I was once criticized by an employee that was quitting for running the customer service department meetings like a focus group. I had never thought of it like that, but it ultimately was a good comparison and one that I now use as guidance for my meetings. The reason behind this is that customer-facing employees are the best resource a company has to find out what’s going on with the customer. In light of this, I generally try to interrogate the agents to find out what’s going on with the customers. I’ll also occasionally take an afternoon on the phones myself just to learn first hand. If the agents are frustrated then the that’s a sure sign the customers are too.
The problem I run into, which I haven’t figured out how to hire around, and is exacerbated by every level of management you add to a company, is that most agents are suffering from some degree of “learned helplessness”. To be fair, we all do to some degree, but I think regularly battered agents generally do to a different level.
Learned helplessness is behavior typical of a human or an animal and occurs where the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape or avoid. In other words, the organism learned that it is helpless in situations where there is a presence of aversive stimuli, has accepted that it has lost control, and thus gives up trying. (Wiki)
Ok, this sounds dire, but it translates into all sorts of customer issues that no one in the company, outside the agents ever hear about. Customers call in with outrageous issues, and I’ve heard many agents simply assume that’s par for the course and simply apologize. This is exactly what you don’t want to have happen.
So how can we encourage reps to fight for their customers? To feel the same outrage that I might feel if I heard about the issue? I’m really asking, I haven’t figured it fully our myself, but I wanted to share the things I do in an attempt to gain more of this knowledge.
- Encourage complaining about customer issues, but only upwards in the chain of command. This is a tricky one since you have to draw a line, but it’s necessary to ensure everyone is aware that this is not only acceptable but encouraged. I’m admittedly not that good at reminding people of this because telling people it’s ok to complain goes against everything I believe in otherwise, but this is one exception where it’s important.
- Set aside time weekly specifically to vent about what customers are frustrated about. I always conclude my department meetings asking questions of the agents. In a group setting, I can see which complaints get a larger response, and which seem to be one-offs. This is by far where I get most of my information about issues.
- Reward and praise agents that bring issues up. This is necessary so that everyone realizes you are telling the truth when you are requesting complaints. It’s important to boldly and publicly thank them. I also try to remember who first pointed it out, so we can credit them once the solution is in place.
- Create casual occasions for things to come up such as happy hours and lunches. I usually will get more frank, less formal feedback outside the office at a happy hour or even company lunch. Those have always been great places to learn about whats going on, as everyone tends to be in a different mindset. All the work formality goes away and you can sometimes have success in getting new insights you otherwise would not have had. Happy hours are also just a good idea in general for self-evident reasons!
- Put in an anonymous feedback box. No matter how much you ask, some people won’t feel comfortable complaining or criticizing. For this, I have put in an anonymous feedback box. I’ve gotten excellent, important feedback through that box, and I make sure I address each note in the all-hands meeting.
- Take calls yourself regularly. Nothing will replace simply logging in and taking calls yourself. The key is to do it in serious batches as opposed to taking 3 calls and calling it quits. I try to regularly spend hours on the phones, and it is frequently the most beneficial learning of my whole week.
- Monitor all the major review sites. When all else fails, you need to at least take a close look at any BBB reviews or negative reviews on social media or elsewhere. These will be your most urgent issues. Issues where your customers were not successfully helped by your customer service team. I regularly schedule calls with these customers to ask them the details of their complaints, so we can learn to never repeat them.
As I mentioned above, I would LOVE to get additional ideas, because I know I’m not getting as much information as I’d like, but frankly I’m surprised there isn’t more info on this out there. Shouldn’t all customer service teams be focus-grouped and encouraged to complain like this? What’s your take?