the value they’ve received from the company’s products or services, and previous contacts they’ve had about the same issue. According to the research, all of these fall under the umbrella of “customer baggage,” which CEB defines as “a customer’s past experiences, perceptions, or facts that occurred before the interaction.”

When Gartner and CEB started looking at those variables, the analysts discovered that most involved three main things: past experiences both with the company and with other companies; perceptions about the company and its customer service; and information that the customer had going into the interaction, according to Lara Ponomareff, marketing practice leader at Gartner. “We started to think of [these things] as baggage that customers bring in with them, that the company doesn’t even know about, that color their interactions,” she says.

The research also found that nearly all customers carry at least one type of baggage into any customer service interaction. More specifically, 63.5 percent of customers have had previous contacts about the same issue, less than half—43.4 percent—perceive that they are valuable to the company, 35 percent believe that they have received extremely low value from the company’s products or services, 32.3 percent have a poor perception of the company’s service capabilities, and 22.2 percent have received inconsistent information about their issue. Overall, 92 percent of customers reported having baggage, with just 8 percent saying that they do not have baggage.

As companies look to respond to this trend, the research found that tackling customer baggage head-on during interactions results in positive outcome gains, both immediately and in the future: When baggage is handled, customer satisfaction improves by 48 percent and customers’ perceived effort in their next interactions decreases by 14 percent. 

The problem is, though, that most companies and their customer service agents would prefer to completely avoid the customer baggage issue altogether, to pretend that it doesn’t exist, “because nobody wants to walk into something that they feel would be kind of a contentious situation,” Ponomareff explains. “I’d rather just ignore all of that…and hope that they just don’t explode at me.” 

But that would be the wrong approach to take: Agents who actually “almost run at the baggage, who understood the customer’s situation, who actually took questions about what they’ve done in the past, who basically took [the customer’s] larger relationship with the company into consideration…are more successful with customers,” Ponomareff points out. “Customers really respond well to it. Reps who say that they handle customer baggage say that calls go a lot smoother, they actually avoid negative situations, and customers appreciate it.”

And while companies really can’t control what customers bring with them to interactions, they can take steps to address this baggage, according to Ponomareff.

First, companies should use call listening or quality assurance methods to help identify the agents who handle customer baggage better than others. “I guarantee that in almost every service organization there’s a handful, hopefully more than a handful, of reps who are handling customer baggage,” Ponomareff maintains. Companies need to tap into those agents for say-this-instead-of-that advice that they can pass on to their peers who are less adept at handling baggage.

The second step is to highlight and input customer baggage for the future, leveraging existing technology to highlight and record it for use by other agents encountering similar situations down the road. 

The third step is to think about the coaching, training, and measurement systems that are in place and making sure that those align as well, Ponomareff says. 

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