Customer Service vs the Aberdeen Angus Philosophy

Today was another busy one in the call-centre  with some of my customers telling me they had been waiting on the line for upward of 20 minutes to get through. On days like these I  sense the tension as soon as my auto-answer kicks in and the first words I hear are a gasped ‘finally’ or ‘at last’. Most people leave it at that, just happy to have finally got to the front of the queue, but some go into full-on rant mode releasing like some overwound clockwork chattering teeth. As I told one customer today I’m really not the person to be having a go at as I’m the one desperately trying to get through all the calls as quickly as possible without taking a breath. I’d dearly love there to be more operators too and in any case having a rant at me is only causing the queue to back up even further. In the meantime as this was all going on management were breaking open the sandwiches and lemonade for some visiting dignitaries.

Thankfully, unlike yesterday, things did quieten down by late morning. Around 11.20 my call display was empty save for the time and my name which it always shows as long as I’m logged in. One of my supervisors, who unlike the more senior management is always there on the front-line, unhooked herself and handed round piles of mail for us to start responding to. It was optimistic as the island of calm didn’t last long and soon I was pitched back into a melee of disgruntled customers.

I only managed to respond to two letters, both using the standard templates we are encouraged to use – writing a bespoke response being seriously frowned upon as being a waste of time and in any case it’s hard to keep track of in the short gaps between calls. This means that even though customers will often  write voluminous tomes explaining their circumstances we without really looking at them will just send a short nondescript letter with a statement of account attached and that’s if they’re lucky as some just get shoved in the bin. It hardly seems like customer service to me.

The third letter I picked up, but didn’t get round to dealing with, was one which was achingly familiar – similar ones have been coming in as long as I’ve been at the firm and you will find several in each bundle of letters we each received. It concerned a dispute over an account. The customer pointed out that previous letters they had written to resolve the issue had not been responded to and that they had got nowhere by calling us. They believed they did not owe us the money we said they did and that furthermore they felt our administration systems and customer service was appalling. They will never use the company again and if we do not resolve this issue they will also go to Watchdog.

The customer right when they question the administration. The company in question has appalling accounting systems and is constantly sending out items to people who didn’t order them (by mistake I must point out here) or else upselling people without them being fully aware (the jury’s out on this one)  then sending the unpaid disputed accounts to a debt collectors so I wouldn’t be at all  surprised if the customer was wholly in the right and did not owe anything. In its defence the company would probably eventually clear the balance, but only after the customer expends a huge amount of energy. Some people I’m sure just pay up to end the hassle.

If you’re shocked by this you may think that if not karma then the law of market economics would catch up with a company so determined to upset its customers, but still new orders pour in and the company which operates across Europe has been going for decades. It all reminds me of a recent column by comedian David Mitchell who wrote this about the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse chain:

These restaurants are unique to British culture and yet they’re under threat. Not for them the business model of repeat custom, these steakhouses’ fortunes rely on the much tougher technique of trying to dupe everyone once. It’s harder and harder for them to do, as the British tradition of culinary incompetence is eroded by pressures from abroad. When even Little Chef is recruiting Heston Blumenthal, these restaurants, now rarer than the Siberian tiger, are all that we have left of a proud heritage of serving shoe leather with Béarnaise sauce to neon-addled out-of-towners.

This made me laugh as I remember my first ever visit London sometime in the late 1980s ending in one of these places and my parents being very unhappy with the fayre we received for the huge amount of money they parted with. Maybe as the Aberdeen Angus experience shows the market does catch up with firms eventually, but to me its scary how firms can survive for so long whilst treating their customers so badly.

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The Hall of Fame

All is very quiet in the call-centre. No need to be too worried about the economic downturn catching up with us it’s just always a slack time of year for many of our clients. With the Christmas rush and January sales out the way February and the beginning of March is the time when our clients sit in their caves if they’ve had a bad year, or on their private Caribbean island hideaways if they have had a more successful campaign; either way they’ll all be planning the strategies they will pursue for the remainder of the year. The upshot is that during this time very little promotional activity in the way of adverts or catalogues actually takes place. So for us this means a chance to put our feet up for a bit and get to know the people sat around us without the phones getting in the way. Some people find this boring, but personally still recovering from December’s madness I love it!

Management have used this lull in activity to do some housekeeping before the tempest resumes. Personnel files have been brought up to date, appraisals conducted and all of us have been getting long overdue inductions and training. Today it was my turn for customer service training. When I was told in the morning I would be having this my immediate feelings were of being insulted a feeling which deepened when after my manager had wandered off the person opposite me commented “what? Customer service training…… patronising or what?”

As the manager doing the training was the one who appears to be in charge of the HR portfolio, including the hiring and firing I decided to suppress my feelings and affect a look of interest. A quick flick through the course handout left my with no illusions about the difficulty of this task. In amongst the clipart and quotes were the usual gems about the customer being the reason we are in a job and how grateful this should make us all feel as well as the whole tone of voice thing, smile, sound happy, sound interested, don’t use technical jargon, understand the needs of the customer. The first 30 minutes was a trudge through this material.  I also began to feel more anxious about how I appeared; better stop resting my chin on my hand. I shifted on my chair uncomfortably.

Then without warning the conversation moved off-piste.  We’d began talking about our difficult customers, about difficult situations we had been placed in previous jobs; for one person this was calling up 19 people on Christmas Eve to tell them that owing to an admin error the ovens they purchased would not actually be connected up that day, they would need to wait until after Christmas.Certainly not an enviable job. This all led to the manager to open up a folder which she kept. In this was a collection of letters, the spanned a decade and were selected for inclusion in the folder on account of their sheer far-outedness.

The most shocking was a catalogue. It had attached a handwritten (or more accurately scrawled) note explaining incredulity that the recipient had been sent the catalogue. This in itself is nothing spectacular, not even the bad language used. What was though was the threats of sending Anthrax should the company repeat their mailing-list mistake. To ram this message home the sender had written ANTHRAX on the note in several places in coloured felt-tip pen and had enclosed white powder in the envelope. The manager informed us that this powder had gone all over the person, just an average joe in the office, who had opened the letter.

The second one which struck me was a letter from a person unhappy that their overdue account had been passed to a debt collector. Again they had enclosed the original letter in which they had underlined the words ‘Debt Collector’ and menacingly added the prefix ‘soon to be ex.’ In their letter comprising one sheet of lined A4 paper they elaborate on their threats sometimes comically with one particularly memorable line stating that if the debt collectors dare to visit “they will end up looking like an omlette” the letter added “you have been warned.” My initial instinct was to laugh, “it’s as if it’s been written by Biffa Bacon” I said though the reference to the knuckleheaded Viz character was lost on the room. Later though I began to wonder just who was the person who had written this letter. Threats against debt collectors and companies in general are not unheard of, but usually they come from someone at the end of their tether, unable to articulate themselves and facing a massive faceless bureaucracy which is about to run over them with a steam roller. This kind of person may well return a reminder with some choice expletives on it, or a scribbled note written in a fit of anger, but this letter was different. For a start it was written in neat handwriting and the spelling wasn’t bad. It just seemed more calm, calculated and, well, chilling is the word for it really.    

After the anecdotes and letters I was softened up to the message the instructor had been trying to deliver; care too much you’ll only stress yourself out too much which is bad for you, care too little and the customer can tell you’re not interested so you give a bad impression of the firm. What’s needed they suggested is a middle way between the two positions. Customer services then is just like being Tony Blair.