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Call Center Articles

An Eye For Customer Service

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

It was an emergency run to the eye doctor. Being far-sighted and using a computer all day makes my glasses an indispensable tool – one that I treat with the utmost care.  Imagine my dismay when in the midst of my morning cleaning routine, I heard the frame snap and a lens landed in my hand. I was panic-stricken. How would I be able to get any work done?

I arrived at my optometrist’s office, practically as the doors opened, glad that they would take a “walk-in.” I explained the situation and though they treated my disaster with matter-of-fact routine, I was comforted that they were willing to help. “We’ll need to order new frames,” the man concluded.

“Can’t you simply fix them?” I inquired.

“We could,” he droned, “but there is no guarantee…it might hold a day, maybe a few months. Don’t worry,” he added, “we’ll get you some loaner frames to use while you wait for your new ones.” Trusting his advice, I assented.

He disappeared into a back room and returned several minutes later. The look on his face braced me for bad news. “Your frames have been discontinued. We’ll have to fix your old ones…they can be soldered.” Now I have done my share of soldering over the years: in electronics to make an electrical connection and in plumbing to seal a joint. I was highly skeptical that solder would repair my damaged frames for more than a few minutes. I began to voice my apprehension. He smiled assuredly and clarified. “Actually, it’s more like welding.” Now I knew he was off base. During a stint working at a machine shop, I did more types of welding than most people know exist. I did not see any of those methods successfully repairing my delicate wire-rims. But I was out of options and reluctantly consented. He quickly outlined the details: the broken frames would need to be sent out for repair…they’ll be back in a few days, maybe by Saturday…it would cost twenty dollars.

He then set about finding a loaner frame. After an half hour with no success, he finally uncovered one old demo pair that, although not the right dimensions, would at least hold my lenses in place and keep them approximately positioned in front of my eyes – the temple pieces were much too short, which tipped lenses forward, throwing off the bifocals; I would need to adapt. Grateful for a solution, albeit uncomfortable and less than ideal, I reminded myself that it was only for a few days and gratefully thanked him. His parting promise was clear; “We’ll call you when your frames come back – let’s hope for Saturday.”

As I left, I confirmed the plan at the front desk, “Yes,” she affirmed, “We’ll call you when they come in.” I believed her.

Saturday came but without a call. Monday they were closed. I called them on Tuesday. I got an answering machine. Dismayed that they did not answer their phone in the middle of the day, I left a message imploring them to call. No one called. Wednesday I called again. “Sure, they’re here,” she said cheerfully. “You can stop in any time,” she added, as though getting my frames back and returning my life to normal was a trivial and incidental matter.

By now, the tops of my ears were inflamed and the bridge of my nose tender because of continual use of the ill-fitting frames. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” was my firm and somewhat terse reply.

The man greeted me soon after I arrived. “It will only take a few minutes to switch lenses,” he said with a smile. I reminded him that the screws holding my lenses in my frames have a tendency to loosen and fall out. “Don’t worry,” he assured, “I’ll put in special screws with ‘lock-tight’ on them.”

“No,” I responded firmly, “you’ve done that before and they fall out too. Last time you said that you ‘glued them’.” I was dismayed that this critical information was not in my file, as he has had to re-install my lenses four times in the past three years. He said nothing, but gave me a knowing look of comprehension, retreating into his work area. A few minutes later, he returned and I donned my restored glasses; what a great feeling, it was just like slipping into a comfortable pair of old shoes!

I thanked him and segued to my next goal. “Will you please put my old lenses in another frame – any frame,” I inquired, “so that I can have a back-up pair?”

“Your frames have been discontinued,” he said, telling me what I already knew.

“Surely someone makes a frame that will fit my lenses,” I prodded.

“I already looked, remember?” Now he was becoming irritated with me. “You’ll need to order new frames and get new lenses, and before we’ll do that, you’ll need an eye exam.”

“That will be almost five hundred dollars,” I said in dismay, recalling the cost of my initial introduction to glasses. “I can only afford to buy a second frame,” I embellished.

“You really should have an eye exam every year,” he lectured. “And it’s been fourteen months for you.”

“I just want to buy a back-up frame,” I pleaded.

His reply was curt, “Sorry, we can’t help you.” He turned and walked away.

Later, I casually mentioned my ordeal – and desire for a back up – to my mother. Mom took this on as a challenge and the next day surprised me with a list of businesses willing to assist. Two days later, I visited the top one on her list. Their office was closer, easier to get to, and had free parking at the door. I walked in, explained my plight to the receptionist, and shared my goal. I waited a few minutes and was greeted by a kind and empathetic young lady. She listened to my tale of woe, acknowledging that it, too, would have been their preference for an exam, new frames, and new lenses. Nevertheless, she said she would do her best to help me. She began to look for suitable frames and I realized her intent was to handle my request immediately. She came back with a frame that she thought would work with some adjustments or by grinding my lenses. I had not expected an immediate resolution and since there were several other customers being serviced at the time, I told her that I would be more than happy to come back later. She thanked me and promised to work on my glasses first thing the next day; I could stop by any time. I believed her.

I returned the next afternoon. She recognized me and immediately approached me, smiling broadly. “I have your glasses done,” she beamed with the pride of an artist. “I am really pleased with how they turned out.” Because of her genuine sincerity, I knew that I would be pleased as well. She had not had to grind my lenses down after all. I was only charged for the frames, there was no labor fee, and I got a free case and a discount, too. I thanked her profusely. She said that she was glad she was able to help me.

On my prior visit, I had noticed a sign that gave their repair rates. To solder frames was only five dollars. My optometrist had charged four times as much! I realized that five dollars would not even cover shipping, so I reasoned that repairs were done in-house; I suspected I would not have to wait eight days either. I had already decided that they would be my new optometrist, but took one more step to confirm my decision. “By the way,” I inquired, “how much is an eye exam?” It was fifty dollars less than what I had been paying! I promised her that I would be back.

By giving poor customer service, my eye doctor had lost a loyal customer; by going the extra mile, someone else had gained one.

How to Lose Clients:

  • Act apathetic toward their situation
  • Make promises you don’t keep
  • Don’t listen to them
  • Lose credibility by making recommendations that are self-serving
  • Fail to keep good records of previous interactions
  • Give them a reason to check out your competition

How to Gain Clients:

  • Be genuinely sympathetic, even if it is a routine matter for you
  • Only make promises you can keep
  • Take time to really listen to what they say
  • Gain credibility by going the extra mile
  • Make sure their interaction with you is pleasant and memorable
  • Give them a reason to never return to their old provider

[From Connection MagazineJuly/Aug 2002]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

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Call Center Articles

Nothing to Sneeze About

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

A few years ago, I had a strange revelation. It all began with a sneeze. In doing so, I realized that I sounded just like my dad. Not that there is anything wrong or strange about how my dad sneezes, just that it is distinctive. At first, I chalked this up to simple heredity. But why then did it take four decades for me to become cognizant of this similarity? A quick empirical look at how other family members performed this uncontrollable reflex did not support any sort of genetic connection. Indeed, everyone else did, in fact, have a unique sneeze.

Since that time, I have become aware of other mannerisms and gestures that my dad and I share. My conclusion is that this is not a byproduct of genes, but rather environment. More succinctly, as I spend more time with my father, I become more like him. If this went no further than physical idiosyncrasies, this would be a trivial observation. But there are more valuable and influential characteristics that I subconsciously learned from dad over the years. A good, strong work ethic is a prime example. Dad never told me to work hard and diligently – he merely did so and I emulated his example. Others traits include integrity, honesty, caution, sound decision-making, carefulness with what I say, and an analytical prowess.

If I unknowingly learned these things by being around my dad, what sort of things do those who spend time with me discover and then model? While I hope they absorb good and positive traits, I fear that they may also be acquiring some less admirable tendencies. Each time a child, friend, employee, or client treats me in a less than desirable manner, I ask myself, “Did they pick this up from me?” “Are they mirroring what they have seen me do?”

When parents see things in their children that they do not like, they often do some soul searching and ask, “Where did they learn this?” and “What did I do wrong?” Although, children have many spheres of input and influence, parents are a key source. The saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is accurate and correct. Words can influence and direct, but actions are the prime training tools. And when actions match words, a strong and consistent message is sent.

I have seen this same principle carry over to the work place as well, to both with employees and clients. First, consider clients. Every business has a few “difficult” clients – the kind that one wishes would just go away. But if a company has all difficult clients, some tough introspection is warranted. Quite simply, one might wonder, “are my ‘bad’ clients merely treating me the way I treat them, according to what I taught them?” I once saw this dramatically demonstrated through an acquisition, where the prior owners were – well – less than honorable in their client interactions. Dealing with their client base was quite a challenge. It took several years to get those clients to stop yelling at managers, cursing staff, and aggressively challenging every bill. But who is to blame them? They were simply responding as they had been taught, according to how the former owner acted towards them.

From the employee aspect, I have seen this occur on several levels. First, through witnessing how a shift supervisor destroyed the effectiveness of the employees on her shift. Her staff became lazy, took extra long breaks, and lost all loyalty towards the company. The worst offenders were fired and replacements hired and trained; yet, they quickly fell into the same mode. Eventually the supervisor was investigated, revealing the reality that her position of authority was too much for her to handle. She had become lazy, took long breaks, and had no respect for her employer. Her charges were merely emulating the negative characteristics of their supervisor. A new supervisor was brought in and things slowly turned around.

More dramatically, I have seen this happen throughout an entire office. It seemed that a good employee could not be found in the entire city. Each new hire turned out to be a liar, a manipulator, and a denigrator of company policy and procedure. Alas, after endlessly turning over staff, the manager was scrutinized. Ultimately, the manager’s true colors were revealed, I found that she was a compulsive liar, shamelessly manipulated her staff, and had open contempt for company policy and executive directives. This manager was let go and suddenly good employees could be found. Though it took years to negate her damaging example, the office slowly began to function as it should.

Lastly, I have had situations where a company owner laments over his terrible employees. His staff continually falsifies time cards, steals company supplies and assets, and lodges complaints and files lawsuits on a seemingly continuous basis. The owner is truly perplexed at why this is happening, but to even a casual outsider the cause is clear. For the owner underreports income on his tax return, cheats his employees out of their rightful pay, and threatens to sue every vendor or client who causes consternation.

True, not all children, friends, clients, and employees are perfect, but when a consistent trend of unacceptable behaviors is evident within the entire group, it might be time to look at one’s self and one’s actions. After all, what we do is nothing to sneeze about.

[From Connection MagazineMay/June 2002]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

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Call Center Articles

The Only Constant is Change

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

This special ATSI Convention issue represents something new for Connections Magazine. We took a step back and asked ourselves, what can we do to better serve the industry? Helping to promote the ATSI Convention was top on the list.

Long-time readers of Connections Magazine will notice how it has changed. Over the years, there has been a steady migration of improvements and adjustments. During my tenure as Publisher, I have sought to build upon the magazine’s history and past success by making incremental improvements and stylistic enhancements with each issue. Some of these changes have been methodically planned and mapped out well ahead of time, while others have been the result of creative inspiration during the layout and design phase by veteran graphic artist Dave Margolis. This philosophy is seen in our website as well, where every page as witnessed a makeover. Additionally, there has been a 30% increase in Web content in the past six months.

Connections Magazine has a mindset for change. In fact, as we begin each issue, I share with the team (although not always as effectively as I would like) what will be new, exciting, and different about that issue. The reality is, that no matter how good an issue is, how pleased we are with it, or the number of accolades we receive, there is always room for improvement and an opportunity to be better.

ATSI, too, is in the midst of change. They have listened to members and responded; they have sought out former members and brought them back; and they have cultivated a positive, can-do attitude to support members and advance the industry. This year’s convention should be no exception.

I think that in today’s business environment, a culture of change is essential for every organization. In my younger days, I would recommend change for the sheer fun of it. Now, older and wiser, I only advocate change when there is a compelling, necessary, or justifiable reason to do so. The key reason for this is that for most people, change is difficult. Change takes something familiar and replaces it with something unknown. Each organization has people who are change resistant. And each leader, manager, and supervisor knows exactly who these people are.  With such folk, their level of aversion to change varies from unspoken trepidation to being overtly confrontational. Regardless of the manifestation, we need to be compassionate, realizing that these reactions are merely their way of responding to fear – fear of the unknown.

To establish a change-oriented culture in your organization, the first step is to minimize employee fears towards change. Employees can accept change if: 1) the change is incremental or small, 2) they have a degree of input or control over the change, and 3) the change is clearly understood by all.

The key to this is communication. Address change head on. For every change, each employee wonders how it will affect him or her. Could they lose their job? Might their hours be cut or changed? Will they be asked to work harder than they already are? Will they be made to do something that is unpleasant or distasteful? What will happen if they can’t learn the new skills? These are all worries, worries about the unknown. As with most worries, the majority will never happen. But with a lack of reliable information and top-down assurances, these irrational worries take on a life all their own.

Successfully orchestrating change requires effective communication. Not once, but ongoing; not to key staff, but to all staff; not by one method, but by several: group meetings, written correspondence, and one-on-one discussions. A true and effective open door policy helps, too. Also, it is critical that a positive attitude is set, at the beginning, from the top of the organization, which never waivers. Celebrate milestones, generously thank staff along the way, and provide reasonable rewards at the end.

Successfully taking these steps will send a strong signal to staff. Even though the change may still concern them, they will be comforted knowing they have accurate information and the assurance that they are safe and will be protected. And for each successful change, the next one becomes easier to bring about.

You will know that you have successfully created a change-friendly organization when your employees – all of them – get bored with the status quo and begin seeking change. They will ask for larger or more challenging accounts, long for the next acquisition, or want to embark on a major equipment upgrade. At this point, the potential of your organization becomes unlimited; the personal growth of your staff, unshackled; and the future, inviting. You don’t know what that future will entail, only that things will change for the better. So, sit back and enjoy the ride, fully confident that the only constant changes.

[From Connection MagazineApril 2002]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

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Call Center Articles

We’re on a Mission

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I am a bit of a movie buff. Among my more arcane interests is a fixation with memorable, unique, or humorous lines from films. Some phrases make their way into pop-culture, such as Clint Eastwood, pointing his ominous side-arm and snarling, “Go ahead, make my day.” Others transcend generations, as did Rhett’s infamous rebuff of Scarlet in Gone with the Wind. Then there was Jaws when the great white was first seen in its entirety and the sheriff intoned with deadpan seriousness, “I think we need a bigger boat.” A passage from Twister produces a smile every time I recall it: “You know when you used to tell me you chased tornadoes?   Deep down, I always thought it was a metaphor.” The acclaimed and award winning movie As Good as it Gets has many memorable lines. My all time favorite occurs when Melvin seemingly fumbles yet another effort to impress Carol, but then recovers nicely with his poignant confession, “You make me want to be a better man.”

For over twenty years, a reoccurring phrase from the Blues Brothers has left me bemused and perplexed. I am still not sure rather I should be offended or merely amused with the protagonist’s assertion, “We’re on a mission from God.” The “mission” of this critically disparaged, yet once popular film, might seem to be simply to levy mayhem and destruction upon the city of Chicago. However, the dubious epiphany of Jake and Elwood is to “put the band back together.”

As mission statements go, this one seems trivial and unsophisticated. Yet it possesses both simple eloquence and empowering efficacy. When most organizations develop a mission statement, they spend months or even years creating the perfect blend of sentiment, intention, and promise, often presenting it in flowery or verbose fashion. The result of this effort gets added to the employee handbook, printed on marketing pieces, and engraved on a plaque prominently positioned in the main lobby. In reality, these lengthy prose are often nothing but a thinly disguised marketing effort and not a mission statement at all. A good and effective mission statement has several important characteristics:

  • It needs to be readily understood by those to whom it applies.
  • It needs to provide direction and guidance in everyday decision making.
  • It needs to be short and concise, allowing all stakeholders to learn it, follow it, and internalize it.

Unfortunately, most organizations’ mission statements do not fit any of these criteria. The Blues Brothers’ mission does. Every time it is shared, it is immediately understood; it provides direction (albeit, often excessively) and it is easily learned, followed, and internalized.

Still their mission seems trivial and inconsequential. That is because behind every mission, there is a supporting vision. The vision of the Blues Brothers is to raise money and save the orphanage that reared them and has now fallen on hard times. This vision is why their mission is so important. The mission is not the end, but rather a means to the end, that of saving the orphanage.

Mission and vision, however are still not enough. Just as the mission is supported by a vision, the vision is deployed through goals. The goals of the Blues Brothers are simple and progressive: contact former and prospective band members, get them to join the group, hold a benefit concert, and give the money to the orphanage.

Therefore, the Blues Brothers’ business plan might be summarized as follows:

Mission: Put the band back together
Vision: Save the orphanage
Goals:

  • Contact musicians
  • Form group
  • Hold concert
  • Give proceeds to orphanage

With this basic, yet effective example as a backdrop, now it is time for some introspection. Does your organization have a mission? A vision? What are your goals? If you do not have a mission statement, now is the time to develop one. Start today; do not delay. Make sure your staff is supported by and directed through an effective and practical mission statement; do not let them flounder. Remember the wise saying, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

If you already have a mission statement, is it the hang-on-the-wall, marketing-ploy type or the succinctly worded axiom which directs daily actions and guides staff decisions? Maybe your stated purpose falls within this small minority of real, true mission statements. If so, is it short and concise enough for your staff to learn, follow, and internalize? Is it readily understood by all? Does it really, in practical actuality, serve as a guide for daily decisions and actions?

The conventional wisdom is that creating a mission and forming a vision is a group activity, something that is done by a committee, with input and review throughout the organization. This is done to get the “buy-in” of all stakeholders. Yet the reality is that when a mission is developed in this fashion, it becomes less relevant as turnover occurs and staff attrition takes its toll. Then, every few years, as the statement becomes increasingly meaningless and obsolete, a new committee is required and more meetings take place to craft a new declaration.

I feel this is the wrong approach. Yes, you do need to have the support of the rank and file for your mission, but I view its origin and construction to be a leadership issue. The mission must come from the top. Then it needs to be communicated, not once, not from time-to-time, but frequently and on an ongoing basis. Over time it will be embraced by those it is intended to support. In due course, it will become understood and internalized. Via the example of leadership first, and management second, it will begin to permeate the entire organization and start to direct actions and guide decisions. With this as the expected outcome, make the drafting or review of your mission statement your top priority; your future may be at stake.

Oh, and for the record, Connections Magazine does have a mission statement; it is found on page five. Our mission is “To be the principal clearinghouse of relevant and practical information for the teleservices industry.”

[From Connection MagazineMarch 2002]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.

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Call Center Articles

Going Virtual

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

As I wrote my column for the last issue, I was struck with the realization that I had structured Connections Magazine as a virtual company. This wasn’t intentional; it just worked out that way. Not only am I the only one working in the “corporate office,” there are no local vendors either. Indeed everyone who takes part in the production of the magazine is from out of state – different states!

Dave, our layout genius and designer extraordinaire is in Pennsylvania. His work gets sent over the Internet to our printer in Ohio. There they work up the proofs and put them on an FTP site for Dave and me to review and then approve. The mailing list is maintained by myself in Michigan. For each issue, I output the file and email it to our list processor. They massage the data and sort the list, in turn forwarding it to our printer. The printer merges the mailing list with the magazines and delivers them to the post office. An army of postal carriers deliver the finished package to your home or office.

The newest member of the team is Valerie Port, our media rep., in New York; she handles the display advertising sales. As editor, I plan, solicit, collect, and edit the articles and press releases. Finally, our website, connectionsmagazine.com, remains hosted by an ISP in Montana, but I update the content remotely from Michigan.

I have never met any of these fine people in person. We conduct business via telephone and make frequent use of email. Each issue is produced without any face-to-face interaction. For our first issue, this was somewhat disarming and disconcerting, but I am convinced that the result is better than if we all worked together in the same office. True, we miss out on some synergy, incidental communication, and camaraderie, but we are also each free to do what he or she does best and to do so with minimal outside distraction and interruption. As Bill Murray said in the movie “Stripes,” “We’re a lean, mean, fighting machine!”

Several years ago, I theorized that a teleservices company call center could similarly be configured as a virtual company. Not that I advocated it at the time, but it was an intriguing mental exercise. Over the years I have run into more and more situations where aspects of a center were outsourced. Currently, I am aware of services who outsource their billing, accounts payable, and general ledger, who hire a computer support firm to maintain equipment, an ad agency to do marketing, and an independent sales agent (in the spirit of a “manufacturers” rep) to generate sales. Not that any single company outsources all of these functions, but many companies outsource some.

Conventional wisdom says that you don’t outsource your “core competencies.” However, there are those who advocate that you can indeed, farm out your core competencies as well. What if someone else can do it even better – or cheaper? What if your labor market has near zero percent unemployment or if you’re just plain tired of the HR aspect of the business? All of these are prime reasons to consider outsourcing your operations. In fact, I am aware of several companies which have done or are doing so. Outsourcing the operations aspect for a start-up can solve many problems and conserve cash flow while a base of clients is being amassed; then it is all moved in-house. Others have opted to form permanent outsourcing arrangements either out of necessity or preference. The end result is that there are no agents working in their office!

Teleservices companies have essentially six areas of focus and effort: operations, customer service, sales and marketing, technical, accounting, and management. I have yet to see one company do all six with aplomb and excellence, yet any viable concern excels in at least one area. Even the strong players master only two or three. In fact, some of the most profitable companies are, at best, average at five of the six, but because of a strong, visionary, and capable management, they consistently generate outstanding profits.

Since no one can master everything, it is pragmatic and even wise to consider outsourcing the weak areas of your company. Then you can focus on what you do best and your company will be better as a result. After that you can consider taking it to the next level and outsource the rest. Ultimately, you too, could become a virtual company; a company of one!

As you begin looking for outsourcing partners, you must be careful in your selection. A bad choice can be costly or even crippling, but it can also be quickly corrected by merely finding a new firm to handle that aspect of your business. (Those who have outsourced their operations did not put “all of their eggs in one basket,” but have divided the traffic between multiple centers. No more than 50% of your traffic should go to any one place; this gives you greater flexibility and minimizes risk.)

You should scrutinize an outsourcing partner just like you would any other vendor. “Look before you leap.” Referrals are valuable; check references. When outsourcing operations, unless they come highly recommended, visit them in person. What does their facility look like? Are they big enough to handle your traffic? Are they small enough to care about your account and your client’s calls? Do you have a good rapport with and respect for the key people in their company? Is there the potential for a long-term business relationship? Lastly, find out who will be your primary contact on a day-to-day basis. How well do you mesh with that individual? What is their anticipated future tenure with the company? Should this contact leave, will your satisfaction with the outsourcer’s service disappear as well, or will someone else be capable and able to take over without impacting your organization?

Certainly, no outsourcing agreement should be entered into lightly or without due diligence, but when it is properly executed and for the right reasons, the results can be both liberating and profitable.

This is not to advocate that everyone needs to look into outsourcing, but it does offer some intriguing opportunities and is certainly another option to consider as you look to the future and consider how to make your company better – and more profitable.

[From Connection MagazineJan/Feb 2002]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry. Read his latest book, Sticky Customer Service.