By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
When my daughter visits, we often go for walks. Unfortunately, I had been finding it necessary to forego that particular pursuit, not because of a lack of interest, but because blisters would be a painful result.
Although we were both dismayed at this, it was my daughter who took the initiative in finding a solution. “We need to get you a new pair of shoes,” she announced decidedly. I knew that she was right, but inwardly I groaned. Shopping is an activity that I avoid. If I can’t buy it online or talk my wife into picking it up, I often do without.
“Where will we go?” I asked, dreading the inevitable answer.
“The mall,” she replied with assured confidence. The mall was precisely the answer I didn’t want to hear, but I summoned my courage and assented.
She strategically selected the optimum entrance, designed to minimize my exposure to the mall environment. Quickly guiding me to an escalator, we descended into the belly of the beast. She deftly led me through a seemingly irretraceable path of turns and corridors, expertly emerging at the entrance to a large shoe store. I was overwhelmed at its enormity, but my shopping savvy offspring smartly guided me to the men’s sneakers section.
There were two clerks in the store, both attending other customers; we were on our own. As I tried on each pair, one concern permeated my mind: how would I know which pair would not cause blisters? I already owned two blister-producing pairs and had no intention to acquire a third. Eventually, a clerk walked over to us. Looking past me, she directly addressed my daughter. “So, are you still finding everything all right?” It was stated in such a way that the only acceptable response would be in the affirmative. Before I could consider a tactful request for assistance, she retreated behind the safe confines of the checkout counter. From that bastion, she and her co-worker resumed a seemingly important conversation. Realizing that the likelihood of buying shoes from them was nil, my daughter wisely suggested that we try another store.
A scant fifteen seconds later, we strode into the next shoe shop for another round of futility. As though guarding it, three employees huddled around the register. Two guys, clad in their official uniform, never looked up or paused from their conversation to acknowledge our arrival. The third, a smartly dressed twenty-something female, looked up, flashed a broad smile, and too enthusiastically demanded, “Hi ya, how ya doing?” I responded as positively as possible, only to realize that she was not addressing me, but instead my daughter. Apparently not hearing our response, she repeated her query, only louder. We were involuntarily repelled by her vocal vibrato and veered to the perimeter of the store. Unfortunately, the store only had displays, so without assistance from the staff, we would not be buying any shoes.
At that point, I was more than ready to vamoose, but unaware of how to get to my car, I was left to the mercy and whims of my shopping buddy. Around the corner was a third shoe store. It was by far the smallest of the three and crowded with customers. Even so, we were politely greeted and, for the first time, I was not invisible. Although the clerk was overly assertive in his recommendations and talked incessantly about all things footwear related, we finally were being helped.
As soon as the goal of blister-avoidance came up, he quickly zeroed in on the problem. He offered an unexpected, yet convincing explanation, along with a solution. Within minutes, we exited the store with a shoebox in hand and smiles on our faces. Soon we were home, testing out my purchase – which happily did not cause blisters.
In shopping for these shoes, we experienced three scenarios. The first store offered only passing assistance and no advice. The second shop was arranged to make self-service impossible. Since they offered no assistance and barely acknowledged our presence, no help meant no sale. The final shop provided useful assistance through staff that were friendly and actually wanted to help.
Although I haven’t verified this, I am quite sure that the goal of all three companies was to sell shoes. Furthermore, I highly suspect that their employees were hired and paid to facilitate that goal. I also imagine that each organization trained these employees. So, what was the difference? Quite simply, it was the implementation.
I’ve seen these same three scenarios played out in call centers. For the sake of illustration, let’s assume I’m shopping for a widget.
I call the first company. My call is answered by an automated system. After endlessly pressing digits without any useful result, I am eventually given the option to talk to a real person. I press zero, but nothing happens. After trying to further interact with their IVR, I hang up in frustration.
I go on to the second company, calling their toll-free number. The call is abruptly answered by a brash and disingenuous agent. For some reason, she doesn’t hear me. Maybe the connection is bad or, more likely, the idle conversation of her co-workers is too noisy or too interesting. She repeats her greeting, this time more loudly. She pauses briefly and quickly hangs up on me. Then, she complains to the other agents about the stupid callers.
Discouraged, I call the third company. My call is answered quickly by a person. He actually listens to me. Once he is sure of the reason for my call, he offers his positive assurance, “Let me help you find the right widget for your situation.” He does, and I happily place my order.
Your call center’s goal is to help callers, sell products, or save money for your organization. Your agents are hired and trained to be effective in making that happen. Don’t let ineffective implementation, be it shoddy automation, poor supervision, self-defeating polices, negative work environments, or any other impediments get in the way of what you want them to do, be it selling shoes, hawking widgets, or helping people with their medical questions and concerns.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.
[From the December 2009/January 2010 issue of AnswerStat magazine]