It’s always preferable to solve a customer’s problem first with automation, which means less friction for the customer and less cost for the company. But the fact is that most companies’ self-service offerings are nowhere near advanced enough to be able to deal with all the exceptions and unanticipated circumstances that might give rise to a customer problem.
When customers contact a company by phone or chat to solve a problem, the “conversation” is usually quite predictable. The customer is communicating with a real human being rather than with a computer voice or a series of Web choices, but the person on the company’s end of the conversation will still follow a prescribed set of rules or a script.
A chronic question for contact center leaders is how best to deal with the exceptions—situations that aren’t anticipated, and for which no script or standard process applies. As automation continues to get better, we can expect companies to resolve more customer service issues without requiring human intervention. But that means that remaining service issues that can’t be successfully resolved with automated actions and scripted responses will be that much more difficult to deal with. They will require more time, initiative, and creativity on the part of service people. In other words, they will require handling by a company where the employees are governed by a sound, customer-oriented culture.
Recently I’ve started to see companies empowering their front-line people and even customers themselves to come up with the solutions to unanticipated problems more efficiently, by relying on individual initiative and a unifying culture. For instance:
• Whenever an issue arises in which the customer has a legitimate problem but also bears partial responsibility (perhaps having overlooked some rule or violated some policy), associates are authorized simply to ask the customer “What do you think would be fair?” This quickly commits the customer to accept some responsibility and “split the difference” with the company in a way that leaves the customer satisfied but doesn’t require something as expensive as, say, a full refund or make-good. “What do you think is fair” is the kind of thing you might ask of a friend, and has a calming effect on an otherwise upset customer.
• When a customer falls behind on a loan, rather than putting him or her on a payment schedule dictated by debt size and the company’s own credit requirements, associates now ask the customer, “How much do you think you can afford to pay toward this debt each week?” This policy gets the customer to accept responsibility, but does so in a way that leads to more realistic (and dependable) repayments. The executive who described this policy told me it was generating higher actual repayments than the prior policy, because once a customer commits to an amount that they choose themselves, they really do make payments.
• When a customer service associate can see a way to resolve a difficult problem by tailoring an out-of-policy solution, the associate can simply consult with another associate, rather than wait for a superior to decide the issue. If two associates agree together that a solution seems reasonable, then this is all the authority needed to go forward with it. Companies may review such decisions later, but they very rarely find it necessary to make any corrections or admonish the reps involved. And my guess is that the entire contact center would be energized by this kind of cultural empowerment.
In the highly interactive, automated age we live in today, it’s no longer enough simply to wait for your internal, pre-specified rules to fail and have to be re-written, in the face of an unanticipated problem. And your best line of defense, if you want to remain resilient and competitive, is a strong culture that binds your employees to a common view of your company’s mission.