Want to find great sales people? Check out the mailroom and the service center


The nature of customer service is changing as customers become more adroit in their use of digital technologies. How is the call center responding and what does this mean for sales? The answer will surprise some.

Sales process as power buttons © Olivier Le Moal - Fotolia.comWe’ve known for a while that the automation of customer service, or self-service, was changing the nature of the encounter between customers and brands. Customers have proven very pliable at adopting various tools like search, email, social media, and knowledge bases, to find their own solutions to routine problems.

But some people have also observed that when customers solve their own problems they solve the easier issues leaving the harder ones for the traditional call center. That’s not surprising but it has significant implications that may not have been fully explored.

A new study in the January/February issue of The Harvard Business Review suggests that this trend will change many aspects of the traditional call center. The authors, Matthew Dixon and some colleagues at CEB, have written on the subject before for instance in Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers and he seems to focus on simplicity and resolution speed ahead of empathy, qualities that, his work implies, customers prefer.

Dixon’s latest well-researched work examines over 1400 call center agents from multiple industries around the world. Interestingly the research groups service agents into seven classification buckets and rates their relative effectiveness and their portion of the group’s composition.

It wouldn’t be worth writing about if the predominant type of agent was also the most common type out there, but don’t worry, they aren’t. As a matter of fact, the research shows that the ideal agent for these times is not favored for hiring by service managers.

It wouldn’t be a big issue except that the authors point out a disturbing trend— customer service quality is falling.

That’s because today’s reps aren’t selected and trained to handle increasingly complex customer issues.

This goes directly back to the fact that self-service enables customers to solve their own problems, which are often easier, leaving the harder ones for traditional channels. The solution?

Managers should abandon their preference for caring, supportive reps and instead recruit and develop outspoken, take-charge types who quickly and aggressively solve customers’ problems.

The article shows that the aggressive types, called Controllers, rank #1 in effectiveness but make up just 15 percent of the rep population while Empathizers more than double that population at 32 percent but rank in fourth place for effectiveness. A quick look at each type’s characteristics provides some needed insight.

The Controller—Outspoken and opinionated; likes demonstrating expertise and directing the customer interaction.


The Empathizer—Enjoys solving others’ problems; seeks to understand behaviors and motives; listens sympathetically.

Other types are interesting too, though I wonder why an organization would employ reps in the #3 spot, The Accommodator who,

Meets people halfway; involves others in decision making; and easily offers discounts and refunds.


This individual knows how to waste other people’s time and lose money and represents a by-gone era when poor product quality might have provided some justification for discounting. But product quality, thanks to market maturity and statistical quality controls in manufacturing, makes this position tenuous in my mind.

The real question to address is why number four in effectiveness is number one in population and why the most effective agent type is only third by population. A lot has to do with our conception of customer service, which has not kept up with product reality or self-service advances identified by the authors as,

Across industries, fully 81 per cent of all customers attempt to take care of matters themselves before reaching out to a live representative.

By that point, however, even many mild mannered customers will be at their wits end having spent too much time with too much contradictory or incomplete information stemming from self-service.

When self-service fails, many people aren’t in the mood for a drawn out experience, they want an answer, preferably THE answer so that they can move on with their lives. They want someone or something to FIX the problem.

Indeed one of Dixon’s other papers in HBR goes precisely to this point. So an empathetic personality might not be exactly what the customer wants in the moment and someone who will take charge and find a solution will better approximate the right solution provider.

There are also tips on hiring Controllers in the article as well as on creating a service culture more accommodating to them. One big difference organizations will need to deal with is the Controller’s need for the independence to take actions that can be off script.

But service managers have built a culture nearly completely opposite, focusing on after the encounter coaching sessions and superficial metrics such as call duration. So finding and hiring controllers is part of the customer service solution for modern times. But so also is developing a culture more oriented towards providing more cut and dried, just the facts, ma’am, solutions.

In short improving customer service starts with recognizing that the need has changed since customer service was first implemented.

My take

Is it just me or did you notice that some of the characteristics of a Controller are also those of highly successful sales reps?

I don’t think this is an accident. Great sales people don’t run on a script, they identify customer pain and set out to fix the pain with their solution.

The great ones fix problems and if they happen to close a deal also, that’s great. Controllers have these qualities though they’re probably not as refined, but there’s no doubt that great sales people can start as service people. This should be nurtured.

A long time ago I suggested in another venue that customer service positions should be better trained and paid because I saw service as a latter day mailroom.

Go back to the Mad Men days of the 1960’s or even earlier, and the people in the mail room knew more about how a company ran than anyone because it was their job to open mail, read it, and deliver it to an appropriate party.

Starting in the mailroom was an ideal first job and many CEO’s of the mid- to late-20th century started their professional lives there because it was the ideal platform from which to climb the management greasy pole.

Today I think the service department has become the new mailroom and the service reps, at least the Controllers, have the chance to understand everything about products as well as a good deal about policy and procedures to enable their ascents.

So improving customer service has two obvious benefits. Of course, improvement will make happier customers but focusing on personnel can also have the benefit of being the proving ground for discovering new talent. But only if managed well and with the recognition that sales talent comes from places you might not otherwise consider.

Which makes me wonder – does your talent acquisition software cater for these scenarios?

Image credit - Story image: Sales process as power buttons © Olivier Le Moal - Fotolia, featured story image - Fotolia