(Ran into this 2006 post while searching for an old Photon Courier post, and realized it had never been posted on Chicago Boyz. It is unfortunately still quite relevant.)
Almost every day, one encounters some business that is attempting to micromanage the interactions between its employees and its customers.
At lunchtime a couple of weeks ago, I was in the mood for bacon & eggs, so I went to a restaurant (part of a local chain) that has breakfast items all day long. The interaction went something like this:
Waitperson: Welcome to Snarfers-by-the-Lake, my name is Linda, I’ll be your server today.
Me: Hi, Linda. I’m kind of in a breakfast mood, so I think I’ll have the bacon & eggs.
WP (looks confused, as if she’d never heard of this dish before): Bacon & eggs? I don’t think…Oh, that would be our “eggs any style.”
Me: OK…style I like ’em is over medium, with the bacon pretty crisp.
WP: Over medium…and would you like bacon or sausage with that?
Me: Bacon…pretty crisp.
WP: And our soup today is cream of broccoli.
Me: Soup with breakfast? That would be something different!
WP: I know it’s silly, but they make me say it.
I know it’s silly, but they make me say it. In how many consumer-oriented businesses could employees say the same thing?
Also a couple of weeks ago, I had to call my local telco, always a dreaded experience. After I had finally gotten through the levels of the voice response menu and got a person, it was:
CS Agent: Thank you for calling, how may I provide you with exceptional service today?
How may I provide you with exceptional service today? You can bet the agent didn’t come up with this phrase all by herself. And I doubt if her management came up with it all on their own. No, I detect the fine hand of a consultant here–maybe the pointy-haired guy in Dilbert went into the CS consulting business.
What imaginable purpose is there in requiring this phrase to be used in thousands of calls per day? Customers will decide if the service is “exceptional” or not based on what gets done or not done. You’re not going to convince them by using the word. And from the standpoint of the CS agents, this kind of thing can only breed cynicism.
Many retail and customer-service operations seem to have recently discovered the work-study methods of Frederick Winslow Taylor, 80 years or so after they started to be used in manufacturing, and to be applying them without much thought. People–and customer service situations–are much more variable than are semifinished materials in a factory environment. And, even in manufacturing there has been some retreat from strict Taylorism.
Increasingly, customer service interactions are reminiscent of an automated machine tool doing something without regard for the context–say, a CNC milling machine going through an elaborate cutting pattern, totally oblivious to the fact that no workpiece is present, and the only thing it is cutting is air.
I think it was Peter Drucker who quoted an old business saying: “You can’t just hire a hand. Its owner always comes with it.” Too many people running customer service operations seem to think that they can just hire a voice, without mind or heart attached.
At the same time customer service operations are micromanaging verbal interactions, they often undermanage the flow of work. In call centers, it’s often pretty obvious that no one has systematically thought through the question: What are the most common kinds of customer issues, and how might each of them best be handled? To use a manufacturing analogy again, it’s like an auto assembly plant that conducts elaborate time-and-motion studies to determine the best way to tighten a particular bolt–but never notices that the seats are being put on before the bolt in question…which is underneath one of the seats…and hence that seat has to be taken back out again before the bolt can go in.
There are big opportunities, in the form of revenue, customer loyalty, and profit, for those businesses that choose to apply serious thought to their customer service processes, rather than just going with whatever is trendy at the moment.
There’s plenty of mindless customer-service activity going on in government and in K-12 education, too–probably much worse than in business, on the average, but arguably harder to fix due to things like interest-group politics and Civil Service rules. Business should be providing a good example, not an increasingly awful one.