A $175 Oil Change

By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatA few years ago I bought a new car. Although it wasn’t my practice to take my cars to their respective dealers for maintenance, a new car changed that habit. After all, there was warranty work to be considered and their coupons for low cost oil changes were enticing. It was about the time that my auto servicing behavior was firmly altered that the warranty ran out and the discount oil change incentives stopped. Still, I continued returning to the dealer for service. It was smart marketing on the part of the dealer. Too bad their efforts were thwarted.

It was time for my regular oil change and I had a list of other things that needed attention. Since I am not a mechanic, I try not to tell them what needs to be done, but rather inform them of symptoms. I want to make sure that I don’t ask for, and pay for, a tune-up when the problem may be a loose vacuum hose. It only took one passive-aggressive mechanic to do exactly what I said, while ignoring the real problem, to drive this point home.

When I dropped off my car, I said, “It is time for an oil change. Also, the car pulls to the right and it starts hard and runs rough.” I left anticipating that they would change the oil, do a front-end alignment, and give the car a tune-up. I estimated the cost would be about $100.

Later, I was somewhat taken aback when I was presented with a $175 bill. As I read the paperwork, my mild surprise changed to anger. Here is what it said:

  1. Change oil: Oil, lube, filter, labor: $24.95
  2. Car pulls to right: Test drove car; recommend front end alignment: $19.95
  3. Hard to start: Instruct driver not to press gas pedal while starting vehicle: $56.00
  4. Runs rough: Perform engine analysis; checks okay; do tune-up in 3,000 miles: $75.00

So, for $175 I had my oil changed and was given some costly advice. My complaints to the service manager accomplished nothing, so I left and never returned. Once again, my local mechanic, who I trust to do good work and to be fair, is servicing my cars.

Like call centers, car dealers measure the work their employees do. Mechanics are checked to make sure they are productive throughout the day, that they document and bill for all of their time, and that they complete their work within the “standard” allotment. Mechanics who meet expectations are given raises and promotions; mechanics who don’t, even when it’s in the customer’s best interest, are given poor reviews, lower raises, or let go. Some garages pay their mechanics based on billable work. Therefore, the more they bill, the more they make. I think I have been to those places, too. At one shop, specializing in unusual foreign cars, it seemed that every bill was always around $500. They weren’t in business long.

Other people also bill by time. Lawyers and accountants come to mind. I have been advised to never use an attorney trying to make partner. In order to get the attention of the other partners, he or she will need to log over 2,000 billable hours a year and their clients will pay the price.

I once called my CPA’s office to discuss converting my IRA to a Roth IRA. I talked with the junior accountant to whom I had been assigned, asking if there were any other tax ramifications that I should know about. She said there weren’t and suggested she do an analysis for me. “No, that is not necessary.” I replied, “You confirmed what I needed.” “But we just got this new program that I want to try out,” she begged. “Will you let me do an analysis for you?” Thinking that I was doing her a favor, I consented. The call took less than a minute. A few days later, I received a one page spreadsheet telling me that I should switch to a Roth IRA and a bill for $100. The managing partner agreed that the charge was unwarranted, but insisted that I pay it anyway!  He promised to “make it up to me later.” I quickly found a different tax advisor.

Many years ago, a friend landed a summer job repairing TVs. He was paid 20% of whatever he billed. Being enterprising, he analyzed the rate chart and quickly determined how he could add $35 to each bill for only a minute and a half of additional work. He would take the back off of the unit and hit it with a burst of compressed air, charging $8.00 to “clean chassis.” Next, he would squirt the tuner with cleaning spray, charging $10.50 to “lubricate tuner.” Then he would turn on the set. If the filaments of the vacuum tubes glowed, he would bill $16.50 to “check all vacuum tubes.” With these rudimentarily tasks completed, he would then repair the problem and add to the bill accordingly. He earned a lot of money that summer.

It has been said, “What gets measured, gets done and what gets paid for gets done better.” Consider what you are measuring in your call center and what you are paying for. The intent, no doubt, is to improve your operation, be it to pursue greater efficiency, increase the number of calls handled per agent, decrease the cost per call, or maximize “revenue” (be it directly from callers or indirectly by charging other departments).

But carefully consider the consequences. In an effort to please you, maximize their statistics, or earn a raise, are your agents directly or indirectly encouraged to do things that ultimately drives away callers or hurts your call center?

If you monitor agent productivity by measuring talk-time time, does your staff, either intentionally or subconsciously, prolong call durations? If you track units of work per hour, do agents assume they need to work faster, being short with callers and abruptly ending calls, thereby setting aside all semblances of quality?

If your customer service staff, programmers, or project managers track project time, is unnecessary work performed? Are time logs padded? Do they think they need 2,000 hours of “billable” time a year to get a raise?

If your call center sells products or services, do your commissioned agents sell what isn’t needed, or even wanted, so that they can meet their quota or earn a bonus? Do you have a “no credits” policy, either stated or implied, that leaves staff with no viable solution for frustrated callers?

Lastly, consider billing (be it internal or external). One only needs to look at phone company bills for examples of how to do it wrong. First of all, does anyone really understand their telephone company’s bill? Can the phone company reps comprehensibly explain it? Often times they can’t. Consider the countless surcharges and fees that are tacked onto each bill. The amounts change frequently and coherent explanations are rare. These ancillary charges are blamed on the FCC, credited to an esoteric law, or attributed to local or state government. On my long distance bill, dividing the total owed by the minutes used, reveals that my 4.5 cents a minute long distance actually costs me 9.7 cents a minute.

What message do your invoices or intra-company charges send? Are they easy to understand and read? Can your staff correctly and concisely explain every line item and charge? Are you billing surcharges and blaming it on HIPAA? What about holiday fees, call logging charges, phone number rental, on-call fees, and so forth? Are you making a 75 cent a minute service, effectively cost $1.50?

Yes, there are sound business reasons for each task that you track and measure; these practices can leave your call center stronger and more fiscally sound, but there is also a risk. Don’t be “penny wise and pound foolish” when it comes to measuring your call center; being astute and pragmatic – from the caller’s perspective – will ultimately produce the result you want.

Peter DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From the June/July 2005 issue of AnswerStat magazine]

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