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.

Misleading Marketing

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Nashville, Tennessee. My trip to Nashville was for a work conference, and while I was excited to travel for work (as I usually am), I was not exactly excited to be going to Nashville.  You see, the first thing I think of when I think of Nashville is something like this.

Image credit to Celine on Flickr.
Image credit to Celine on Flickr.

There’s a joke I tend to make reference to when a friend of mine brings up their affinity for country music. Ere are many iterations of the joke, but it goes a little like this.

Q: What do you get when you play a country song backwards?

A: A happy man who gets his wife and dog back, as well as a functional truck, all while overcoming alcoholism.

Nashville strongly markets itself to be the country music capital of the world. As they rightly should. After all, the city is home to the Grand Ole Opry, numerous country music stars, and the largest volume of sweet tea per capita in the world((No idea if this is actually true, but it felt true. And it was delicious.)). But beneath the surface, you have a city that is completely not country music like at all. And by that, I mean it doesn’t suck.

The above table and food remnants are from a dinner we had after our event. The restaurant in question is a place by the name of Sambuca. The sky loft area that we were in was swanky enough that the above picture prompted my fiancée to ask me if I was actually in Nashville or in a club in Miami. I sent her the following picture of the Nashville skyline to assure her that I was not, in fact, clubbing with Pitbull((No one wants to party with Pitbull. Even Pitbull.)).

There’s wonderful entertainment in Nashville. They have a NFL team that’s not terrible, a NHL team that’s pretty good, on of the most prestigious universities in America (Vanderbilt), and a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Ignore the fact that Nashville is like Athens, Greece in the same way that ice cream is like Tabasco sauce. There’s some really cool shit in Nashville.

And yet…this is what Nashville markets itself as.

Image credit to Celine on Flickr.
Image credit to Celine on Flickr.

It’s a shame too. Nashville could easily market itself as Little New Orelans (due to its reputation as a party city) or a less drug-infested Miami. That said, the city seems content sitting on its roots. That’s fine for some, but to me, it seems like a giant waste of potential.

Beneath The Surface

Congratulations, you own a house!

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Image credit: chickensmoothie.com

This is your new house, and it’s going to be moved into your name completely free of charge, though you’ll still have to pay to take care of the necessary repairs that the home may need. And those repairs…they’re kind of the catch to the whole deal. See, this house is in quite the state of disrepair. The kitchen is missing a stove…and a refrigerator…and a microwave. The house does have heating and cooling, though it’s in the form of a kerosene heater and a benevolent ghost-like spirit that only visits your den on Wednesdays, respectively. It’s a three bedroom home, however only two of the three bedrooms have covered by a roof. Oh, and your bathroom? There’s technically a bathroom, however there’s a distinct lack of plumbing running to the toilet that’s currently sitting in the middle of the floor. And that’s just the things you know about at a quick glance.

Sounds fun, eh?

So…where do you start?

Okay, after the drink where do you start? Image credit: foodrepublic.com

There’s two schools of thought as to where to start with a problem as far-reaching as the issues with your new home. You can either address the issues that are the most pressing right away, or you can be patient, research all of the issues that the home has, and then work to prioritize them in order of those that will provide the most benefit to your future repairs. Both philosophies have their positives and their negatives. After all, installing your shitter seems like a great way to answer pressing bathroom issues, however if your floor is termite infested, there’s a small chance that your newly installed commode will fall through the floor — possibly with you on it. Likewise, I doubt that you’ll be able to make it the entirety of the three weeks you need to assess all of your home’s problems without taking a piss. Oh…and everything needs to be fixed in five weeks. Good luck.

Seems like an insurmountable issue, right? Perhaps the problems are so wide-reaching that you’re even considering turning down the offer of a “free” house. I couldn’t completely blame you. There’s a lot of shit to do on a lot of different levels, and the expectations aren’t exactly the most manageable. Yet, it’s what you need to do in order to get your reward — that house.

If it was up to me, the solution would be simple. I’d go hole up in a hotel room for five weeks while I’m in the planning and fixing stages of the process, start from the home’s foundation, and build up and out to the home’s roof. However, if there’s anything that I’ve learned in life, it’s that a large majority of people disagree with me.  The general human reaction is to make sure all of the little fires around the house are put out before cleaning up the kindling and open flames that caused the problems in the first place. I get it, I really do. If you’re being burnt by an open flame right now, it’s easier to spray the fire extinguisher at your feet to calm the flames around you. Personally though, I’d rather take three steps into the fire and burn just a little longer if it means that I’m activating the sprinkler system.

Your house could probably use some fire prevention items too. Image credit: servicemagic.co.uk

I realize nothing in life is a complete cut-and-dry scenario where the solution is one option or the other. When The Clash asked whether or not they should stay or they should go, they missed the obvious option of leaving and coming back later when things have cooled down. If nothing else, that likely would have been the best long-term solution for all involved. That very thing — the best long-term solution for all involved — is what I seek out everything in all I do. I have enough content to publish an ebook right this second, yet I also realize it would be a foolish action for me to do so, as the content is not edited well enough to be consumed as part of a larger publication. I’m in the process of trying to locate an editor, however while doing so I’m doing editing myself, as well as continually writing new content with the belief that there’s always the possibility I could write something good enough to be added to that ebook (or even to bump something else out of the book).

Let’s say that you’ve been presented with the house deal I mentioned at the onset of this article. What would your plan of attack be to solve your dilemma and remove the home from its state of disrepair? Why would you act in that way? Sound off in the comments.

Out In The Not So Cold

Note: This post is a recycled post from my old blog discussing customer service experiences. While the post itself is roughly six months old, I’ve left the post exactly as it was for sake of consistency, as well as my reaction to said event.

I got a new refrigerator, guys!

Look at this fridge! Look at it!
Look at this fridge! Look at it!

There’s a reason why this is a big deal. Well, a few actually. I’ve been rather critical of my apartment complex in the past, as they haven’t exactly been the best at pretty much anything in the past. Air conditioner breaks in the middle of summer? Replace a fuse and say it’s fixed, only for it to break again within an hour (it was later replaced, though that took quite some time). Invasion of yellow jackets around the same time? They’ll be taking up residence in my kitchen from late May until early August. Have a cat? Here’s a pissy neighbor who hates any noise and will complain until the apartment management says the cat has to go.

But I digress…

Over the past few weeks, my old refrigerator had slowly been dying. By dying, I mean that my ice cream would be frozen with the consistency of an angel food cake, and my milk would go bad 5-7 days before the sell-by date. My fridge was also old. I’m not sure how old exactly, however I know I did run into it down at the gas station buying cigarettes once, so I’m going to go with being made in the mid-90s at newest.

When you have a modern convenience that doesn’t work — even one as omnipresent as the refrigerator — it changes the way we go about living. For the past month or so, I had partly avoided/partly wasn’t sure about my fridge’s imminent demise, so instead of handling it right away, I waited. I changed the foods I bought. I made smaller meals and ate out slightly more to avoid having to keep leftovers any longer than a night. So much for making soup on Sunday nights to last me through Wednesday lunch. Now if the meal wasn’t portionable to two or fewer meals, I wasn’t purchasing for it.

After four weeks of this shenaniganry, I decided to email my apartment management to tell them about my fridge issues. I emailed on a Sunday night, fully expecting to hear nothing from them until at least Thursday. When Monday evening arrived and I was walking into my building without a call, I figured I was on the right track. But then…I walked into my kitchen to find a brand new fridge. Not only that, but the fridge was cold and all of my groceries were inside.

Like I said, I had stopped buying pretty much everything for a month. I made a store run within the hour.
Like I said, I had stopped buying pretty much everything for a month. I made a store run within the hour.

I was blown away. I literally stood in my kitchen for the next 2-3 minutes saying nothing more than “holy shit” over and over. This couldn’t be real. After all the bullshit and all the stupidity of the last three years, could the apartment staff have actually gotten something right AND gone above and beyond all the while?

Apparently, yes.

What is the best customer service experience that happened to you recently? Sound off in the comments.

What Twenty Somethings Hate Being Asked In Job Interviews

I’m learning that I’m in what is a somewhat uncommon role as a young professional. I’m a twenty-something((I just turned 27 in November)) who devotes part of his time to doing job interviews. It’s one of the parts of my job I truly adore. I love getting to analyze answers that people give to various questions. I’ve been told my interviewing style is unorthodox — so much so that a majority of my interviewees have commented that my interviews are strange, thought-provoking, and very enjoyable.

In spite of said unorthodox style, there are still some standard questions I’ll start off by asking in most interviews. They’re typically pretty job specific to the position I’m interviewing for. A major reason I don’t interview in a traditional manner is because of how much I despise specific types of questions in the interview process. You know the questions. They’re the questions that seemingly every interviewer asks that have little to do with the actual job itself, yet are so mundane that job seekers are on auto-pilot when these questions are asked((I do ask a handful of non-job specific questions…but they’re certainly not standard. I may share some of those in a separate post)).

A couple of weeks ago, I took a survey of twenty somethings via Twitter, asking what interview questions they hate being asked. I felt pretty happy that there’s only one question on this list that I’ve ever asked (and have since dropped from my mental list for reasons I’ll explain below). I’ll talk about the three most common responses I received below.

What is your biggest weakness?

Why Interviewers Ask It: This is the lone question from this list that I’ve found myself asking in a handful of interviews. I was taught this question tells you a lot about how good a person is at spinning a negative into a positive. From a very basic level, I can see how this would be possible. After all, no one wants their negative traits to reflect too poorly on them. That said…

Why Twenty Somethings Hate It: …it’s the single most overused question in the interviewing process. Literally every place I’ve ever interviewed at has used some variation of this question. It’s so pervasive that most people who think quickly on their feet already have a completely bullshit answer made up for this question before they even step foot into an interview. I do think there’s a general dislike for talking about our personality/work blemishes, though I do not believe that is only a twenty something problem in the slightest.

What was your favorite thing about your last job?

Why Interviewers Ask It: Ultimately, an interviewer is looking for one of two things here. They’re either looking to see if you have the capability to say something nice about a place you’re leaving, or they’re looking to make sure that you’re not a total cynic. It’s a completely attitude-driven question.

Why Twenty Somethings Hate It: The question is a trap question that has no great answer. The average millennial has seven job changes in their 20s((http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22Adulthood-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0)), and there are numerous employers that look down on such job-hopping((http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christina-vuleta/career-change_b_836473.html)). If you can’t say something nice about your last job, an interviewer will likely assume you’re going to have a bad attitude if there are struggles at this job. It’s unfair…interviewees recognize that.

Why do you want to work here?

Why Interviewers Ask It: An interviewer wants to know why specifically you want to work for their company.

Why Twenty Somethings Hate It: Because the primary reason the majority of people want any job is because we like getting paid. This is even more true for twenty somethings, who are often dealing with the burdens of student loan debt while trying to come into the workforce at poor-paying entry-level jobs. There are other ways to ask this question — What interested you about ABC Company? Why did you choose to take this interview instead of other interviews? If we like you as a candidate, what would make you more inclined to accept this job over other offers — that get your point across as an interviewer.

 

What other questions do you hate being asked as an interviewee? Sound off in the comments.

Front page image credit: Ludovic Bertron on Flickr