Annals of Commerce: The customer service function

Thank you for reading the RBC. To assure quality, reader clicks and keystrokes may be recorded. [music you don’t like, or at least the middle frequencies of it that a telephone can transmit]Please enter or speak your account number, followed by the pound sign…You entered …if that is correct, press one [music] We are experiencing a high-than normal reader volume. Your insight request will be served by the next available post. [music] You can do a variety of interesting things on our website, www.samefacts.com, though not what you placed this click for. [music] Your opinions are important to us, and after this visit, we would like you to take a survey. Please click “1” for yes, “2” for no. [music]….
This post provides a translation of some common specialized language in the world of customer service, a land in which many seemingly simple English phrases and constructions have specialized meanings only taught in advanced MBA courses.
To assure quality, this call may be recorded.
Certainly not ‘listened to’; do you think we are going to spend actual money paying someone to listen to this drivel?  But we need to scare our agents into thinking we are listening in, and maybe you will think that will improve their performance, so it doesn’t hurt to make everyone a little anxious.
Please enter your account number
We will not transmit this to the agent, so you get to say it again later. But if you’re in this queue with a problem, you’re obviously so stupid that you can’t buy stuff from us the way we have in mind: playing with the keypad probably amuses you.
Please listen to this menu, as our options have changed.

You are too dumb to remember what number goes to what queue, and need to be retaught no matter how often you come here.
We are experiencing higher than normal call volume….
Please do not confuse normal with typical.  Normal for us is no calls, because these calls do nothing but cost us money and annoy us. We have done an excellent queuing analysis of our call pattern, and the call volume now is exactly typical, right at the mean level predicted for this day and hour. Wait time is high because we have carefully understaffed the CS function to assure (i) the minimal idle time for people on our payroll, and therefore (ii) a long waiting queue for you, who are not, and have no real option but to wait for us.  Ideally, you will get fed up, disconnect, and not bother us at all.

This staffing also assures that everyone our undertrained and overworked agents talk to will be furious, like you, so their job is soul-crushing, but unemployment is very high and what are they going to do about it, quit?
Shorter version: we think your time is much less valuable to you than ours is to us, and it is especially worthless to us.
Unfortunately, I’m not able to help you with that. Please hold while I transfer you to our senior bedbug division.
If you’ve stayed around this long, you really need to get a life. I’m going to put you in another queue for twenty more minutes so you get the idea and leave us alone. If this happens again, I will drop the call so you can call in again. And if you do, I will be on break, or my shift will be over, so you can really start from the beginning.
Your opinion/experience is important to us …[survey].
This one, recently grown into a pervasive plague, has two interpretations:
(1) When it is, we have legitimate ways of learning it, and a random survey soaked in selection bias like this is not one of them. On the other hand, pretending to ask you for your response might make you think your views are of interest, and as the survey is automated, it costs us nothing to let you pretend and then throw away the results. Also, if you get to vent to the machine, you might not call us again to complain that this call didn’t solve your problem!
(2) We really hate paying money for consulting and research so we prefer to draft you to do this for us for free.
Have a nice day!
So long, sucker.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

24 thoughts on “Annals of Commerce: The customer service function”

  1. To assure quality, this call may be recorded.

    My take has always been “If we somehow need to prove what happened on this call, we’ll have it. If you need it, well, we said MAY BE recorded, and we didn’t.”

  2. If I am dealing with any contentious matter, say a billing error, I start off the conversation by pressing “record” and stating “I am also recording this call for quality assurance. Do you approve?” and then wait for their (recorded) assent before proceeding. Two can play the game, right?

  3. What I love is how my cable provider – which apparently cannot reconcile itself to my overpaying for internet but not purchasing cable TV nor paying them for a VOIP phone number – has telemarketers call me on my cell phone at random hours of the day at least every other week – and if they don’t get through, it’s every day until they do. Including this (Saturday) morning at 9:15 AM. When I saw the caller ID on the phone that had woken me up, I’m afraid I answered with profanity.

    The hard thing about this is that the telephone customer service experience is carefully crafted by its engineers to be as alienating and frustrating as possible – but this isn’t the fault of the telephone operators. And yet, when you vent about the awful experience, typically that’s who you’re going to vent to – or, all too often, on.

    All of that being said there are some services that get the company to call you back, instead of your hanging around on hold waiting for them to connect you to a human being. There was a story in the New York Times a couple weeks ago about an Android app for your phone that will do this with the customer service operators of most of the Fortune 500 companies.

  4. A Spanish company has an ingenious addition. Customer service is available in English. But to reach it, you have to go through a multi-layer menu in Spanish. Instead of key responses, they have gone for voice replies analysed by fancy software. So you can only reach English customer support if your Spanish is good enough to beat the VR software.

  5. Amusing. However, having recently worked for one of the largest Customer Service companies in the world, I have a different perspective on each of these:

    (1) To assure quality, this call may be recorded. — ALL calls are recorded, and a certain number of calls are randomly selected every week and the agent’s performance is scored. Using a computer program called NICE, the agent reviews their actual call and must sign off on the score. This score is used in determining if the agent is bonus eligible. When you are making $8 an hour, this bonus becomes very important.

    (2)Please enter your account number. — The account number is used so the agent can have the customer’s information available the moment they begin the call. The information is re-verified because of the occasional computer glitches.

    (3) We are experiencing higher than normal call volume. — Whenever people are hearing this message call volume is indeed very high. Every seat in the room has an employee and the agents are never off the phone for a moment.

    (4) Unfortunately, I’m not able to help you with that. . . — Sometimes this is true. Sometimes, the client on the phone throws a land mine in your lap that you can’t solve, and is determined to eat away minutes venting on you. Average Handling Time (AHT) is used in determining if the agent is bonus eligible. When you are making $8 an hour, this bonus becomes very important.

    (5) Your opinion/experience is important to us [survey]. — The survey may be used as a marketing tool (I don’t know) but from the agent’s perspective, the survey score is used it is in determining if the agent is bonus eligible.

    So to recap, if the recorded call is not given a high enough grade, you don’t keep your call time down, and you can’t elicit good surveys from your clients, you are NOT bonus eligible. When you are making $8 an hour, this bonus becomes very important. From my perspective, it was very stressful work, in which you encounter a number of people who act rather unpleasantly, and you aren’t paid well while you do it. In this economy, I was working with a range of people — from semi-scary people on parole, people working there way through college, people who were born to do the work, to people who were taking the work in desperation after being laid off from FAR better jobs.

  6. Rich,

    We are experiencing higher than normal call volume. — Whenever people are hearing this message call volume is indeed very high. Every seat in the room has an employee and the agents are never off the phone for a moment.

    Your defense misses the point. It may well be that all agents are busy, and call volume is high relative to the number of agents. But that doesn’t make it “higher than normal.” The mathematics of staffing call centers is very well understood, by lots of people, and they are also relatively easy to model on a computer. As long as 25 years ago there existed, to my definite knowledge, excellent software which simulated call center functioning. There is nothing mysterious about setting one up to meet a specified standard of service. What that means is that a center set up by any even slightly sophisticated organization will provide the level of service the organization wants to provide. The center is only overwhelmed as often as it wants to be. (There are very rare cases, of course, where the center really is unexpectedly overwhelmed, but that’s not the usual “higher than normal call volume” situation.)

  7. Bernard,

    Thank you for explicating that. Based on my limited point of view, your point regarding call volume is entirely correct. The place I worked was relatively top-notch in terms of technology, and leveraged those resources to staff in the manner that they saw fit (for example: if the first hour that the call center is open you get 3 times as many calls, do you staff for that number of people and have more agents than you need for the next 2 hours). AT times we of course had unexpectedly high call volumes — usually in relation to a weather event, etc.

    Also, it was not my intention to offer a defense of the industry, rather just to offer a perspective a person who sat on the floor. I may now be the industry’s biggest critic, albeit for different reasons than anything that has been address here.

  8. Rich, what Bernard said. Also, I’m interested but not surprised to hear about the preference for money bonuses as motivation, which sets the workers against each other and as Deming explains, represents pessimal management practice at least if quality is of interest. Nor about the cost-cutting speedup mentality of pushing to shorten call time (but not the customer’s time-in-call), which ditto. I also have no trouble believing they didn’t buy enough chairs, nor space to put them in, even for the staffing level they wanted: http://www.samefacts.com/2011/05/economics/why-do-we-undercapitalize-white-collar-workers/
    An informal diagnostic of corporate culture: note how many times, if the customer uses the pronoun “you” meaning “your company”, the CS agent takes it as the singular “you” and explains that he didn’t do it himself personally. Or uses the word “they” to refer to another unit of the firm.

  9. Rich,

    to staff in the manner that they saw fit

    This is exactly my point. Your employer chose a level of service and staffed to provide it. The degree to which this level of staffing led to delays and overloads was almost entirely predictable when the staffing decisions were made. Your employer knew, or could easily find out, by how much an extra staffer would reduce caller wait times. Hence the actual caller delays were not acts of nature, but planned.

  10. There are times when volume is “higher than normal” and not predictably so. You can call in all your staff at the electric company for an impending hurricane but volume will swamp you anyway. You can fill every chair at your financial services company but a market crash blows your 25 years worth of volume data out of the water.

  11. Companies don’t compete on having better CS. They compete on having cheaper CS that “looks” good.

    I’ve never understood why all the voice-activated VRs started popping up. They’re horrible. Does anyone think these provide a better experience? I hate hate hate hate hate hate talking to a machine. It’s demeaning. To me, it’s like walking up to the returns desk at Home Depot and after the clerk comes over to you raises a hand puppet and says, “Hi, I’m Jerry. Tell me what your problem is and I’ll be happy to help!”, fully expecting you to play along. When I come across these I routinely give nonsense answers until I get a person: “Pineapples”, “Chevrolet”, “Mandarin”…

    The only explanation I can think of for their spread is that consultants sold them to managers as “sexy” and cost cutting. They certainly weren’t adopted with “better customer experience” in mind.

  12. When I come across these I routinely give nonsense answers until I get a person: “Pineapples”, “Chevrolet”, “Mandarin”…

    In my experience, the voice-recognition systems know the word “representative” and will put you in a queue (often a very long one) to speak to a human being without navigating the menus further. In case you want a method possibly more efficient than using random polysyllabic words.

  13. (3) We are experiencing higher than normal call volume. — Whenever people are hearing this message call volume is indeed very high. Every seat in the room has an employee and the agents are never off the phone for a moment.

    In other words, even when call volume is lower than normal, all agents are busy. So this claim actually proves that the call center is understaffed, or at least not adequately staffed for normal call volumes.

  14. Guest,

    There are times when volume is “higher than normal” and not predictably so. You can call in all your staff at the electric company for an impending hurricane but volume will swamp you anyway. You can fill every chair at your financial services company but a market crash blows your 25 years worth of volume data out of the water.

    True. But these are, by definition, rare, and have little to do with day-to-day service levels. If you define a standard as something like
    “No more that x% of callers will wait more than y minutes,” that 1-x% covers these cases.

    And, I know it was just a quickly chosen example, but the arrival of a hurricane, unlike a market crash, is hardly unanticipated. I say this from my home in MA.

  15. My most recent amusing experience was the process of troubleshooting an issue with the cable company over the course of a few days. Because the problem was vexing – getting the iPad app to work, I was repeatedly bounced up a sort of “chain of expertise”. The first agent had one of those fake names and was surely somewhere in Asia. But with the third, fourth and fifth agent, their English improved remarkably, as did their competence. I felt like at some point they were going to put Steve Jobs himself on the line.

  16. For those times you are really tired of punching your way through the telephone tree, sometimes gethuman.com is useful. It’s a site that lists the shortcuts through many of the most frequented telephone trees out there. You still get a person who may not be all that helpful but at least you get them faster.

  17. I’ve also noticed that when you’re on hold, they’re often actually listening to you. It can be useful to start ranting while on hold about how if no one talks to you in 15 seconds, you’ll never do business with them again, or start angrily thinking out loud about the letter you’re going to write to paper, president, consumer agency, whatever, or “well it looks like it’s time to go the small claims court route on this”…

    Maybe it’s just a coincidence but I often get a VERY quick human response with this tactic.

  18. I’m interested but not surprised to hear about the preference for money bonuses as motivation, which sets the workers against each other.

    Not in the systems I know (and I’ve worked in call centers, and worked building software for call centers.) In the cases I’m familiar with, the bonus rules are not positional–it’s “did you meet xyz metrics?” The metrics are adjusted to keep average bonus levels fairly stable, but it’s not a “top X% get bonuses” system.

  19. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence but I often get a VERY quick human response with this tactic.”

    I’m sure the time seems to pass faster.

  20. kathleen,
    I’m with drkrick on this one – the reason you’re waiting is because they don’t want to pay more staff, which wold reduce the wait times. So the idea that they’re paying people to spend their time listening to the people on hold seems unlikely. I suppose it might be possible to program the computer to listen for certain words or tones of voice – though given the trouble it has when I carefully enunciate back to the computer a word it has just given me, this seems like a bit of a challenge.

  21. Guest says:

    “There are times when volume is “higher than normal” and not predictably so. You can call in all your staff at the electric company for an impending hurricane but volume will swamp you anyway. You can fill every chair at your financial services company but a market crash blows your 25 years worth of volume data out of the water.”

    Guest, everybody here has loooooooooooonnnnnnng experience using automated voice h*ll. ‘Higher than expected’ volume is the norm, not the exception.

  22. SamChevre says:

    “In the cases I’m familiar with, the bonus rules are not positional–it’s “did you meet xyz metrics?” The metrics are adjusted to keep average bonus levels fairly stable, but it’s not a “top X% get bonuses” system.”

    I’m trying to figure out how keeping the average bonus levels fairly stable is *not* top X% get bonuses, for all practical purposes.

  23. drkrick and warren – maybe the software is programmed to specifically recognize strings of commonly-used swear words, which would explain why it answered so quickly…

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