Wednesday 25 August 2004

Customer service.

Photon Courier discusses this piece by Jim Jubak about atrocious customer service. I have some observations.

Firstly, this is American customer service that's being discussed. Brits who visit the US are often amazed by how good their customer service is, and Americans who visit the UK can't get over how bad ours is (unless, of course, they come via France). So the implication of this article seems to be that American customer service has got so bad that it's crippling their economy — but is still better than ours. How I wish that were surprising.

Secondly, I have to say that David (that's Mr Photon) is dead right that good customer service doesn't require more employees or more technology. In fact, I would go so far as to say that every bit of bad customer service I experience is down to one thing, and it's not technology or staff numbers: it's attitude; specifically, the attitude of management towards customers. This attitude shapes the way that technology is used and influences the number of staff that are hired, but they're just symptoms of the underlying attitude: give the persistent offenders, like, say, Ikea, more staff and better technology, and they will still piss their customers off, until their managers learn how to treat them.

I used to work for a company who weren't called Farmec, who were one of the world's largest (sometimes the largest, depending how the competition were doing) providers of customer resource management solutions. (Why they couldn't just call themselves a call centre provider, I don't know. OK; contact centre, then. Still better than "Hi. I'm in CRM provision." Jesus wept.) What companies like Farmec do is they provide the customer service wing of your company for you, usually in the form of a call centre. The idea is that you might run a company who are brilliant at making widgets and inventing new uses for widgets, but you haven't got a clue how to deal with customers when they start complaining about sub-standard widgets, so you hire a CRM provider, and they do all your customer service for you. Working for one of these firms is fascinating, because you have loads of different clients (I could be helping to organise a dozen or so different call centres at the same time) and, as you have to put their customer service policies into practice, you get to see the differences between their attitudes. And those differences are huge.

Bear in mind that none of the disastrously bad customer service practiced by any of Farmec's clients was the fault of underinvestment in technology. Part of the point of hiring a CRM provider is that, since they specialise in customer service and nothing else, they invest heavily in the latest customer-service-orientated technology.

Here's one simple example of bad practice. A leading UK company, who aren't called ME, routinely hire at least two different CRM providers to fulfill different parts of their call centre function. This is actually a pretty good idea: you get to compare their performance and choose whose contract to renew when the time comes. But what ME also do is they absolutely refuse to give the different firms each other's phone numbers. So you, the customer, ring ME; you get an IVR ("Press 2 to wonder what the hell's going on," etc), and, depending on which choices you make, you don't just get through to different departments; you get through to entirely different companies, none of whom have each other's phone numbers. What if you make the wrong choice? You wanted to talk to someone about maximising your synergies and you've accidentally got through to someone who can only synergise your maxims.

"Can you put me through to the right department, then, please?"

"No, sorry; you'll need to call back and choose option 17 this time."


It's just one tiny example — from, I have to say, one of Farmec's better clients at customer service — but it speaks volumes. ME's customers complain about it all the time, and ME know it. Farmec, being customer service experts, knew that it was a bad idea and kept asking ME for the necessary phone numbers so that they could put their customers through when necessary, but ME refused those requests. What does this say about ME's attitude to their customers? Well, firstly, it's interesting that they ignore Farmec's advice. Farmec's entire raison d'etre is customer service expertise. The firm was founded by a man who got so pissed off with the crap customer service provided by companies that he set out to do it better. When you hire Farmec, you pay them a hell of a lot of money, and one of the things you're paying for is their expert advice. You then ignore that advice. What sense does this make? Funnily enough, even though it's a totally senseless thing to do, almost every one of Farmec's clients do it. Why?

Well, it's all about control and internal discipline. The decision to outsource customer service is a big one, usually taken by the guys at the top. But the exact details of how the outsourcing is going to work are relatively small decisions, typically delegated to underlings. These underlings typically believe that the best way to make sure everything runs smoothly is to control every detail. And their managers don't realise that the decision to outsource, if it is not to be sabotaged by micromanagement, needs to be immediately followed by an injunction to their own staff not to interfere. One of the results of this is scripts. Even though everyone knows that customers hate talking to someone who's reading a script and that the best thing to do is to hire staff who can actually conduct a conversation, the middle-managers who are about to lose control over part of their company want to retain that control, so they start to specify exactly which words may or may not be said to customers, exactly what way the conversation must progress, exactly which types of conversation may occur. (One leading car manufacturer actually forbids its staff from using the word "car".) So Farmec, having put in some considerable effort to hire staff who are good at customer service, end up being forced to hobble those staff to such an extent that they may as well just have used monkeys with vocoders. More to the point, their clients may as well not have hired them.

Secondly (yes, there is a "firstly" somewhere back there), ME may have entirely legitimate reasons for not wanting their different providers — who are, after all, competitors — to contact each other, but the big mistake they are making is in giving these reasons greater weight than the desire to give their customers good service. They have lost sight of the ultimate simple truth of outsourcing: your customers don't give a shit about it. You can hire whomever you want to do whatever you want for you, but, from your customers' point of view, it's all internal company organisation that holds no interest for them. The moment anything you do makes life more difficult for your customers, you'd better have a good explanation for it that does not involve any reference to the way you choose to organise your firm, because how you organise is your decision. Somerfield supermarkets, for instance, refuse to give their till staff enough free reign to void an item scanned in error. Voiding an item could be some type of fraud. So every time the reader accidentally scans an item twice (a regular occurence), a manager has to be called to turn their special supervisor's key in the till. This manager is often in the middle of an exciting conversation about Eastenders, so this can take a while. Now, I don't know how Somerfield's accounts work, and am quite willing to believe that there is a big hole in their system that would allow their staff to defraud them if they could only void erroneously scanned items. But what Somerfield have failed to realise is that their decision to treat all their own staff as criminals is less important than the delay their procedure is causing their customers: they're so absorbed in their internal organisation that they've forgotten to look at their actual job. Which neatly brings us on (at least, I think it does) to the way that many companies can't tell the difference between a company policy and a law of physics.

American Express (never having worked for them, I gleefully name the incompetent bastards) are a good example. I once called them to draw their attention to a missing payment: I had paid them by bank transfer and the money had not reached my account. As is normal for a credit card company, they took all the payment details, then promised to look into it and call me back. This usually takes a few days and usually results in their finding the money and crediting it to your account. A couple of days later, I got a call from one of their staff, who informed me that my account was overdue and asked me to pay immediately by Switch. I explained to her that I had already paid and that I was waiting for a call back from one of her colleagues who was trying to find the money. She, bizarrely, informed me that this was in fact that call back and that she was the one looking for the money that AmEx had mislaid. So why had she started the conversation by demanding money? Well, she explained, she had to. There then followed a long argument in which it transpired that (a) American Express have a policy that any member of staff who contacts any customer whose account is overdue must start the conversation by telling them how much money they owe and demanding immediate payment, no matter what, and (b) American Express's staff are incapable of telling the difference between something that they have to do because their bosses tell them to and something that the company simply has to do. This makes for frustrating conversations, of a type that are distressingly common these days:

"Why are you treating your customers like crap?"

"Sorry, but we have to do that."

"No, you don't."

"Yes, we do. It's the rules."

"They're your rules. Change them."

"We can't do that. They're rules."

This is certainly a novel excuse: tell your customers that not only are you treating them badly, but that you've made it company policy for all your staff to treat them badly. It is strange that this is usually offered as an explanation intended to placate customers, and it is stranger still that so many firms are baffled by its failure to do so.

The most egregious offender, in pretty much every way, is Ikea. Their managers believe that long queues (sometime twenty minutes or more) are just part of the Ikea experience for their customers, so staff accordingly. They outsource their delivery function, but expect their customers to handle the outsourcing on their behalf, insisting that the delivery firm, whom they have chosen to hire, are nothing to do with them. They use Soviet-style division of labour, because (presumably) it makes life easier for them, not caring that it makes life much harder for their customers. Simple example: buying a kitchen and having it delivered (and does anyone buy a whole kitchen without having it delivered?). First, you queue up in the kitchen section to speak to a kitchen advisor who orders all the parts from the warehouse for you and gives you a printed inventory, but who doesn't take payment, because that's not their job. You then go and join the queues at the main tills, present them with the inventory, and they take your payment, but they don't give you your kitchen, because that's not their job. You might think, at this stage, that you could leave them your address and leave it to them to organise the delivery, but you'd be dead wrong. No, you take the receipt to another long queue, and eventually hand it to someone who gives you all your kitchen components. If you want them delivered, you then take them (which isn't easy) to another queue, where you hand them over to Ikea's designated delivery firm (to whom Ikea have given a desk in their own building but who they insist are absolutely nothing to do with them), who painstakingly scan every single component of the kitchen before arranging delivery for you. Insane.

So chuck technology and/or staff at Ikea's faults, and what will happen? Absolutely nothing. Part of the problem is that they're using four staff to do a job for which B&Q would use just one. Whichever idiot manager thought that one up isn't going to turn suddenly clever when you give them more staff. And the technology needed to take payment and arrange delivery has existed for centuries. The problem lies in Ikea's attitude towards their customers, which is that they should count themselves privileged to be shopping in Ikea. That attitude is all that has to change. And changing it is free.

Bank with First Direct. They're just great.

[ Updated at 13:46 ]


Gary said...

If you think Ikea's bad when you're buying something, try returning faulty items. If the packaging isn't absolutely perfect, they immediately discount your refund by a ridiculous amount. And it seems that the customer service approach is to try and wriggle out of refunding anything at all; I've seen things get very close to out-and-out fist fights between customers and staff.

Squander Two said...

Oh, yes. They are amazingly crap at returns and faults, and I'm sure it's deliberate. And, of course, their quality control is non-existent, so returns are all-too frequent. I would never buy anything from Ikea now without taking it out of its box and checking it before I leave the shop.

Anonymous said...

I had an horrible experience with ordering stuff on line from IKEA, it took forever to get to us and then half the stuff was missing. I had to phone 8 times before they do something about it and they treat us horrible on the phone, never apologized for their mistake and the delay. You would think that when you get charge $140 for delivery that you get some service but apparently not from IKEA. I am from Canada and I will never, ever order from IKEA again.