That Tiny Website — Short Stories, Video Games, and Freelance Editing

Customer Service Secret 1: Selflessness

Time for a little bit of backstory before I get into today’s post. I graduated from college in December 2008 with my bachelor’s degree in telecommunications (essentially broadcasting,  but the terminology used here is important). During my last 4-5 months of school, I had spent a good bit of my free time cold calling every non-religious radio station I could find within a 300 mile radius of the university I attended. Nearly every one of them gave me the same answer.

“We have no open positions for you, unless you want to work in sales.”

I worked in sales twice during college and twice more since. Sales is a cutthroat world where kind-hearted, well-meaning people like me get chewed up and spit out like nothing. It happened to me every time. The longest I lasted in any sales position was a year, and even then, I didn’t consider the position to be sales. After all, anyone with even remotely reasonable ethics would never turn university admissions into a sales game — and yet that’s exactly what the university I worked for did((Not to mention the fact that they let me go for not having a salesman’s mentality, among other reasons that ultimately led to their undoing.)).

It was because I detested sales so much that I decided to work in customer service. I’d worked in customer service at some level since I was 14. My first job was doing kitchen and lobby work for a local pizza shop. I held that job part-time or better all the way from my freshman year of high school until five days before I left for college. I held a myriad of random jobs at various points in college, but with the exception of head cook in a restaurant((I had started out as a waiter at said restaurant. One day, literally the entire kitchen staff walked out ten minutes before we opened. My boss offered to promote me on the spot if I could have dinner ready within the hour. It was my favorite paid job of college.)), nearly all of them were customer facing positions.

My first post-graduate customer service gig came with an outsourcing company who did work for a certain cell phone company whose logo is totally not a small moon. The hours sucked. The expectations of employees sucked. The pay was even worse than the hours and expectations combined. The burnout rate was so bad that of a typical training cohort of 25 people, only 1 would make it to their one year anniversary. My class performed better than expected, with four of 28 making it to 18 months. When your job requirements to provide customer service are so strict that a 14% success rate from a class is considered stellar, you’re doing something wrong.

In the five or so years since I left that company, I’ve scoured my brain trying to figure out exactly what made it such a shitty place to work. Some of the things I mentioned — stress, poor pay, expectations, hours — certainly played a factor into it. Yet there were people who had been there since the call center’s opening who were getting paid lower wages than new hires who seemed to tolerate their jobs. I say tolerate because nearly no one there actually loved their job.

One of the main reasons people lost their jobs from this particular call center (as well as others like it) is because of a metric known as AHT, or Average Handle Time. The all-powerful telecom giant who had outsourced their workload to our company’s call centers had very strict metrics as for how long you could talk to a customer on the phone. Calls for a general employee were to be between 5 and 7 minutes((Approximately. There were minute/second values to these, but it’s long enough ago that I don’t remember those)), while escalations call backs (my team for about half of my time there) had an AHT expectation of 11 to 13 minutes per call. If you, as a general rep, got a person on your line who wanted a supervisor, you hoped and prayed they’d take a call back. If they didn’t, good luck working down a 20-60 minute call off of your AHT.

If you failed to make AHT once in a 6 month period, you were given a written warning. Twice in six months or three times in 12 months meant a final written warning. Three AHT failures in six months or 4 in 12 months, and you were gone. Period. It was non-negotiable. Third shift employees like me were particularly susceptible to write ups, as AHT rose by nearly a minute and a half on average between 10pm and 5am. I was lucky to only receive one written warning in 18 months. Nearly everyone I had started on third shift with in the spring of 2009 had either quit or been fired when I left in the fall of 2010.

I get why companies institute policies of holding their employees accountable for average handle time. Every minute that an employee is talking to a customer on the phone is a minute they could be spending talking to a different customer who is currently holding in queue. During busy days, there would be someone yelling over the intercom telling supervisors which employees they should force to log back in. During slow days, supervisors would pull groups of people off of the phones so that other groups could make sure they had no more than 10 seconds between calls.

As a customer, the very concept of AHT as a metric with which an employer can choose to fire an employee scares the hell out of me. By its very nature, making AHT a fireable metric means that some level of quality is going to suffer in order for numbers to be met. That could be rolling of the call queue in order to limit when you receive calls, that could be rushing customers off of the phone in order to shorten calls, that could be “accidentally” hanging up on a couple of calls per day right after they ring in so that your AHT goes down. There are numerous other ways I’ve seen people manipulate data just to make sure their AHT was in a position to keep them employed.

As a customer, none of the why the employees are doing that matters. What matters is that the employee is more concerned about meeting their metrics than helping me.

Think that’s not a reality? I pose the following story to you, which actually occurred in an interview I conducted.

Shoe and apparel retailer Zappos is wildly known for its non-standard approach to customer service. Employees are given no minimums or maximums for their call time; they’re just told to help the customer. One Zappos service rep took this to an extreme, holding a 10 hour, 29 minute phone call with a customer. A typical question I’ll ask in interviews is to present this specific scenario and have the interviewee analyze whether or not the call was an example of good or bad customer service. A recent interviewee stated that the call was terrible customer service. That answer itself didn’t bother me…but the answer than gave to justify why it’s bad customer service alarmed me.

“Customer service is making your metrics first, then making customers happy only after you’ve done that.”

Is it really? Isn’t the entire point to customer service to make yourself there to help a customer and solve their every need, regardless of that call takes 10 seconds or 10 hours? I would argue that yes, it absolutely is. If your job is customer service, you should always make every effort to not only solve the problem at hand (within the scope of your capabilities, that is), but also to try to make whoever you’re speaking to feel like the only customer you’re working with that day.

It’s a beautiful idea. I recognize it’s not always a possibility to be selfless on every single call. But by implementing policies where AHT decides whether someone keeps their job or not, call centers are systematically eliminating the selfless nature of customer service.

  1. Totally agree, this is a terrible system. It’s 99% impossible to focus on true customer service while being measured predominately on numbers. I probably would have enjoyed my retail position much more if it could have been about service and work rather than numbers.

    1. I feel that numbers certainly have a place in the customer service world. If you’re measuring your employees based off of the right numbers — customer satisfaction, lack of call backs, etc — they’re wonderful. As for the situation I described, not so much.

  2. Scott currently works in a call centre where they have the same type of rule. Although it doesn’t result in write-ups, it does automatically give them a bad review during the three-month reviews, which can affect raises and/or different company benefits. Which really isn’t fair. Especially when you look at the other results. Scott failed two of his reviews because out of an average of 30 calls, he had four that were over 20 minutes. Both were with seniors who simply couldn’t understand and he was trying to help. When they’ve reviewed the customer satisfaction surveys, and even done ‘spot reviews’ of the recordings, he has received a near perfect score.

    I feel like if more companies employed the idea that calls shouldn’t have a specific time – they might see a bit of a change in not only their employees, but in the way customers respond to customer service levels.

    1. I’ve tried to press the idea of not having the concept of average handle time in ever call center I’ve ever worked in. Unfortunately, my arguments have fallen on deaf ears for the most part. The general response is that it’s a noble idea, but not practical. I’m of the philosophy that if there’s a way to make a customer happy, it’s always practical.

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