Customer Service

  • February 2, 2017
  • Happy young businesswoman with headset isolated over white backgThere’s an interesting article in the January/February issue of Harvard Business Review by Matthew Dixon and some associates from CEB, a consulting group, about customer service agents that I think is worth a look.

    Most of us understand the phenomenon that new customer service channels such as social, email, knowledge bases and the like have left the service agent with harder problems to solve. Those channels are here to stay because they cost pennies to solve problems, when they work well, but conventional agents can cost many dollars to resolve an issue. So there’s a decided bias for self-service where possible.

    But as I wrote in “Solve for the Customer,” we need to ensure that there are graceful transitions from the channels to agents or we risk a backlash. As a matter of fact, some amount of backlash in the form of irate customers confronting agents is par for the course, but how are we preparing for this?

    The HBR article suggests that we’re mis-staffing the call center for today’s activity. I say mis-staffing rather than anything else because the staffing model is simply old; it’s built on the assumptions of another time that no longer reflects service realities. The article summarizes a study of over 1400 service agents from diverse industries and many countries and its conclusions are interesting to say the least. It groups agents into seven different buckets and characterizes them and in this demonstrates the mis-alignment of skills to need.

    The predominant type of agent in the study is labeled The Empathizer and they make up 32 percent of agents covered in the study. An Empathizer says the report, “Enjoys solving others’ problems; seeks to understand behaviors and motives; listens sympathetically.” That’s fine and harkens back to a time when all sorts of easy and hard problems visited the call center. But the agent type that’s more effective for today’s need is labeled The Controller, which the study describes this way—“Outspoken and opinionated; likes demonstrating expertise and directing the customer interaction.”

    Unfortunately, Controllers make up only 15 percent of agents in the study and while they are ranked #1 in effectiveness, they are ranked #3 in service manager desirability. The reason is simple. Controllers, like good sales people, go off script; they relish their freedom to roll up their sleeves and solve a problem and they aren’t terribly enamored of following all the rules set down in a manual.

    Here’s the rub: by the time a do-it-yourself customer gives up on tracking a problem through a maze of sometimes contradictory or confusing information on the Web, they aren’t likely to want a long empathetic encounter with a service agent. They’re much more likely to want someone to FIX their problem, pronto. That’s where the disconnect happens. Controllers take charge and provide comfort of quick resolution with little fuss that empathizers, despite best efforts, might not.

    What to do? The article suggests that we get more controller types into the service mix but that suggests a change of mindset in the hiring process and even in the job description. If you advertise jobs for self-starters or other similar descriptions, you have to be able to let them, well, you know, self-start. That’s a big effort for managers used to controlling and scripting the action but it’s increasingly apparent that the change is needed.

    There are approaches for making changes in the service department suggested in the article and I encourage you to read and consider them though I won’t summarize them here. But in an age of job depletion due to automation it’s great to see this article because it pinpoints one area where human interfaces are needed and also a mode of working that shows how technology can augment human actors.







    Published: 7 years ago

    blog_loyaltyeGain is touting a new report from Forrester Consulting and my friend Ian Jacobs purporting to show that omnichannel customer service is “stagnant or worse” when it comes to delivering service that customers need and want. Ian does good work and I am in agreement with him on this but I have trouble with some conclusions, specifically the implication that the problem can be solved with more software.

    Now, I am a proud software bigot but I am also fond of the saying, “If you take your car to Midas you’re going to get a muffler.” Yes, I know this is an exaggeration but that’s where the humor comes from. It says that there is a danger in thinking you are being objective when you aren’t and when you are in fact pre-judging a situation.

    In this case the prejudging comes in two flavors. First, it assumes that the technology users have identified the important moments of truth that drive customers to seek service in the first place. Nothing could be further from the truth. Customers everywhere are unhappy with service.

    According to Accenture’s Global Consumer Pulse Research study (found in an eGain press release), 64% of customers switched their business to another provider due to poor service last year, up 26% over the same survey in 2010. Importantly this created a $6.2 trillion dollar switching economy. How serious is that? There are exactly three areas or countries on the planet with GDPs in excess of $6 trillion, the EU, the United States, and China. Importantly, the switching economy provides no value, when a switch is complete you have a status quo situation. So think of that money as simply evaporated.

    Second, it presumes that better alignment of disparate digital channels is what’s needed for the fix. Now, I am a fan of eGain and I think they offer some good omnichannel support but it’s clear to me, at least, that the channel—i.e. delivery mechanism for service—is not the problem. If you take Accenture’s numbers seriously then you realize that the problem exists across key markets around the world. Technology is not solving this problem. But it could.

    The missing ingredient based on my research is understanding customer moments of truth. My research into customer sentiment shows that customers get most upset and do indeed churn when a vendor’s service processes fall apart. Repeatedly. Now, some of this can be blamed on poor or old software systems that simply break. But a very large proportion of customer complaints go deeper. Simply put many vendors are just missing important customer moments of truth, times when customers expect their vendor to come through with an appropriate recognition of a problem and a solution. Too often the vendors are not even aware of the problem.

    If I could reduce my learnings to one idea it would be this: customers strenuously object when vendors act tone deaf. Wouldn’t you?

    So in my view a solution has two parts. First, it is certainly good to be able to jump into a channel, any channel, with a customer to provide service. The idea of responding in whatever channel a customer uses to initiate contact makes all the sense in the world. But once you are there, you have to perform so the second part is for vendors to capture and understand customer moments of truth based on their product lines and customer demographics. Vendors have to be locked and loaded with solutions to known or high probability problems and for less obvious problems they have to provide a sure and streamlined path to a person who can help them, regardless of channel. Journey mapping is an important part of this too.

    I am fond of quoting a short article from Harvard Business Review’s website titled “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” by Matthew Dixon, Karen Freemen, and Nicholas Toman. Their thesis, which I agree with, is that customers want competent and efficient solutions to their problems so that they can get on with their lives. This sounds like being in moments of truth to me. They don’t need to be delighted and the quest for delight is a rabbit hole down which we pour too many resources with poor results.

    To get to competent and efficient solutions, it helps to plan in advance and perhaps offer ready made solutions (aka best practices), to the extent possible, that can be pushed or pulled through multiple channels rather than relying on outdated hunt and peck self-service.

    To get to that point you need to ask your customers about their needs. You can do this passively through machine learning systems or actively through communities. But either way we need to become more proactive about service. We can leverage the powerful omnichannel technologies now on offer, but first we need to catch up by devising better ways to service. Otherwise we’re just applying new technology to old processes and expecting different results. No one’s ever done that, right?


    Published: 8 years ago

    Siebel saved my life.  Not really but sort of.  By the early 1990’s I had been selling software for what seemed like a lifetime and dealing with the typical frustrations of life in sales.  There weren’t enough leads and there was always more work to do than you could squeeze into a day.  I kept records on legal pads and file folders and I had a Rolodex that I would never update because it was way too much work.  And then there was forecasting.

    Fortunately, I was young and gifted with a great memory so I could remember everything that was relevant in a deal.  Beginning in the 1980’s I had worked for a succession of DEC partners and I found that I could memorize whole catalogs — VAX and PDP-11 were separate — without trying.

    But, yes, Siebel saved my life because by the early 1990s I was burned out — the mini-computer boom was fizzling, the dotcom boom had not yet started, and there was a recession which made everyone skittish about installing systems on PC networks because they were also skittish about network operating systems.

    Finding leads was hard.  No one would spend much on marketing and bingo card leads were of such low quality that it was easy to return them to marketing with a heavy dose of scorn.  Cold calling was a way of life.  There was no Internet to speak of and researching prospects was tedious.  The early market euphoria in which every company was a prospect had given way much too quickly to a war of attrition.

    I was not a Siebel user but it nevertheless saved my professional life because it showed there was a better way to sell that didn’t involve dialing till you dropped, unmanageable paper records, and monthly forecasts — little fictions whose greatest quantitative attribute was that they were rendered in spreadsheets.  Siebel wasn’t even the first tool of its kind.  ACT! and Goldmine were already on the market but Siebel took what had been a single user experience and made it germane to selling in the enterprise.

    It would still be many years after Siebel’s founding before we would see integrated marketing and customer service but true to form Siebel was one of the leaders in consolidating the CRM suite at a time when public companies would buy other companies in simple swaps using their stocks like cash.

    Siebel also hired aggressively.  EVP David Schmaier would routinely visit his alma mater, Harvard Business School, each spring and round up its best and brightest for export to San Mateo.  As a strategy it worked reasonably well and the company was always awash with smart, talented people, not just the Harvards by the way.  Many of them are still in The Valley, populating other companies including Oracle where some settled after the buyout.  Today having Siebel on your resume is akin to having Oracle or HP back in their heydays.  It says you were first, you were prescient, you’re a survivor

    The company was never loved, in my estimate, and that is a key lesson for all those who come after.  They played by a script that was pure Geoffrey Moore.  Not that Moore is like that, I don’t know him.  But in “Crossing the Chasm,” Moore set down some absolute truths about how paradigms shift and how the eventual winners conduct themselves.  Early markets are take-no-prisoner ground acquisition games. Capture as much territory as you can to deny it to your competitors; deal in a general-purpose product and accept customization ideas with great reluctance and great cost; expect the customer to figure it out and provide adequate but no frills support because most of your energy is dedicated to capturing more, more, more.

    It was a brilliant strategy that some might say was invented at Oracle so it was only commonsense that Tom Siebel and several other titans of today’s software landscape would come out of that culture.  But the strategy has a down side too.  As I say, Siebel may have been respected for its execution but I doubt if it was ever loved in the way that Apple was loved, for instance.

    The lack of love made it easier to accept the assertions of an upstart analyst firm at the time that Siebel’s marquee customers could not show an ROI.  A scandal erupted that took a good deal of wind out of the company’s sails.  Then, too, a Gartner analyst famously forecasted in off the cuff remarks that half of all CRM efforts would fail.  Many people grasped at these factoids like they were drowning.

    If all you read are the headlines, then your world is rather black and white but if you delve just a bit deeper you understand that the world is rather gray and this situation was no exception.  Frustrated by the charges that the company believed were bogus, they hired me to evaluate not the charges but their customer base.  My partner at the time was fellow Aberdeen analyst Harry Watkins who happened to hold a Ph.D. in Marketing and also taught at the university level.

    Our work was clean.  We were separated from Siebel by three thousand miles and given broad latitude to question their customers.  What we discovered in many cases was exactly what Geoffrey Moore might have predicted.  Major corporations had bought Siebel because it was the market leader and because they didn’t want to lose a step to a competitor.  They were early adopters after all.  The result, our research showed, was that a whopping half of the customers never bothered to conduct even a rudimentary needs analysis before or after purchase.  Many could not quote an ROI because they had no relevant starting point to compare with.

    Also, in a great bit of statistical analysis, Watkins discovered that some of the companies that were reporting ROI numbers were among those who failed to perform that needs analysis.  When he compared this group with those who had actually performed needs analyses, he found that in aggregate the faux reporters had lower ROI to report.  Our conclusion was that without a valid starting point for ROI the faux reporters either developed amnesia about how bad things had been prior to implementation or they’d downplayed their results so as not to contradict the evident truth of the herd and the headlines.

    When we published the results, a few people in the industry, whom we had thought of as friends, demanded our heads on platters.  It was all good fun.  But that’s not the whole story.  In direct follow up interviews with some customers we discovered additional truths.  Siebel really was hard to use, especially for people who had never followed organized business processes and organizing sales people of that era was like rustling cats.  Its client-server architecture, the most advanced for the times, required a great deal of handholding.  One major company I spoke with had three teams of technologists dedicated to Siebel — one each for the last release, the current release, and for the next one.  They were tired but curiously not angry.

    Siebel had the lifecycle of a meteor — a bright youth and an ignominious end.  In subsequent years, relative newcomer, Anthony Lye would do much to integrate Siebel into Oracle and flesh out the product line with a SaaS architecture and many auxiliary functions — other free standing companies bought with Oracle cash to fill out the very complete suite we see today.

    Siebel got started in 1993, which means this is the twentieth anniversary year of its founding.  A lot has happened in the interim.  Siebel is no longer a standalone entity having been acquired in a greater version of stock market brinkmanship than even it had participated in during its growth phase.  But in many ways, Siebel still is the market.  Go into a Global 2000 company and you will see a Siebel system; today Salesforce users might flank that system’s users too.  For many of these companies Siebel is a workhorse system that has been through some of the wars and continues to be serviceable.

    But markets and vendors are changing.  Oracle has Fusion and is slowly merging it with Siebel while Salesforce continues to be the juggernaut that prematurely challenged Siebel in a joust of jests.  If you follow Bruce Daley’s recent survey work the customer base is in good shape so you might wonder what’s next.  Customers seem to genuinely like Siebel these days, a good omen for sure.  But current mainframers still love their big iron too.  For all that, however, we aren’t building and selling mainframes very much and the installed base is shrinking if only because COBOL/CICS programmers want to retire and kids in school today don’t want to be big iron museum docents.

    So where is Siebel at twenty?  Somewhere in middle age.  There might be a Siebel named product twenty years from now but it will be very different from what we have today, which s very different from what we had ten years ago.  By and large, that’s a good thing.  So, happy birthday Siebel.

    Published: 11 years ago

    Forrester ninja, Kate Leggett, surveys the waterfront and comes up with fifteen tips for customer service trends in 2013.  Leggett’s blog post is full of statistics that should make you think.  About what?  Well, the trend that’s moving service to an agile, proactive and reactive response mechanism for one.  A lot rests on the use of advanced analytics and a rethink of what the service center is all about.  It’s no longer just about fixing something that broke or went wrong and that is how you build lasting relationships.  Check it out.

    Published: 11 years ago

    I’ve been blown away recently by how bad the luxury customer service sites are.  They just don’t get it in spades.  now, this is not the rant of a spoiled rich kid.   I bought a fine Swiss watch a few years ago when some retailers were closing and liquidating inventory, so I got a good price.  Today when I need to buy a leather strap to keep the Swiss magic running on my wrist, I am appalled that this luxury product vendor has such a backward website.

    You can go there to buy more watches — but trust me the Swiss make these things to last the century at least, so buying net new is the last thing on your mind.  But unlike the finely turned metal, the organics — i.e. leather — breakdown over time and you need to replace them.  No such luck with my vendor, Raymond Weil.

    The website is decidedly not an ecommerce — or even a customer focused — site which is weird.  While ecommerce might be seen as déclassé for making a lux purchase (I dunno, just guessing) as a customer service vehicle it makes a lot of sense.  I might get a kick out of making the initial purchase at a store but I could give less than a farthing to go through the customer experience of entering a store to buy a wrist band.

    WTF guys?  Why can’t I even find the thing on your site?  The site is way too oriented toward saying how wonderful you are.  Don’t you get it?  It’s not about you it’s about what you can do for me.

    Seeing this nonsense makes me glad I got 40 points off retail for the bloody watch.  More importantly though it tells me how much work we have left to do in customer orientation.

    Published: 12 years ago