Why Customer Service Is Getting Weird, and What You Can Do About It

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YOU’VE PROBABLY noticed that as we start to recover from “COVID culture,” we are left with a legacy of some odd customer encounters. I recently received a call from someone who insisted I was a Walmart call center employee. Here is a mercifully condensed version of the weird exchange:

Me: I understand your frustration but I do not work for Walmart. You literally have the wrong number!

Them: Why are you guys so unwilling to help when a customer has a problem?

Me: I am willing to help. I just don’t work for Walmart. And my experience with Walmart is good in general, but again you have misdialed. I am a non-Walmart employee just trying to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant.

Them: I need to speak with your supervisor!

Me: Sure, hold on!

So as I hung up and finished my pho, it occurred to me, having been a call center manager and a call taker many years ago, that I was dealing with someone who wasn’t just unfocused and ridiculous (though indeed those two things were true); this person’s previous experience with disengaged call takers had caused him to simply stop listening.

With weird things on the news, generally frustrated people, and oddly high turnover rates for contact center professionals, it’s understandable that encounters ranging between disengaged and slightly enraged are pretty common. It’s easy to say a good customer service culture starts at the very top. But the truth is that it doesn’t. High-level managers and CEOs have minimal effect on customers. And before you start daydreaming about trickle-down leadership, allow me to elaborate.

For starters, according to most research, disengaged customers need to feel they can trust who they’re communicating with in the first 10 seconds. They need to feel like the call center employee is present in the moment during the conversation they’re having and all attention is on the caller. (It’s very difficult to listen if you feel no one is listening to you.) That means remote agents with barking dogs and whiny kids, as well as call center-bound people who sound like they have 500 people talking around them, are at a distinct disadvantage even before they start trying to help. You have to set yourself up for a basic foundation of trust to have any influence these days.

Sometimes we forget the basics and then wonder why the specifics don’t work. For perspective, we can just think of our own experience as callers in need of service. Today, when we feel like we’re getting more unsolicited calls than ever before, and working from home with smelly teenagers and a 5-year-old who thinks everything is a touchscreen, it’s important that we talk to a professional we feel comfortable with and can quickly believe in.

Shifting back to what needs to happen in the call center environment, how do we develop staff that fosters that sense of comfort and believability that creates a good customer encounter? Great training doesn’t necessarily mean you believe in what you’re doing. Furthermore, the rules of how to create a fantastic customer experience do not make you successful on their own. Education and philosophy only work on believers. That means if your direct supervisors are not drinking the employee engagement Kool-Aid, that culture doesn’t exist. Executives, contact center directors, and other top-jobbers can preach and believe all they want, but a great culture does not exist on the call center floor unless it’s flying out of the mouths of those who manage the contact center pros directly. Engaged employees create engaged customers one encounter at a time.

According to Gallup, engaged employees believe three critical things: (1) my direct supervisor supports me and cares about me as a person; (2) I know how important my job is to the entire company and my customers; and (3) I see a future for me at this organization or simply look forward to continuing to come to work every day.


Obviously, if you can create this type of environment, your employee retention goes up dramatically and your onboarding becomes much more successful. But the big side effect is that your customers become engaged by dealing with engaged employees.

According to anonymous surveys, disengaged employees often quit and take disengaged customers with them (often to your competition). That’s right. They commiserate and at some point decide “Hey ... we’re both outta here!” It’s very difficult to have customer loyalty if you don’t have employee loyalty first.

In reality, strange customer behavior is something that has been building up for a long time, and it has just gotten worse with the addition of COVID. What the future looks like after this particular pandemic is hard to predict. Based on global health crises over the past 500 years, we seem to come out a bit wiser (and for some reason wearing funny-looking hats). But the weirdness of our contact center encounters is far more easily predictable and curable. The bottom line: Create a culture of employee engagement and your customers will be much less likely to think that their experience with you has been really weird. 

Garrison Wynn (garrisonwynn.com) is an Amazon bestselling author, a nationally known keynote speaker, and a former Fortune 500 leader who helps organizations create a culture of influence. Reach him at garrisonwynn2@gmail.com.

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