Bringing Problems to Your Customer Service Team

One of the funniest sites on the Internet is www.despair.com. They sell posters and other merchandise designed to counter all those feel-good, inspiring, motivational posters. My all-time favorite Despair.com poster is of a penguin running up a slope with the caption "Limitations" in big print with the sub-caption "Until You Spread Your Wings, You'll Have No Idea How Far You Can Walk." Too true.

Another poster with the caption "Apathy" under a picture of an unused telephone says "If We Don't Take Care of the Customer, Maybe They'll Stop Bugging Us." This one has more truth than most of us care to admit.

To see this, one need only look at the focus of most businesses. Sales and marketing are the front runners because they are the closest to revenue, and the department that manufactures and develops the product is next in line. Sometimes companies are actually better known for their product development prowess rather than sales or marketing (as with GE), but very rarely does service or support rank in front of anything in a company's priority list.

Second, look at the focus of most service and support centers. Even in the department that is tasked with taking care of the customer, often the focus is how to keep the customer from contacting us! Hear me out. I'm not saying that we shouldn't devote energy to preventing problems before they happen or to providing easy ways for our customers to solve their own problems without our help. What I am saying is that businesses (because it is a whole-business decision) have a tendency to look at the customer support function (whether supporting employees or clients) myopically as the department of problems. And no one wants to increase problems. You want to find ways to eliminate problems, or at the very least deflect them so that customers don't bring you as many.

But there's a problem: If your customers don't bring YOU their problems, then where do they bring them?

Ever thought about that? Most of the time, we assume that if we don't hear about them, they don't exist...but really. Let's take the example of the successful but technology-inept salesperson. He can't seem to keep logged in to all the databases, intranets, and systems that he's supposed to use, and once he actually gets in, he has a hard time finding what he needs. He's a problem. And he probably knows it. So after a couple of embarrassing conversations with the help desk in which he explains that he didn't set a password reminder and didn't see the "expand" button in the file tree, he stops calling in. Problem solved! But what really happened was that he stopped logging in and stopped entering customer account information into the CRM. Instead, he just kept it in an Excel spreadsheet saved on a jump drive. That way, he'd always have it when he needed it. Especially if he got recruited to another company.

And what about the mid-level manager in accounting rummaging through the self-help knowledge base in search of an answer to her SAP question? She's trying to play nice and follow the rules and the rules clearly state that one should use the knowledge base before contacting support unless there is smoke coming from the back of the computer. She's not senior enough to get in the executive support group (if such a group exists) but she's responsible for 15 people's productivity. After an hour of searching and another hour of figuring, she finds the issue and gets back to work. Problem solved! But did it really make sense to have someone making $120,000 per year spend two hours to fix a problem that a junior technician making a quarter as much could have fixed in a quarter the time?

And finally, what about the customer with a problem that is not our problem? She loves our NuWaves product and all she wants is for it to output the audio to her home speaker system. But that's not on our list of supported use cases, and so with a sigh of relief, we inform the customer that she will have to get help elsewhere, maybe with the maker of the speaker system, but our company is not to blame. The problem that the customer brought up is thus magically transformed in mere seconds into a non-problem...at least for us. Problem solved! What happens from this point involves a few options:

  • Customer posts to her 38,937 twitter followers "NuWaves...what a drag. Maybe return to store"
  • Customer calls OlWaves (our competitor) and finds out from the salesperson that OlWaves does indeed work with her home speaker system (NuWaves works too, but it's not easy).
  • Customer decides to keep our product but uses it only 40% as much as she would have if she could have hooked it up to her speakers. But who cares, we already have her money.
  • Customer gets help from a local computer and electronics shop and for only $600 they set up the customer's speaker system to work with NuWaves and while they're at it, get her to sign an extended NuWave warranty and a yearly services contract in case anything else comes up.

Only a couple of these options are mutually exclusive.

Here's my point: As bad as it may seem to have to solve problems all day, it's much, much worse to not solve them even though the support center will rarely or never see the consequences of such "call avoidance" except in decreased support costs and mediocre customer satisfaction scores (if one measures such things). In all likelihood, the really ticked customers won't take the time to fill out the survey, so they won't even drag down your averages.

I think a new mindset is needed, one that actually attracts customer problems rather than repels them or deflects them. People should want to contact the support center when something goes wrong, even if the something that goes wrong is not associated with the something that the support center is normally responsible for.

Insanity? I don't think so for two very simple reasons:

  • Over time, customers bring their money to the same place they bring their problems. If you want to attract the one, you'd better get used to the other.
  • The alternative to customers bringing us their problems is often far worse than the problem itself.

So next time you hear a strategy to deflect or avoid customer incidents, listen carefully and read the fine print. It could be a worthy cause that will improve both the customer's experience and the bottom line, or it could be a thin façade on a plan to improve our productivity at the expense of all other employees or for telling customers to take their business elsewhere.

Nathan McNeill is cofounder and VP of product strategy for Bomgar Corporation, a provider of appliance-based, remote IT support.

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