Dial M for Misery

Providing a telephone service doesn’t have to be difficult, and it doesn’t have to be painful for your customers…yet it so often is…

This week I had the great pleasure of using telephone banking.  For diplomatic reasons, I won’t be using any names.  However, suffice to say I now have a clearer understanding of why that particular bank is used for that particular word in cockney rhyming slang.

It’s probably worth highlighting that when I use a telephone service, I actually do everything in my power to be the customer I’d want to have if I was the one answering the phone.  I’ve heard enough stories and had enough experiences to appreciate that call handlers frequently get a rough deal; being blamed for something that someone else has done/not done or something completely beyond their control.

My happy little telephone journey began with a pre-recorded voice informing me that I was important, lots of customers were ringing and they’d get to me as soon as they could.  Good start I thought, I’m important and they’re keeping me informed.  The message was interspersed with hold music; a version of which I’m led to believe North Korea use during interrogations. Such was the ear piercing, digital medley of Wagner (the composer, not the X Factor contestant), that at one point I genuinely queried whether I was still on hold or had instead developed tinnitus.

Forty five minutes later, I was still waiting.  The elation of being considered important had long since diminished.  When I was first told about a delay, I’d got up to make myself a piece of toast.  In the time it took to answer my call, I could have harvested my own wheat and baked my own blinkin’ loaf.

When I eventually made it to a call handler, I delved deep into my professional reserves and made a concerted effort to be chipper.  It appears however, that in some random twist of fate, my handler was on a similar mission to play the role of grumpy customer.  For a brief moment, I wondered whether I’d rung this woman at home at 22:30, disturbing her meal for 2 from her local Chinese and long-awaited Blockbuster rental.

She launched into her script.  I wish I could say that her delivery had such passion and belief that it put me in mind of an early Fellini. Unfortunately however, it appeared that monotone disinterest was the order of the day, and after being taken through security – a summary of my great-grandmother’s DNA sequence and my own bra size – I explained why I had called.  A period of deathly silence followed.  Apparently, it wasn’t her I needed – she had to transfer me to another department.  Before I could open my mouth to explain that I had followed all the correct actions in the “dial 1 for your balance, dial 2 to speak to a right miserable cow” sequence, she’d got me off her call and into another queue.  The digital torture returned.

Five minutes later I was speaking to a cheery chap in the “other” department, again explaining the reason for my call.  He asked me a few questions, explaining he wanted to better understand how he could help me.  He explained that I’d actually got through to the correct department the first time.  Apologising, he told me how he was going hand me back and that he was going to pop me on hold.  Not long later, I was back on the line with the original department.  Thankfully I didn’t have to explain for a third time, as the chap did it for me.  Literally one minute later, my call was resolved… as simple as that.  I’d been on the telephone for nearly an hour and the time of any value was less than 2 minutes.

Following this experience, I started to wonder whether there’s a magic formula for providing a good customer service over the telephone.  After all, surely every call is different because of the individual circumstance of each customer.  However, it’s clear that there are a whole host of constants that apply across each call… and it just happens that these constants are most of the essentials required for a customer to have a positive experience:

  • Manage customer expectations – use automated messages that deliver information of value (e.g. our waiting times are currently an average of x minutes) and not vague tag lines (e.g. we are busy, there may be a delay).
  • First Impressions still count – make sure the customer feels like you actually want to speak to them, even if they’re the 54th customer of the day.
  • Be polite – don’t sigh, snap or patronise.
  • Engage – treat the customer as if they were in front of you and build a rapport.  At the same time, remember they can’t see what you’re doing, so explain if you have to refer to something or if your computer is loading; don’t abandon them to long silences.
  • Actively listen & question – get to the root of what they’re telling you and don’t just assume.
  • Don’t promise what you can’t deliver – it erodes the integrity of your business, the trust of the customer and makes life difficult for the colleague they next speak to.
  • Empathise – don’t ignore or steam roller over difficult conversations; acknowledge difficulties & frustrations, making it your goal to resolve them or fully explain the rationale in the instances where they can’t.
  • Make the experience personal for the customer – yes, a script might be mandatory, but it doesn’t have to be obvious.

Most importantly, any business providing a service by telephone needs to appreciate the unique responsibility that it brings.  For many businesses, a telephone line is the only point of contact for their customers (apart from snail mail).  It’s important to acknowledge that customers might perceive that as distance from their service provider.  That, combined with a feeling of complete dependence on whoever answers their call, will significantly translate to their behaviours and expectations.

Luckily enough, I can pop into my local branch to sort out anything I can’t resolve via telephone banking.  But with my electrical provider, what choice do I have?  It’s not like I can hang around my local mains box waiting for a passing electrician to explain the discrepancy in my bill.  It’s post or telephone… and with that great power held by my call handler, comes great responsibility.


For more information and tips on telephone etiquette contact the team at Bright-
for business impact at www.bright7.co.uk

10 Responses to “Dial M for Misery”

  1. Shaps

    Very witty and again relevant to today’s awful customer service culture.

    I usually wait 4 hours then get a call centre advisor who I cannot understand and cannot understand my ‘postcooooode lottttteryyyyyyyy’ accent either. The internet is far more civilised!

    How was the toast by the way? Marmite or Jam?

  2. dw

    So frustrating – yet when the boot is on the other foot and I answer a sales cold call, I get another call asking why I put the phone down! well observed EJH

  3. Scott

    Good points made and definitely true to form for most call centres I’ve ever had the misfortune to deal with. There are people that care out there and understand the term “customer service” but they are few and far between. There are reasons for this:
    * salary levels dictate the quality of staff you get – generally the service you would get from an overseas call centre would be better if it wasn’t for the language barrier add the salary levels are comparatively high
    *culture of the organisation -sadly, most places put call times and volumes above customers. This translates into getting people off the phones by guessing what they want.c
    In short, you need to be an organisation that promotes service above all else and hire people that embody that culture

  4. Richard Caie

    change your service provider. Simples. Vote with your virtual feet.

    Also switch to one that has unerodable integrity. If possible, also chose one that doesn’t mail snails to customers (I may have read that bit wrong)

  5. Kim

    Brilliant I think you should be employed by all call centres to teach the staff your views and maybe people’s views will change of call centre staff!
    Can’t wait for your next blog EJH

  6. Mark

    All too often, the person telling you that ‘you’re through to the wrong department’:

    a) CAN deal with your call.

    b) Is aware of how long you’ve waited, AND of how much longer you’ll wait in transfer

    c) Is operating within the rules – or excuses – permitted to them by their employer.

    I used to work for an ISP with two defined departments – Customer Services and Tech Support – as their Scheduling and MI Manager. The staff there operated under the instruction that if one department received a call that should have been routed to the other, they were to ‘warm transfer’ it…..that is, they wait with the customer on hold, to move the call into the other queue. This meant that the customer queued not only to speak to someone the first time, but were then made to feel an idiot because they hadn’t guessed how the company thought they should select 1, 2, etc etc. And the reality was that over 80% of the queries could have been handled by ANYONE who answered, and a further 17-18% could have been handled by the first point of contact (FPC) if they had operated a customer management system that supported it. It was simply that staff were informed to hand it off rather than deal with it. This actually impacts not only on customer satisfaction, but also on employee satisfaction as they feel for themselves, and hear from the customer, of the dissatisfaction that such a process creates.

    In a world where customer interactions are more likely to be online rather than via a contact centre – and those customers haven’t gone through 5 weeks of technical training to use any system – the best contact centres are those that mirror the online experience using walkthroughs etc to guide the user to the right answer for the customer. Basically, a call handler better understands the customer interface, and is equipped to manually over-ride the transactions that a customer can’t process online.

    The ‘computer says no’ culture is rife in contact centres, sometimes because of the staff, but more often because those further up the ladder have imposed a poor culture and not invested in systems that could enable even the best of Agents to be so much better.

  7. Nathanman

    Loved it, as always! I try not call too much but that’s simply because of my anti-social behaviour. Too many call centre employees make you all too aware that they have spoken to a hundred people before you and the script does nothing for customer relations. Too strained and too scripted.
    As has been said before, honesty is always the best policy and if I know that I’m 204th in the queue I might wait till another day.
    Cracking read. I eagerly await the next thrilling instalment.

  8. The Sword

    To get off on the right foot, for starters we should have the following options:
    Dial one for “I Dreamed a Dream” Susan Boyle
    Dial two for “Drop It Like It’s Hot” Snoop Dogg
    Dial three for “You Can’t Bring Me Down” Suicidal Tendancies
    Dial four for “Hello” Lionel Richie
    Problem solved!. I think I’ve pretty much covered everyone there.

    Another insightful & witty post EJH. More please 🙂

  9. The Sword

    ^^^^^^^ I can’t believe it! Just called Virgin Media and I was given 5 genre music options to listen to whilst I was on hold.


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