“The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer” - Peter Drucker
Let’s look at a potted history of contact with customers from a centralised point.
Phenomenal growth. In 1968 a court order forced Ford to establish a toll free line for use by customers owning a particular model car that needed to be recalled in order that faults be rectified. It worked.
In the mid-1980s, AT and T Universal Card established their Jacksonville, Florida, toll free call-centre as a means of communicating with customers. It proved to be an enormous success. Call Centres began to mushroom. In fact, between 1983 and 1997 contact centres worldwide grew at about 700% (whether measured in terms of numbers of contact centres, number of contact centre agents, or amount of investment in facilities), followed by several years of growing at 20% plus. The growth rate continues to be high as these facilities have become an integral part of many businesses and other organisations (emergency services, government tax departments, help lines, whistle-blower reporting ….)
Technology, in particular the merging of communications and information technologies and the world wide web, has spurred the evolution of greater connectivity and multi-media centres beyond the telephone - inbound and outbound. Workforce and workload management, agent performance measurement to reach speedy and deft resolution of complaints, queries, orders and requests; customer relationship management and customer experience management systems - have all become much more sophisticated. We’ve moved far beyond primitive predictive dialling and mailing, and call distribution capacities to voice - recognition, and in some cases into the distributed and virtual agent worlds
Caseworkers. In a major development in the 1990s, Hammer and Champy introduced the idea of the ‘caseworker’: a person in the organisation who becomes the customer’s main (often single) point of contact, and is responsible for rendering responsive, empathetic and effective customer service experiences. The caseworker was viewed by them as the basic component of the customer call centre, custodians of the organisation’s primary service - provision effort. This necessitated the design of radical, customer-facing, resolution processes, and promised “dramatic improvements in critical, contemporary measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service and speed". (Hammer & Champy, 1993)
Hammer said during an interview: “I think that this was the work of angels”.
So people, business processes and enabling technology came together in an unprecedented fashion to produce a means of delivering excellent customer service ………But ……
…… Something has gone wrong!
Numbers trump customers. Every reader will have experienced cumbersome instructions and identification processes and lengthy waits as the norm (“We’re currently experiencing high call volumes ….”) Followed by the intimidating recording of calls, provision of average service levels and frustrating ‘escalations’. The truth is that business managers see higher value in operating contact centres as ‘efficient’ cost centres rather than giving top class service. Hence:
· Measures are skewed towards ‘efficiency’ rather than relationship-building
· Command and control sweat shops for both inbound and outbound service centres are the order of the day. Lack of meaning for agents results in low engagement, which results in low levels of service
· Allied to this, the notion of the ‘case-worker’ as envisaged by Hammer and Champy, a person able to collaborate and motivate internal responsiveness and having decision-making authority (and thus not subject to “escalation” rules) has all but disappeared
· As a consequence, customer trust in the system naturally declines, anger rises, expectations are lowered. A downward unsatisfactory - resolution spiral sets in
Business has chosen, for short-sighted, selfish reasons, to ignore Peter Drucker’s insight (see quote at the beginning of this article) and ignore the primacy of the customer.
A “You – owe – me” mind-set prevails. For most managers, it is not about serving and helping others, especially customers. A Sufi story:
A man in a forest saw a fox that had lost its legs. He wondered how it fed itself and stayed alive. Then he saw a tiger arrive with game in its mouth. The tiger ate his fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox.
The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to himself, “I too shall just rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all that I need”.
He did this for many days but nothing happened, and he was almost at death’s door when he heard a voice say, “O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Stop imitating the disabled fox and follow the example of the tiger”. (de Mello, A. 1987)
Zappos are a notable but rare exception of a company paying attention to the building of real customer relationships through outstanding service, which allows them to discard typical contact centre measures based on quantitative ‘efficiency’. They follow the tiger. One of their customer service representatives had a ten-and-a-half-hour call. David Hutchens reports:
“The customer called to order a pair of Ugg boots, but in the conversation the service rep discovered that the customer was about to relocate to the Las Vegas area, where Zappos is located. They spent 10 hours exploring neighborhoods and other details of life in Vegas. At the
end of the call, the customer purchased the pair of Ugg boots”. Somewhat extreme perhaps, but this story does make the point that relationships with customers remain paramount in terms of future business success. That there is a difference between imposing responsibility and achieving response-ability. That leading companies with courage to act on the right logic, will prevail. (Hutchens, D. 2015)
Death by technology? Technological and analytical developments continue apace. Soon artificial intelligence, remote agents and chatbots (primarily as self-service facilitators) will become the new norm in contact centres. A recent service provider advertisement boasts: “We allow you to excel at digital containment of customer engagement!” We are likely to see the slow death of customer service centres in parallel (and as a result of) these technological developments.
It is a bit like playing a game of monopoly where one is confronted by an opponent who owns all the key income-generating hotels and utilities, and you have virtually no assets. You may travel the board another three or four rounds, but the fact is: the end is certain. You’re dead. It is simply a matter of time.
Unless we are saved by empathy and compassion …… Is it possible that death in fact frees one from current constraint and a new world opens up – something better? A time when contact centres for customers and other stakeholders play a new strategic role? Because although process, product and systems change, people remain constant in their needs, aspirations, desires. Both workers and customers. Futurist John Naisbitt, who has laid down and advocates the balancing principle that more high-tech demands more high-touch, puts it this way: “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human” (Naisbitt, J. 1984) and thus the imperative of “learning how to live as compassionate human beings in a technologically dominating time”. (Naisbitt, J. et al. 2001)
And backward managers see the light. Because if contact centres die, then the customer connection dies. And if this customer closeness dies, the business dies ….
A choice. We can choose life over death. A great illustration of superb, standard - setting customer excellence possible in future came out of the New York September 11th disaster:
"GTE Airphone operator Lisa Jefferson would probably like to forget what was going on at the other end of the phone that morning when she spoke to Todd Beamer, a passenger on the hijacked United Flight 93. It was his plane that crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania after passengers bravely decided to charge the hijackers. Knowing he was going to die, Todd tried to call his wife from the plane. But he had a problem with his credit card and was connected to Lisa. According to news reports, they spoke for 13 minutes during which Lisa took details of the hijackers, consoled Todd and promised to call his wife. Finally, she prayed with him before the air phone connection was terminated. Lisa told the authorities she heard passengers wailing in the background. Later she called Todd's wife to relay her husband's heroic final moments and message. How was Lisa able to keep herself together in those harrowing and unprecedented 13 minutes? What kind of customer service training could have prepared her for a situation like that? Yet customer service representatives, helpdesk advisers and emergency phone operators everywhere are capable (if allowed) of handling distressing and stressful situations with compassion, clear thinking, confidence and the strength that are all so important during a crisis. Service professionals who find meaning in their work know instinctively how to shine brightly during the darkest hours. Such customer centre service is vital to our economic healing, and perhaps our emotional healing as well”. (Dawes, Gary. 2002). Similar stories are being told of 999 calls made during the Grenfell Tower fire in London, 2017
Dawes, Gary (2002) Customer First : Front lines (Vol 3 No.7.)
de Mello, Anthony, S.J. (1987) The Song of the Bird Gujarat Sahitya Prakash Anand, India
Hammer, Michael and Champy, James (1993), Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution Harper Business Press, New York
Hutchens, David (2015) Circle of the 9 Muses: a storytelling field guide for innovators and
meaning makers Wiley
Naisbitt, John (1984) Megatrends: ten new directions transforming our lives Warner Books
Naisbitt, John with Naisbitt, Nana and Philips, Douglas (2001) High Tech High Touch:
technology and our accelerated search for meaning Nicholas Brealey Limited UK