Mary Portas: Secret Shopper

I caught this great programme last night on Channel 4. Mary Portas: Secret Shopper. For those not in the know Mary Portas is doing the equivalent on the high-street to what Gordon Ramsay was doing a couple of years ago in restaurants though thankfully without a trace of bad language.

Both Gordon and Mary teach that success comes with a simple  mantra. In Gordon’s case it was ‘fresh local ingredients no messing around’ whilst Mary teaches the golden way of offering nothing less than good customer service.

The wonder really is that despite the simplicity of these rules so many places still manage to get it horribly wrong. So much so that finding a good restaurant is something of a revelation and on the high-street decent customer service is even more elusive. Last nights programme provided some good answers about just why customer service in some areas is so poor.

The salesmen (and they were all men) in the sofa store were on appallingly low basic wages so were reliant on commission  to top this up. Whilst this meant that the short-term cash generating interests of the business and the salesmen aligned it meant that customers were routinely guided towards the most expensive items in the store, dazzled with an array of discounts less generous than they appeared and subjected to the hard-sell. As Mary rightly pointed out despite protestations to the contrary this was not good customer service.

What the programme highlights is the discrepancy between customer service as rhetoric and customer service as reality. Nearly every business will talk about how great and important their customer service is yet everything they do has the opposite effect.

Take my position. My job title is actually ‘customer services’, yet sometimes I am actively discouraged from giving good customer service. Why is this? Well simply because of the economics of it all. My first role is not to assist the customer, but to make money for my company. As my company is paid a fee per call it is in their interest to get through as many calls as quickly as possible. additionally the more calls we handle individually, the less staff are needed to ensure as few calls as possible are ‘dropped’; that is when people hang-up before getting through (and presumably the company has a penalty for these).

This system creates an environment where good customer service is penalised. For instance a couple of days ago I had a customer with a fairly complex query. They had also been upset about the way they had been treated the last time they had called. Summoning up the training from my old job I listened patiently to their grievances. I then set about investigating the issue piecing together what had been happening from the scant notes on the system. I finally figured the issue and offered the resolution to the customer. The customer was happy with this, I was happy as I had successfully managed a difficult situation and the company could be happy that a very dissatisfied customer had been transformed into one at least slightly happier customer.

One thing…… I looked down at my phone display. The call had taken me 15 minutes. 12 minutes higher than what we’re continually told is our ‘acceptable’ overall average call time of 3 minutes. This would boost my average for the day and actually make me look bad. Had I fobbed the customer off, or failed to deal with the issue properly the call would probably have been concluded much quicker and I would have looked good!

No wonder customer service no longer exists.


All in it together

When I started in the call-centre there was a pleasant sense of camaraderie. The job was hard and thankless, but we were all in it together, no one was above anyone else. Of course there was the various managers, and admin always saw themselves as a heartbeat from management, but the bulk of us were just a homogenous mass.

I liked this. After years of local government where in every team there were numerous job titles all with different levels of status and at different pay grades it was refreshing not to have to worry about status on the shop floor.

Lately though all this has begun to change. Our homogenous mass is growing ever differentiated. This is down to our new manager who using the lull following the Christmas rush has been busy splitting people into groups concentrating on different tasks and giving one of the team a pseudo-supervisory role where they do all the training and inductions.  They also seem to have been exempted from the new clear-desk policy and are not frowned upon for getting out of their seat (the measure of power in the call centre is movement; managers move freely, but the rest of us must remain at our desks at all times). This has gone down badly among the rest of the team who regard the individual concerned with a degree of suspicion and even contempt.

No longer are we all in it together.

This is my Headset. There are many like it…

Anyone who has watched Full Metal Jacket will be familiar with this bit of dialogue, or to give it its proper title ‘the rifleman’s creed’.

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My rifle, without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true.

The creed speaks of the relationship between man (or woman) and the tools they use for their job;  one without the other is, the creed points out, quite simply useless, they must of necessity be a single entity, a cyborg-like fusion which can trace its origins to the time the monkey picked up the bone in 2001 a space odyssey.

The creed is about a kind of love, if not an intimacy, but I have to confess to a rather more ambiguous relationship with the tools of my trade. The headset, the computer and the telephone.

The Headset:

For a long time I shunned the headset based upon two very sound reasons. The first was that I didn’t want to look like Madonna, the second was that whilst my old job had involved answering the phone whenever it rang I liked to fool myself that at least I wasn’t working in a call-centre. Since, with my current job there is no escaping this fact I must wear the standard issue headset. There are indeed many like it, unfortunately though I don’t have my own as there aren’t enough to go round. This means a constant cycle of pinching headsets whenever anyone is not looking. In an attempt to regain order management imposed a rule that headsets were to be left at desks with only the foam earpiece removed, but this lasted approximately a week before people started hiding their headsets again and then management imposed a rule where people had to put their name on a sticker and put that on their headset, but as they’re weren’t enough to headsets go round this rule seems to have been repealed. Needless to say its all got very confusing.

I don’t like my headset either as it is rubbish, only covering one ear (my preference is for the two ear version)  it means I can’t hear customers when it gets very busy. Similarly the poor microphone isn’t any  good for speaking to customers. One good thing about the design is that if I sense a customer about to embark on a rant I can discreetly slip the earpiece slightly back just off my ear, meaning I can’t hear the customer, only pick up a vibration to indicate they are talking. Rant over I slip it back on my ear and ask them how I can help.

The Computer:

For any firm over a certain size ‘the system’ is at the heart of every interaction between the firm and its customers. The system dictates the terms of every single action, setting the limits and relentlessly imposing its will. The sketch show little Britain was bang on the money with the ‘computer says no’ sketch; the computer not the customer is king.  My job is in essence to act as the interface between the system and the customer so unsurprisingly much of my time is spent explaining ‘the system’ whilst the rest is wrestling with the system, trying to hoodwink it into doing what I want.  Each system explains a lot about a company, its values and corporate culture laid bare by its architecture; for instance one system I use is a clunking, unresponsive dinosaur of a system. It’s not even in real time as it is only updated once a week. I leave you to draw your own conclusions…

The Telephone:

Completing the call-centre toolbox trinity is the telephone. I hate my telephone rueing the very name Alexander Graham Bell. Maybe its not his fault, the telephone is after all a great invention, where would we be without them? No, it’s just my phone I hate. Why? Well it’s a tyrant, a very Machiavellian tyrant, and a tell-tale to boot. My phone produces more data on me than the Stasi would know what to do with. When I’m taking a break, when I’m not available for a call, how long I take on each call, who has called me, who I have called, the phone dutifully logs all these.  My managers then compile the data and produce a table showing what our average call time is imploring us to lower our averages and castigating those over what they deem an acceptable average. This table is a crime against statistics as we take calls for many companies, each with different kinds of transactions varying in length, yet the average is just a crude aggregation of all our calls. The ease at which the telephone enables this data to be compiled also leads to an emphasis on call time, rather than much harder to measure and more subjective measures like customer satisfaction. This leads to a situation where good customer service is perversely penalised, whilst bad customer service is held up as an example we should all follow. All because of my tell-tell telephone.

Compensation Culture

All of us will have been let down by a company at some point. Maybe we’ve been left stranded at an airport as a flight is cancelled because of snow, maybe someones birthday present we ordered online arrived too late, or maybe what we’ve bought is just poor quality.

In these cases what is the least we’d expect? Most likely it will be to have either the company put things right or for the money we paid to be refunded in full, but should we expect more than this?

It seems that a growing number of people are demanding more. I’ve had two customers this week for whom a full refund and apology is just not enough. The word they both used was “compensation”

Customer A had ordered an item which had arrived late and when it did arrive the parcel had been squished beyond recognition. I apologised and offered to either replace the item or give a full refund. Customer A responded that she was “disgusted” by her experience with the company and indicated that she was just not happy with this settlement. She had wanted a replacement and a full refund as “compensation”. She said she would also have to tell people how poor our company is. I pointed out that in fairness it seemed to me that the parcel had probably been damaged in transit which seems to be corroborated by its late arrival (most likely it had spent 2 days under a mountain of other parcels). I said that I imagined it left the warehouse in good condition. The response was that the company should make sure that the packaging was better, that parcels were tracked etc.. I declined to comment further deciding that this was a lost cause and offered her the refund or replacement with the option of speaking to a manager if she wanted to discuss the compensation issue further. She took the refund.

Customer B had also experienced a delay receiving his order. This time it was because he failed to supply a certain bit of information which was required. As per usual procedure he was sent a letter asking him to get in contact with us, which he did, but was unhappy as he felt we should have telephoned as we had his number and in any case it should all have been done much sooner. He did have part of a point here, but in mitigation his order had come in in the busiest part of the year by a long way. Customer B had previously discussed compensation and had, I told him now been refunded the postage costs for the order which had recently also been dispatched. He asked how much this was and upon hearing it would be around the £2 mark he expressed his displeasure “you’re having a laugh” he told me. Customer B also expressed his displeasure that no one had told him about this before, he’d been expecting a call. Again he had a point here someone should have called.

Customer B asked me if I felt he had received good customer service and if I felt the amount offered was sufficient enough to mitigate this. For a second I thought of getting into a deep philosophical discussion about whether our expectations about what we are offered if things go wrong have increased and whether we now expect too much, but I sensed this wasn’t the guy to have that with I’d just have to save it for the blog.  This situation was as I saw it a 50/50. If it had been a minor shunt between two cars in a car park, both parties would have just walked away with a slight feeling of shame. Unfortunately Customer B was not of this ilk. He worked in “the media” he somewhat threateningly said. He had a book full of contacts and would publicise this poor service. I decided now was probably the time to hand him over to a manager.

Both sets of exchanges seem to be getting more common. Once an unhappy customer would simply cry out  “I want my money back”, but now customers want to enter into complex negotiations for a ‘compensation’ package.  Whats more they seek to enhance their negotiating position with the threat of resorting to the internet to damage a companies reputation (just look at the trip advisor debate to see how emotive the issue of customer reviews on the net can be).

I wonder what the cause of this is. Is it a case of “compensation culture” spilling over, a case of the bar being set higher by some companies, or an effect of the rhetoric and vocabulary of the slick machine that is the customer service industry. It could be all of these, but one thing for sure is it isn’t down to a change in the law. The law is clear on these issues, a full refund is the maximum a company must legally offer.

Should they do more?

Hooray for Nando’s

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog (yes all one of you!) may well remember me reflecting on the time I was rebuked by a customer for not offering a cheery enough  greeting when I answered my phone. My defence was that it was probably my nth 100th call of the day where I’d be no doubt called upon to go through the same conversation yet again, once again offering carefully measured empathy and reassurance, while again trying to avoid the verbal beating the customer may wish to dispense in retribution for their unhappy dealings with the firm I’m representing at that moment in time.

Whilst all this is going on I’m wondering if I’ll get a pay-rise this year, if my call time is going to be too high, can I hold out going to the toilet until the next break, will that angry customer from earlier be calling back to complain about me? I’m also acutely aware that with my employers my opinions count for very little and that my influence over things is accordingly somewhere slightly below zero.  In employment terms I feel like a rower in the bowels of a vast Roman ship. Whilst I may not be physically chained to the oars, metaphorically and mentally I am. Sorry if I’m not overjoyed about this.

So it’s nice to see somewhere that’s at least recognising that it can and should be different and whats more that this is ultimately beneficial for companies.

I’m talking here about Nando’s the high-street chicken chain. Recently voted the best big company to work for. As a newspaper article pointed out:

Another very important part of the formula is that staff are treated well – in 2010, Nando’s topped the Sunday Times’ list of best big companies for whom to work. Employees seem fairly jolly, which increasingly stands out in the deskilled, demotivated, underpaid and undertrained British high street.

This is precisely my argument. Often we experience poor customer service from staff who are disinterested. Our first reaction however, is to blame the staff some of us going as far to lodge a complaint. We ignore the system which causes the problem in the first place; namely companies poor treatment and disinterest in the staff themselves. To expect staff, often facing challenging situations, to maintain a front of jollyness and empathy whilst themselves being subject to untold pressures and offered little in the way of support is quite clearly unreasonable.

Fly me away

There seems to be a rule that wherever you are and whatever time it may be: If you switch on a television set the first thing to appear will be a re-run of friends or come dine with me.

It’s no surprise. Both are bite-sized pieces of televisual fluff perfect for playing on a constant loop. There’s no complex storylines to follow so pleasure can be derived from just a few minutes viewing and no real references to outside reality mean that apart from the haircuts they are almost timeless.

Airline seems to be joining these two as a re-run staple. I say this as I’ve just caught two episodes myself in as many days. Now, I’m old enough to remember when the programme was originally aired back in the late nineties and early noughties. Back then I was a student. Unaware of the bright future in customer service waiting for me my sympathies were actually with the customers. How cold and uncaring of those check in staff I used to think, just 30 seconds late for check in, how could they!

Now however, with the value of my experience on the sharp end my loyalties have shifted. I’m now on team checkout desk assistant. Why? Because the rules are quite simple. Like they said on the episode I saw today check in is open for two hours. If you show up outside that time it’s not their fault. The company rules state that they cannot let you on the flight. Simple. Customers being customers though will not accept such straightforward logic. There must be a way they plead, implore, then scream, then insult and finally hurl abuse when they realise they wont get their way.

Once I had a customer who was unhappy because they wanted me to write a message which exceeded the number of words permitted by the computer system. I advised them that their request was not possible and explained that we would need to edit the message.

The customer however, chose to disbelieve me. They thought that I had just decided to be obstructive and insisted that they wanted me to take down the message exactly as they dictated it. That would not be possible I patiently explained again we’d need to reduce the word count for it to fit on the system.

This went back and forth for about 10 minutes the customer continually insisting there must be a way to override the system.

There was not I insisted once again.

“Well can you put me through to someone who can help then”

Customers. Gotta love them.


Mr Customer Service

“I’m here to give you the best customer service just let me know how I can resolve this issue for you.” cooed the voice next to me as it travelled down the telephone wire wrapping the anxious customer in a cocoon of luxurious reassuring comfort

Part of me was in awe (though I must say part of me wanted to vomit). ‘Mr Customer Service’ as I had dubbed him in my mind was one of the Christmas temps. His age was hard to guess, but if pushed I’d say around 30 and he was joined by someone I assumed was a friend or former workmate, but who unlike Mr Customer Service could best be described as a bit of a clown.

Mr Customer Service oozed a professional smoothness I couldn’t hope to emulate and was impecibbly turned out in an ensemble of smart business attire which put my ill fitting threads to shame.  I wondered what had happened so that it had come to this for him, a question that I routinely ask myself whenever a temp looking over 30 arrives. I can understand teenagers or someone in their twenties putting up with a lousy hand-to-mouth day-to-day temp existence when they’re living with mum and dad and are just there to earn enough for a good weekend, but someone in their 30s they’ve got to have commitments, maybe a mortgage, and what about all their experience, surely that’s got to count for something… right?

Mr Customer Service represented everything that was unfair about the job. He was good, very good. His telephone voice was as soothing as a strepsil, so much so I wondered if he’d been trained by one of those voice coaches they use at big firms. He certainly had a ‘big firm’ feel about him as if he’d done time in a utility or a bank call-centre. So what was he doing in the back-alley like a fallen movie star reduced to grubby b-movie flicks?

I’d never find out what his backstory was. No matter how good he was, he was just a temp. As soon as the calls stopped coming a call was no doubt made to his agency to tell him not to bother coming in the next day.