Customer Service – What Are You Solving For?

by Timothy B. Corcoran on January 20, 2011

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Many moons ago I was given responsibility for my organization’s customer service operation.  I had been a longtime critic of the way things had been handled by the previous management team, so a clever senior manager gave me the chance to do something about it…  and a good life lesson in being careful what you wish for!  Nevertheless, I embraced the opportunity with gusto and when I eventually moved on to my next assignment we had reduced employee turnover, improved working conditions, implemented better metrics and improved our satisfaction rating.  I made plenty of mistakes, but I had a very patient and competent team and we learned from each other — I learned from them the intricacies of customer service, they learned from me how to measure performance and use data to drive investment decisions.

Since then I’ve had many occasions to observe other organizations.  We all have.  Whether it’s the cable company that can’t commit to an installation appointment window of less than 8 hours; or the phone company working on the telephone pole outside until the shift ends and the tech leaves the neighborhood without phone service until he can return tomorrow; or the politically-minded restaurant owner who stopped by the table to openly mock his opposite-leaning dinner patrons; or the rental car agency which tried several times to pursue a false claim of property damage despite overwhelming evidence rebutting the charge, which as it turns out is a regular tactic designed to extort money from customers who don’t have the time or energy to fight; or the temporary office suite rental company that began collections proceedings against a longtime client within a week of a changed reservation that incurred a change fee; and the list goes on and on.  These are just a few of the examples I’ve witnessed or heard of in the last several months, and the prevailing question these actions leave in my mind is: what the heck are they solving for?

In math (or maths as my UK friends say it!), it’s important to know what you’re solving for, because then you can line up the givens and the variables and formulate an equation to derive the solution.  Customer Service has multiple moving parts, and, to be clear, service roles can be thankless because most customers won’t be satisfied with anything less than having their opening demand met.  But every service organization should establish clear and unambiguous goals for its desired outcome.  All service agents, indeed everyone from top executive to new hire, should be clear about what the organization is solving for.

Looking back at the handful of examples, is the cable company solving for customer convenience, or ignoring it while solving for fitting in the maximum number of service calls per assigned vehicle, regardless of how long it takes?  Is the phone company solving for uninterrupted service with the corresponding revenue generated, or solving for fitting as much service into the normal workday but not a moment more?

Is the restaurant owner solving for promoting his own political beliefs or for demonstrating how clever he is, or for diner satisfaction, repeat visits and good feedback on OpenTable.com?  Is the rental car company solving for generating some revenue from fooling a few customers into paying for imaginary property damage or is it better off solving for lowering the costs to acquire a new rental by creating happy repeat customers?  Does the office suite rental firm solve for and therefore reward its employees for prompt collections and cash flow rather than solving for repeat business?

In my own experience, my team initially solved for call time, and the clear and overriding objective was to end the call as quickly as possible, even if that meant the problem went unresolved.  Forwarding the call to a 3rd party, or worse, to a 3rd party’s voice mail, seemed to be more acceptable than extending the call beyond the stated goal in order to resolve it.  Once we tackled that, we learned that agents began to solve for pleasing disgruntled customers at any cost.  So the number of credits issued skyrocketed, until we reset the target to improving customer satisfaction  quickly and at the lowest cost.  Then we added more and more conditions until there were too many objectives, so so we dialed back until we found our comfort zone.

The lesson is that addressing customer satisfaction is an exercise in optimization rather than maximization.  In other words, there are competing objectives or constraints which create boundaries around our potential actions.  It’s important to find the right balance within these various boundaries, rather than focus on one at the exclusion of others.  Yes, this makes things more complex.  Anyone who shudders at the memory of manually calculating complex linear programming equations in Calculus class, with multiple constraints and “subject to’s” knows that optimization is a challenge.

But as a practical matter, is it really so hard to address customer concerns while keeping a few tenets in mind?  For example, we will acknowledge your inquiry promptly, and if we can’t provide an answer right away we’ll advise you when we can, and then we’ll meet or exceed that deadline.  We may offer a solution that is less than what you demand, but will acknowledge any mistakes we made, compensate you fairly for your trouble, maintain our profitability but encourage you to stay, or become, a repeat customer.

Two anecdotes to emphasize the point.  I travel regularly to London, and I often arrive on Monday morning when Heathrow airport is at its busiest.  The line for immigration and customs was over two hours long on my last visit.  Many airlines offer its elite fliers a “Fast Track” card to speed through this process, but I discovered my preferred airline, Continental, no longer does.  Alternatively, the UK offers a program called “Iris” which, not surprisingly, uses eyeball scans as proof positive of your identity, and speeds you through immigration and customs if you’re a registered member of the program.  However, on my last visit the Iris office in my terminal was closed so I couldn’t register.

While planning my next trip to the UK, I emailed Continental Airlines and the UK Immigration Authority.  I asked the airline if they could find a way to secure a Fast Track card for me, and I asked the Iris team if I could somehow register before my arrival.  Here are excerpts from their respective responses:

Continental Airlines:

Thank you for contacting Continental Airlines.

We appreciate customers taking the time to share comments and suggestions. Feedback like yours presents opportunities for improvement.

At the moment, Continental does not offer the Fast Track ticketing option. However, your comments will be forwarded to appropriate senior management for internal review and possible action.

On behalf of the entire Continental Airlines team, we appreciate your business. We hope to see you on a future Continental Airlines flight.

UK Immigration Authority, Iris office:

I can confirm that you appear to meet the criteria for enrolment on IRIS, although the final decision rests with the enrolment officer, and also that you are only able to enrol on IRIS at the terminal from which you are departing.

Enrolment room staff can only enrol you after scanning your iris.  Enrolment is therefore not possible by any other means or at any location other than an enrolment room.

The enrolment room at Heathrow terminal 4 is not closed permanently, but was closed during the summer as it was clear to local managers (who set the opening hours) that it would be necessary for most of the stated opening hours to re-deploy staff to work at the border control in the arrivals area. Although this was frustrating for would-be users, it did at least remove any uncertainty.

I appreciate that this continues to be frustrating – yours is not the first enquiry I have received about a re-opening date – and an update will appear on the website as soon as I have some news. I am sorry that I am unable to send a more helpful response.

It’s apparent that each organization has different objectives in mind when dealing with customers.  Continental values expediency over information, choosing not to provide any context, rationale, explanation, timeline or any other detail concerning its decision to cease participation in the Fast Track program, though they are very polite in providing no information.  Undoubtedly the airline receives reams of inquires each day, but how many come from travelers who have not only achieved the highest elite status, but who have achieved lifetime elite status?  A more manageable number I would venture.  Yet a form response is all they can muster.  By contrast, an actual human in the UK Immigration office took the time to respond to my specific concerns, providing helpful insight and context.

Upon reading both notes, I am no closer to achieving my objective of a speedy trip through UK immigration and customs, but I’m annoyed at the airline for its template response and I’m delighted with the service posture of the Iris agent.  The latter responded quickly, demonstrated empathy, explained the factors impacting me and apologized for not having the answer I sought.  As I wait in line for two hours or so on my upcoming visit, I won’t be upset at the UK Iris team, but I’ll be wondering why — now that I’ve achieved the highest status I can possibly achieve on Continental Airlines — I didn’t switch my allegiance to another airline which provides benefits commensurate with the outrageous business class fare I pay.

When addressing client concerns, be clear about what you’re solving for, lest the result of your equation result in declining value for your business.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sandy Crouch September 26, 2011 at 10:58 pm

I completely agree that every business should have a clear outline of what customer service should be all about. So often we run into this type of problem, and never get resolution.

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