Mitigating bad customer service is a full-contact team sport
- What drives exasperated customers to unleash fury? Raju Vegesna of Zoho explains why apologies aren't enough - and looks at the ways that authority and accountability can be unified across an organization to mitigate the risk of customer revenge.
Over the last few years, the field of customer service has demanded an omni-channel presence that allows consumers to ping them at any time — whether it's an email, text message, Instagram direct message, or an online chat bot. But the ability to ping does not necessarily lead to service excellence.
In fact, according to a recent study by the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, outlined in a Wall Street Journal piece, 50% of customer respondents used digital channels as their primary means of complaining, overtaking the phone for the first time since the school began conducting the annual survey a decade ago. The study further found that the number of customers seeking 'revenge' for bad service encounters has tripled since 2020, including 32% shaming companies on social media.
Not that any of these tactics have shown success. If public shaming was effective, airlines would always operate smoothly and the McRib would be served year round. Thomas Hollmann, executive director of the Center for Services Leadership at W. P. Carey, has a theory for what drives scorned customers to unleash fury. From the school's site:
Although many customers are looking for repairs or refunds, they’re also hoping for a sincere apology and acknowledgment of their complaints…These no-cost actions show that the company cares, is listening to the customer, and values them. It’s up to brands to communicate as humans with their customers. A sincere, ‘I’m sorry this happened,’ can turn a potential blowup into a lifelong customer.
While it's certainly important for a representative to empathize with the customers, Hollmann's theory falls short in fully explaining what's going on. When a representative can offer a frustrated customer nothing but an apology, it means they were unsuccessful in resolving the issue itself, at least to the satisfaction of the customer. Too often, inefficient permissions, communication silos, and lack of accountability set the representative up for failure before the interaction even begins.
When customer service team members, through no fault of their own, lack the authority to help, apologies are nothing more than participation trophies.
Generally, there are two ways to ensure representatives are equipped to handle customer issues comprehensively. The first is to train all service folks on every area of the business to ensure they can answer multifaceted questions — it's not often an issue remains isolated to a single piece of a product, and customers might want to ask about their account, as well. This tactic requires nearly endless amounts of training and is quite unfeasible as a company grows and expands its capabilities.
The second is to establish a digital platform that enables representatives to find, update, and share information flawlessly across an organization. Within this framework, it's not as important for employees to know everything as it is for them to know how to find everything — or have the means to transfer the customer to someone who can help directly.
Customers want to experience forward momentum, and the worst possible scenario is for them to speak to a representative whose hands are tied because they lack the resources, visibility, or authority to make immediate changes. Even the efforts of the most empathetic, well-intentioned service representatives fall flat when nothing can be done.
A colleague of mine recently faced the horrors of a disjointed customer service team. They experienced some issues on the first leg of their journey with an unnamed airline, and were told to call the company's customer service line for assistance. However, the folks on the phone told them to use the airline's live chat feature, whose representatives told them to email the company instead — and whomever was checking that inbox told them to call again. The cycle continued, and at no time could anyone even peek at my colleague's call or chat history for more context — nor were they able to transfer complaints to, or leave notes for, other departments. Certainly, many apologies were made, but my colleague wound up wasting a lot of time for zero benefit.
Imagine if, rather than customer service representatives using an app or two, they operated a dashboard that showed activity across a number of different apps — even those not regularly used by them. This level of visibility enables two important things, the first of which is the ability to update customers on where their request sits within the pipeline and which team is currently working on it. Secondly, no matter which person at an organization is talking to the customer, they can update the rest of the organization on any new information the customer may have provided. Within connected technology ecosystems, authority is something representatives share and access at all times.
Everything, everywhere, all at once
A unified system enables companies to deputize employees from across their organization to help with customer service, either to help navigate around roadblocks or provide necessary information to make changes. One company that stood to benefit greatly from this functionality is Cartika, which offers IaaS (infrastructure as a service) and IT support. The company hosts mission critical processes and services for its clients, and therefore prompt, immediate customer service has always been of paramount importance to the growth of the business. Then, as the business grew, it required a system that streamlined service interactions while collecting data for continuous improvements. This led the company to abandon Salesforce and try Zoho Desk.
The first step it took was to embed customer service features into the existing customer portal. Some were aimed at helping customers head their questions off at the pass, including an FAQ page and integration with an AI-based conversation assistant to answer basic questions. Upon escalation, when customers chatted with a live agent, they were not restricted to asking only questions about the issue they were having. For example, if they had arrived due to a technical question, but wanted to receive more information on billings or new features, the agent could route them to the proper department effortlessly.
The company's multi-touchpoint approach to customer service yielded the ability to make continuous improvements. The updated system could track data across a customer's entire call, not just when they were working with the original agent. Data was collected at every step of the process — things like total time of successful call and average customer sentiment — and stored in a centralized database accessible to everyone within the organization. This enhanced accountability and empowered supervisors to step in when needed, ensuring that lack of authority to help was never an issue for any customer complaint.
Land Title Guarantee Company (LTGC), a Colorado-based agency, adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach to customer service when it was small. The tools, however, were rudimentary — LTGC had designated a few central email addresses for customers to use, and employees took turns monitoring for incoming notes. The team used Gmail's label function to assign cases to individual representatives. As you can imagine, a simple color coding was not sufficient in building accountability, and cases often slipped through the cracks.
Upgrading to Zoho Desk was a long overdue move for LTGC. Now, when a customer complaint arrived, the system parsed the note to determine the right person for the job and added the customer to their queue automatically. It was no longer necessary to communicate with other team members on the status of a customer's query, as that information was accessible across the system of apps via a centralized dashboard. Managers and senior representatives could also be pinged from within the system when they needed to step in, ensuring tag team efforts were executed flawlessly.
The improvements to customer service were measurable. Alongside Zoho Desk, LTGC reduced its time to response by more than half, from seven hours to three hours. Additionally, the management team could monitor activity in real time, which opened up the opportunity to experiment with department changes and measure the effectiveness of these changes instantaneously.
Unification of data is paramount to great customer service platforms, and the apps within a unified system are an advantage here. They are all built by the same vendor, ensuring seamless communication, consistent data collection, and heightened security. Employees from all departments can peek at customer service efforts from within any of the connected apps and interject when necessary. Mitigating a customer's urge for revenge is a team sport — a full contact one, at that.