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Customer Service Fundamentals


For this article, I'm defining "customer service" to be the things you do to resolve a customer's problem.

My personal experience of customer service - from the customer perspective - has been largely miserable, and it seems to be getting worse. I think this is largely due to the call centre syndrome, but - whatever the reason - it seems pretty clear that the majority of organisations I deal with have a very long way to go, and many are heading in the wrong direction fast. My phone company, my ISP, my ex-ISP, High street shops, training organisations, local authorities - in fact - everywhere you look - organisations are doing a bad job on customer service.

Perhaps I'm more demanding than many. I've been endlessly fascinated by how poorly grown-ups can perform, and furthermore - defend their behaviour in low and foolish ways. I hate it, and I'm loth to let it go. I've managed a few service organisations myself, so I know what can be done - as well as how hard it sometimes is to do it.

So here are my top tips for how customer service organisations should be built to provide quality customer service.

1. Use a Capture System
When I first worked in customer service, I found my head couldn't hold the number of issues and the current state-of-play of each.

So I developed a paper system. For each new problem, I'd take a sheet of paper (or "ticket"), write a snappy heading, the date, customer information and a priority code. As correspondence came in on that problem, I'd make a note and staple it to the top sheet. If I made progress, I'd note it on the paperwork. When the problem was solved I'd take the whole stapled wad of paper and file it. When I wasn't sure what I should be doing, I'd look at my list of problems and try to progress as many as possible in a sensible order. This was my first "ticket system".

That worked fine, but later on we wrote a computer equivalent that did pretty much the same thing with some bells and whistles. These days, you can buy them off-the-shelf. They're called "problem management" or "problem tracking" or "ticket systems".

Whether they are paper or computer systems, they are essential to running a quality customer service organisation. Not only do they provide a first-class memory support, but they are the framework upon which the other essential ingredients of customer service are hung. Later on, they can be used as knowledge databases, process automation centres and a source of first class metrics on all aspects of operations.

2. Assign Problem Ownership
Each new problem should be assigned an owner. That person bears responsibility for the problem for as long as it's open. Their role is to use the assets of their organisation (not least the capture system) to delivery high quality service to the customer.

Contrast this with the common alternative. Each contact gets you a different support person. They need time to become familiar with the problem. If it's complex, they may misunderstand it initially. They will give it a push, and move on. You may get your problem solved or you may not. If not, you get to contact them again, get a new person to work with, and trot round the thing again.

Some support centres use problem logs. Each operator puts the current state-of-play in the log so that whoever else helps out can use the information. This is a step up. But in practice, logs are often too brief or inaccurate to be useful.

Because each problem may be worked by many operators, there is no personal ownership nor responsibility for any one job. The motivation can then be to get rid of a problem as fast as possible - like a Hot Potato.

3. Give Problem Closure to the Customer
One of the major obstacles in giving first class customer service is that the perspectives and objectives of the service agents and their customers are often hugely different.

So allow your customers to tell you when a ticket is closed - not the other way round. Enshrine this concept in your support training, and embody it within your ticket system.

Practically speaking, this means your service agents will ask their customer if they can close the ticket when they think the problem is resolved. If they agree, some box will be ticked to record the fact. (Misuse of this box would of course, be a capital offense). The customer may disagree, and can specify what remains to be done. In this way, customers and agents are bought closer together into a collaborative arrangement.

Clearly there is scope for unreasonable customers to misuse this facility. So your system should include a "customer override" but I suggest that the next level of management become involved when it seems necessary to use it.

4. Operate an Efficient Meritocracy
Any quality organisation needs systems in place to define people's jobs, to measure how well they are doing those jobs, and to respond to that measurement accordingly. A support centre should be no different.

All support operators must understand their role - to solve customer problems. This should be broken down into smaller components and goals defined for each. The capture system should record these components for each ticket. Measures of support quality might include:

  1. A mark out of 10 awarded by the customer for each ticket closed
  2. A mark for degree of correct usage of the ticket system
  3. Time taken to close the ticket
  4. Degree of autonomy shown in closing the ticket
  5. Number of tickets closed in any period

5. Learn by Experience
One of the benefits of operating a ticket system is that it encapsulates all the support work which is done, and this is an incredibly valuable management resource, enabling organisations to grow and learn. I was astounded to learn that of all the problems my organisation was fixing each week, nearly a third of them were actually caused by my team's earlier actions! Because the evidence was in the system, and entered by ten different operators - it was undeniable by anyone. There is every reason to believe that this is the norm in organisations that don't use a ticket system - they just don't know it.

We worked back through the ticket logs and found hot-spots where our actions were error-prone. We wrote documents describing foolproof procedures. We identified staff who didn't really understand certain aspects of their work, and set up a cross-training program so our experts could share. We wrote programs to do our work for us. Things got better fast, and we had a great time.

6. Organisational Support
You need high-level commitment to doing things right. Not just the words, but the actions and the support. If you don't have it, you're unlikely to succeed. I know how glib it sounds, but I urge you to find somewhere else to work.

7. Reality Check
If course there are going to be problems. The introduction of any beaurocracy like a ticket system will meet with resistance: "It's just make-work", "it'll take longer to enter the ticket than to do the work", "It'll slow everything down", "It stifles creativity", "It's Big Brother". You'll need a healthy staff-relationship, patience and management skills to bring it off. For a time, things might get worse before they get better, as the new system beds in. I suggest a staged introduction. And the old pressured don't go away; you'll need to find resource to do this extra work as well as - not instead of the existing workload. "Gurus" will feel threatened as their activities are rendered transparent in the ticket system.

There's a whole book in here, and maybe three years work but if you're awake and well-intentioned, you'll be seeing things around you going wrong in trivial yet costly ways every day. Costly in wasted time, money and burned-out people.

Go for it!

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