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TagCustomer Service

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.

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.


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