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Don’t Let Defective Processes Undermine Your Customer Service
As front-line staff take the flak for systemic problems, it becomes harder to hold on to good service agents. Here's how to overhaul your processes—and keep customers and employee happy.
Posted Feb 16, 2016
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Training and retaining good staff are among the top challenges facing customer service professionals, according to a global survey of 400 companies by the American Society of Quality (ASQ), a leading authority on quality tools, principles, and practices in the workplace. While many companies may look to their human resources department for a solution, the real problem may lie in defective corporate marketing and operations processes that discourage good employees and undermine investments in training. The detail of the survey results provides clues suggesting a better solution.

The survey, fielded online during World Quality Month in November 2015, polled more than 400 quality and customer service professionals worldwide. Results indicated little disparity from country to country.

The Problem

Training and staff retention was cited as the top challenge by 33 percent of respondents, a big shift from ASQ's last customer service survey in 2012, when it was rated as the least significant challenge. Twenty-nine percent of the respondents said that managing customer expectations was their No. 1 challenge; 28 percent cited choosing the right technology to create a better customer experience; and nearly 26 percent cited obtaining a voice of the customer that everyone accepts as valid.  

The Diagnosis

While the labor market has certainly gotten much better, creating competition for good employees, an important underlying cause of the retention issues becomes clearer when the reported causes of customer dissatisfaction are examined. These same companies report the following common customer complaints:

  • 55 percent of respondents said timeliness in service delivery is the most often heard complaint;
  • 37 percent cited long waits, such as in-store lines and waiting for shipped products; and
  • 26 percent cited errors or inaccuracy in billing and payments.

All three of these complaints are generally the result of broken processes. Marketing and sales set incorrect expectations, making promises that will not be kept. Long waits often are the result of skimping on staffing levels. Most billing errors are systemic, not the result of individual errors.

When customers encounter these problems and go to front line staff, the problem has already occurred and the service staff must "pick up the pieces" by apologizing, trying to recover and providing the customer with a remedy or compensation. The staff is taking flak for a process that did not perform. Worse, when the problem is due to marketing not setting proper expectations, customers will ask, "Why was I told X?" and the employees have no defensible answer. This is inherently a frustrating, draining type of a job. The staff generally can be no more effective than airline flight attendants on a seriously delayed flight. They can apologize and try to make people comfortable in the short term, but missed connections and accompanying frustrations and anger are almost unavoidable. As a result, the front line takes the brunt of the anger for events for which they are not responsible.

Fifty percent of turnover among good staff is due to employees saying, "I'm not getting paid enough to take all these hassles." I recently saw an employee post about a cable company that noted that few employees lasted more than six months because "who could stand being yelled at for eight hours a day for events in the field that you were not responsible for." Investing heavily on training employees on defective processes is a losing proposition. Likewise, spending resources on intensive call monitoring has a lower ROI than fixing processes. (See my article on appropriately allocating quality resources.)

The Solution

Fixing the above conundrum requires a focus on process methods to eliminate problems before they occur rather than hiring a service army to fix them after the fact—in other words, moving from firefighting to prevention. 

The key to this prevention activity is to tap your corporate quality improvement team. Turn them loose on the operational issues such as late delivery and operational errors. Most delays and errors are due to poorly designed processes, which actually cost more than efficient, accurate processes. You’ll find costs go down as timeliness and accuracy go up.

But go beyond that and also have your team look at the marketing and sales processes that set customer expectations. Rather than promising customers a delivery date that will not be met, leading companies are starting to lower expectations early while they improve the timeliness of their delivery process. Bad news does not improve with age. In fact, the more of a surprise it is, the worse it gets. One insurance company identified the valuables limitation clause in its homeowner’s policy as an inherent unpleasant surprise waiting to happen. Customers never understood that only a small amount of valuables were automatically covered and grew angry when a claim was denied. The first page of the policy delivery welcome letter was changed to bring the actual amount covered to the customers' attention. While sales hated the welcome letter, the customer appreciated it and usually paid extra to get a higher level of coverage. The company made more money and the unpleasant surprise was avoided.

Taking Action

I suggest a five step action plan.

  1. Identify your company's top five complaint areas and ideally survey a random sample of your customers about their top pain points, including those they've given up complaining about.
  2. Ask your front-line employees to tell you the root cause of each type of complaint—in almost every case they will highlight a broken process.
  3. With your quality team, map the customer experience in each of the problem areas and select one as a test case.
  4. Challenge the quality team to develop an alternative process, working with the front line as advisers.
  5. Measure the reduction in customer problems and then communicate the improvements to both customers and employees—the after-action communication is critical to giving both groups hope that things will continue to improve.

You'll see an improvement in employee satisfaction and find that training on the streamlined processes is both easier and more effective.


John Goodman is vice chairman of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting; he can be reached at jgoodman@customercaremc.com or on Twitter @jgoodman888. His new book, Customer Experience 3.0, was published in May 2014. 

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