It’s oh so quiet

and peaceful until…..  the phone rings.

Problem is that this week it hasn’t been ringing much at all. It’s all a complete contrast to just a few weeks ago when managers were begging people to do as much overtime as possible as one of our clients was building up to Mother’s Day their single busiest day of the year. Although the job has always been cyclical, following the pattern of the mail-order industry with an intensely busy Christmas period followed by January sales and then a much more subdued March before picking up again, I’m struggling to remember such a lean time.

It seems that the economic downturn has finally hit our clients and in turn is hitting us and hitting us hard. One of them, a home-furnishing company, has struggled for a couple of years and late last year decided to give up on catalogue mail-outs to go web only which means only a trickle of calls for us. Not much of a problem whilst we were busy with other clients, but as their first major campaign of the year was always Spring, incidentally the time the rest took their foot off the gas,  it has now left a major gap in our schedules. At the moment it seems that unless something drastic happens over the summer, or failing that a major ad campaign from one of our other clients, then people’s jobs will be under threat; Now I know why my managers were laying on the smorgasboard of sandwiches when they were courting new clients not so long ago it must have been desperation.

For us at the moment it means a lot of thumb twiddling. Since the use of our only internet outlet the BBC website was banned not so long ago many of my colleagues, supervisors included, have been resorting to playing solitaire (or patience as my Grandma called it) as there has (as yet) been no memo prohibiting it. I myself have opted for a low-tech approach of either doodling or slipping a book inside one of the client catalogues we are issued for reference purposes; this owes much to a recent scandal over internet use details of which I will post about before too long.

As for fiddling whilst Rome burns; our manager has jetted off to Thailand today. She left us all with a memo excitedly informing us of this two-week trip complete with a stock photo of an island basking in glorious sun. As I was tearing it up I asked my colleague next to me ‘how much do they pay her to sit and write stuff like this?’

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It looks like we might have made it

Well, I’ve made it to Wednesday. I was actually surprised how easy it was on Monday. The tone was set by one of my first customers who despite it being Monday and despite having to phone in a complaint was exceptionally good humoured and even laughing at the fact that, as well as her flowers being in a bad state when they arrived, due to a typo at our end the card accompanying her flowers said “thanks for being the beat mum to us” when it should have read best mum. I felt somehow lifted by this exchange as for other people this would have been carte blanche to scream into the receiver. In fact I only had one difficult call on Monday; difficult because the customer wanted a replacement of a greater value to her original order “as a goodwill gesture.”

 Unfortunately goodwill was thin on the ground when I informed her that my management had given clear instructions via a memo that we were strictly only to offer either a refund, or replacement to the value of the original order. This led to threats to go to trading standards and take the company to court as the goods supplied were not “fit for purpose” (as an aside I blame the politician, former Home Secretary John Reid for introducing this phrase into the general lexicon). I advised that it would be unlikely to succeed as the company were offering a full-refund which would satisfy the law according to the Sale of Goods act. My customer tried to change tack conceding the legal point, but pressing home the moral point. I again informed them of the contents of management’s memo and offered to take their details down to pass onto management. At this point they tried to play the call centre game of offering to hold on the line until a manager was available. As a general rule they never are available as having to persuade a manager to come over and take the call is taken to be the sign of an operator who can’t handle a call. There is however, also the effect this kind of  ‘sit-in’ protest on your phone line has on your call time average so as an operator you need to get them off the line fast. Summoning my experience I called the customers bluff cooly telling the customer that a manager would not be available for a considerable time. They took the offer of a call-back. Crisis averted.

Both Tuesday and today have however, been tougher. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly on Monday I was psychologically well prepared for the onslaught. This meant I was able to keep my cool and draw on all my experience and training to maintain just the right level of engagement; this being neither over, or under engaged. It also helped that I was refreshed from the weekend as by Tuesday I felt all emoted out. Hearing the same story again and again, Soaking up the anger, frustration, disappointment and having to sooth with a measured tone and well chosen apologies became more difficult as my patience began to expire. The apologies began to dry up, the active listening turned to bored disinterest and I found myself begin to become drawn into playing the blame game. Strangely I also find things become more difficult as the complaints begin to thin-out. I find that in the midst of the storm I can keep focused and keep afloat in a way that I am unable to do when hit by an unexpected freak wave. Not just freak waves, but also boomerangs. These are unhappy customers for whom the solution goes wrong, a refund not processed in the expected timescale, or a replacement which is also wrong. These people are doubly unhappy and very, very difficult to deal with as the solutions we can offer have been exhausted so it’s as if we’re out of ammo.

Then we run.

Wish me luck….

I’m going to need it. On Monday I’m going in.

I’m feeling like the pilot of a WWII bomber the day before a big mission. Resistance is expected to be high and I can picture the barrage of the anti-aircraft flack guns all aiming to inflict a critical wound. My job is to keep cool and fly at a level altitude just long enough to get the job done and then scram for the safety of home.

Why is all this… well, the reason is flowers! Not bombs, but flowers. Today as we all know is Mother’s Day. For one of our clients this is their busiest time of year by a long way. For the past two weeks the call centre has been at bursting point taking orders for flowers to be delivered to mum’s up and down the land. Call, after call, after call without pausing for breath we’ve been taking these orders, but our best efforts never seemed enough to meet demand and the phones just kept ringing.  In desperation management even found themselves press-ganging people into agreeing to do as many extra-shifts to within a hair’s breadth of the point at which their work-life balance would buckle under the strain.

If we have a problem coping with demand over two weeks, the warehouse dispatching the flowers has an even bigger one. As everyone obviously chooses the same dispatch day the job of the warehouse is to get out the orders we have been taking solidly for two weeks, plus all the web orders and the mail orders and to do this all in the space of a couple of days.

In short it’s the rush-hour from hell. It’s almost as if half the population suddenly decided to go to London on the same day at the very same time. Very soon the system, used to a much lower level of demand would creak, groan and then rapidly collapse into a spiral of chaos. Even if the demand could be anticipated in advance it is an extremely difficult thing to boost capacity from normal levels by such a degree and to still maintain the quality of the service, not least because you will be relying on inexperienced and dare I say less committed staff to deliver the service. Thanks to the wonders of outsourcing I’ve never seen the warehouse, so can’t say at first hand just how they get on, but I do know they struggle to cope with the volume as I deal with the fall-out; some of which began at the tail-end of last week when overwhelmed by demand (as they are every year) a decision was made to start sending orders out early.

We love our Mum’s; if not enough to jump in the car and go to see them on Mother’s Day then at least enough to send some flowers. If those flowers don’t arrive or arrive in a rather sorry state then people get angry, very, very angry. If lots of people get angry they have to wait their turn, listening to some piped greensleeves, whilst being told by an un-feeling automaton that their call is important then their anger levels can shoot off the scale.

This is the curtain of flack I will be flying into on Monday. My job is to keep my cool, to not let the shouts and the screams jolt me off course, and most importantly to return home safely intact as I’ve never much cared for hitting targets.

Wish me luck.

Relationships

I actually come from a long line of shopkeepers. For three generations the men of the family have been their own boss, but despite this pedigree no one is really surprised that none of my generation have chosen this path. For over a decade its been apparent that small businesses are in rapid decline. The signs are everywhere; once every main road in the city was lined with shops, record shops, barbers, butchers, bakers, newsagents, shoe repairers, all sorts of shops, but look now and you’ll find many of these shops have long been converted into flats the only signs of their former use a frontage looking oddly out of place with its surroundings. Then there’s the empty precincts designed as community hubs, but more often than not menacingly silent. Some independent shops remain, clustered together as if they are huddled-up trying to draw strength from each other in the face of what seems like an inevitable fate, but overall the prospects for many small businesses are not good.

You can argue that this is just market forces giving people what they want, and to an extent this is true, but there are many things which have been lost perhaps that people didn’t even realise would be lost until it was too late. The most significant of these is undoubtably the change in the relationship between a business and its customers. At the heart of this relationship was a personal bond between the proprietors of a business and its customers. With a small business the two would often be on first name terms and for the proprietor a quality product and good service was a matter of personal reputation. For my great-grandad when affected by wartime shortages this impulse was so strong that he preferred to close his doors and take early retirement than to supply what he felt would be a substandard product and in thus doing lose the reputation he had strived to build over many years.

Contemporary customer services aims to mimic this relationship, but whilst the very best may bear some resemblance on the surface deep down it can never come close. It’s almost clichéd to say, but most businesses over a certain size cease to see their customers as individuals viewing them instead as if they were some kind of indistinguishable specks viewed from the top floor of the corporate skyscraper.

Sometimes it’s almost heartbreaking to see how much a customer invests in a business emotionally demonstrating this sometimes by taking the time to write a letter of thanks, or to make considered suggestions for improvements to products as they want the company to succeed only for the letters to be fed into a shredder lucky if they receive the briefest of standardised letters in return.  Recently one of the companies I take calls for decided to offer its most loyal customers a ‘loyalty bonus’ of 13p on an average spend of approaching £20. The fact that they thought this would help retain customers shows just how out of touch they can be as quite rightly most customers felt insulted.

Most common of all it’s when someone who is clearly a loyal customer has a genuine grievance and rather than it being dealt with gets messed about by a series of call-centre operators they’ve never spoken to before and to whom their years of custom mean nothing. I don’t blame the call-centre operators here, at least not all of them, it’s the call-centre system which is wrong. Operators are never encouraged to take charge of issues and see them through to completion, rather it’s an assembly line system where one person bolts in the steering wheel and another fixes the windscreen; then in the blink of an eye they’re onto the next one. Ok if it is well-coordinated and everyone does their job, but in the call centre it is rarely like that and in my view the customer really suffers from lack of continuity and consistency.

Yep, call-centre land is very different, relationships between the customers and the company are, transient, ad-hoc and anonymous. As an operator the hardest part of this all is not being able to offer the customer certainty. They want to know what will happen, when it will happen and where. In short they want re-assurance. Unfortunately we can’t ever give this as we have little power to make anything happen, all we can do is pass them along the line and hope that at the end of it something which vaguely looks like customer services drops off the end of the conveyor.

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?

The Tesco Encounter

Supermarkets I’m sure are designed to stress me out; Fridays especially when everyone seems to hit the shops. Negotiating the usually badly designed car park and trolley littered aisles leaves me frazzled by the time I get to the check-out. I have no time either for the automated self-service machines they are the route to an instant corony with their insistence of an “unexpected item in bagging area” in a middle class tone probably labelled ‘reassuring’ by a focus group somewhere in Tunbridge Wells.

It was one such Friday which found me in a Sainsburys the size of a small planet. In my frazzled state I presented to the checkout. The assistant couldn’t have been more chirpy and chatty “any plans for the weekend” she chimed as she scanned my bottles of wine. This smalltalk brightened my mood a welcome change from what I had begun to call the ‘Tesco encounter’; something I had come to dread. The reason it is so named is because Tesco seemed to me to be the first supermarket to insist staff say “hello” at the checkout. This is such ingrained practice now that I find myself automatically saying hello as I approach the checkout which can be the cause of much embarrassment on the continent where customer-service remains a gleefully underdeveloped, and more natural, concept.

The reason for my dread is firstly its fakeness; forcing people to be chirpy on a Monday morning, or after a long day, or when it’s just not their inclination and telling people off for not being friendly enough just doesn’t seem right to me. Secondly shops  have expanded the encounter to include a mini sales pitch.. “do you have a clubcard, have you got everything you were looking for today, do  you want a mars bar for half the usual price”. No, I just want to pay for my stuff and go. Reassuringly one Tesco employee at an express petrol station does a great line in subverting the whole encounter “do you have a clubcard, do you have any petrol, do you want to answer any more questions” she trots out dryly. Brilliant!

It took a couple of more trips to Sainsburys to twig what was going on. Staff engaging me in conversation everytime I was at the till with lines like “had a good day” or “looking forward to the weekend”.. I sensed that their staff had received some kind of training and instruction to go forth and engage customers in conversation. It was not an antidote to the Tesco encounter, more of a mutation.

Yesterday as I fought my way through what was the busiest retail day virtually ever of a shopping mall I noticed New Look had also evolved the encounter, its checkout staff creating what the marketeers probably describe as a ‘feel good vibe’ with lines such as “oh I love those shoes, I wanted some myself, but they didn’t have my size left”…. Where are we going with all this, will checkout staff be instructed to add customers on Facebook and take them out on the town before letting them escape with their purchases.

I don’t mean to sound grumpy, but it is all so artificial, I feel sorry for the staff involved who are probably threatened with the sack if they fail to lay on the right amount of saccharine sweetness to every single customer.

How does all this relate to the call-centre? Well we actually recently received a management memo telling us to be less ‘chatty’ to customers. Apparently it means we get through less calls if some person, who probably can’t get out of the house, wants to have a good chinwag with us about what they’ve bought, the weather or whatever else. As I’ve said before I enjoy these conversations. When they are natural they break up the monotony of a day of robot-like repetitive transactions and make me, as well as the customer feel a bit more human. It seems that for good or for bad companies and managers are trying to hijack these encounters, fashioning them to suit their ends whatever they may be; more sales, brand loyalty, or quicker transactions. This makes us all a bit less human