Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 10, 2017
In one of my presentations, I have a slide on the subject of customer service that shows a video clip from the 1970 movie “Five Easy Pieces,” starring Jack Nicholson. The scene is in a restaurant with Nicholson trying to order some toast. The waitress explains that they do not have side orders of toast — whereupon Nicholson engages her in a classic Socratic analysis on the subject of customer service. It ends with him clearing the table with his arm and trashing all the food and glasses onto the floor and then walking out — Jack at his best.
I have shown it a hundred times, and it always elicits intense laughter. After all, come on, what is so hard about a side order of toast? However, there is a darker subtext that highlights the underlying issues of communication, rules, anger, stupid limits, inability to make decisions in real time, constraints — in other words, all the stuff that makes up today’s customer service.
To better understand the issue, I have turned to a recent Harvard Business Review article called “Consumers Want Results — Not Sympathy.” It starts by pointing out that 81 percent of all customers attempt initially to take care of matters themselves — think self-service kiosk check-in at the airport — before reaching out to a live representative. For example, the job known as “bank teller” will go the way of the dodo bird within five years. I suspect this strain of self reliance correlates with age as well, with younger, more technical souls doing more of the self-solution-solving.
The implications for companies are direct because if people are doing the easy ones themselves, then the people in customer service today are facing only the more complex problems — “the ones customers can’t solve on their own.” Putting an unprepared staff on the front line invites unhappiness in the consumer. As one retailer says, “it’s not a contact center, it is more like a factory of sadness.”
Of course you also run the risk of the adverse interaction going viral. The list is nearly endless of bad customer service spreading on social media. So the company might save $3 on a customer service representative and find it costs them a million dollars in bad publicity.
HBR studied 1,440 reps globally and has compressed them into seven profiles. Here they are: accommodators, competitors, controllers, empathizers, hard workers, innovators and rocks. In the resulting survey, the managers at the companies liked the empathizers the best (that is who they tended to hire), but the customers overwhelmingly preferred the controllers.
Think about it. Don’t tell me you feel badly for me; just fix the damn problem. Controllers have a strong personality, they take charge, they are opinionated and they are vocal. They do not ask the customer what he would like to do; they tell him what he needs to do. They do not give you yada yada — I feel your pain. Rather they actively and quickly do something about it.
So far this seems like a no-brainer. But here is the brainer — how do you find, hire and train these personality types? A key characteristic of the controller is “likes demonstrating expertise and directing the customer interaction.” Now, what kind of manager is comfortable hiring that type of person. As you can see, you are going to have to spend some time first educating your managers because the people you really need may be a threat to the person doing the hiring — perceived as not “a good cultural fit.”
Think about how you advertise to find the controller. Using the words “challenging career opportunities and a culture that rewards performance” is not going to get you there. Controllers do not want to be told to follow the old rules. They want flexibility and an arena in which they can express their personality in the service of the company mission, but do not give them a script to read. They will be gone in 60 seconds. And as the consumer, when I get the rote response that has no connection to my problem, that is when I go ballistic. Controllers have competencies of negotiation and building rapport. When you get one on the phone, you hear, “I see you have called three times recently, let’s get this problem fixed for you.”
Rule No. 512: What do you mean, you don’t have toast?