When I began working at a previous job, a lot of customers and clients were very vocally dissatisfied with our firm. I spent the better part of my first year and a half trying to figure out exactly what the core problems were and how to address them. During that time, I came to an interesting conclusion – accommodating customer requests frequently makes situations worse.
Oddly enough, a recent side discussion with a co-worker made me realize that I should probably write about this experience. We were comparing the Droid to the iPhone. My co-worker wanted to move to the iPhone. He listed a grocery list of complaints with the Droid, which resulted in a clunky and dissatisfying user experience.
"Yes," I countered, "but the difference is that many of the things that are causing the unsatisfactory performance you're complaining about simply aren't available on the iPhone."
Why? Apple refuses to roll things out on their products that are half-baked or unreliable. If they can't do it and do it well, they won't do it at all. That means the iPhone is frequently compared to competitors' products and found to be lagging on some pretty common and expected features that other platforms deliver. Yes, Apple has made significant strides, but there still are some pretty serious gaps.
My co-worker responded, "I'd rather give up those features than be frustrated by the clunky experience that having those features causes on the Droid."
That's when the light went on in my head. Apple's philosophy is similar to my own. In trying to accommodate every customer's request, the design of our IT systems and IT policies had become unmanageable, which resulted in a higher rate of dissatisfaction.
In particular, there was a high volume of customer complaints about not getting called back. At first, the IT staff was encouraged to give their direct number to customers in order to bypass phone queues and connect directly to the individual who was working with their issue.
When the company only had 50 employees, it probably made a lot of sense. However, the company had grown rapidly by the time I arrived, and the "direct customer interaction" model was showing strain. Customers would call directly to an IT staff member's desk, who might be away from his desk for the entire day or out of the office for the entire week on vacation (of course, forgetting to update his voice mail message).
Invariably, the blame came back to the IT worker who failed to return the call. There was often a "he said/she said" exchange, where the customer would claim they called and left a voice mail, and the IT staff would claim they never received a message. A situation like this is virtually unsolvable – and strict, heavy-handed enforcement only led to disgruntled, disengaged, and stressed out employees.
One of my favorite mantras is "Attack the problem, not the people." I hate to say it, but when I first started working there, the mentality at the office seemed far more like a "round up suspects and assign blame" approach to corrective action.
The problem, as I saw it, wasn't that employees weren't calling customers back, it was that there wasn't a consistent, documented, and enforced policy for engaging employees for assistance with technical issues. We had the framework in place, we just weren't enforcing it – and we weren't enforcing it because we were trying to make the customer feel important, special, and quickly responded to. Ironically, by trying to give customers a higher level of satisfaction, my contention was that we were, in fact, making them more upset.
I insisted on a policy where all calls came in through our help desk, which was staffed from 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM by people who had one primary goal – to answer the phones in the queue. There should never be a dropped call, there should never be an outrageously long hold time, and there should always be someone sitting at their desk, logged into the queue, waiting to answer incoming calls. In turn, if a help desk agent took a call and was told, "This is very important. I need to talk to a particular employee immediately," that person could get up and make sure it happened.
Initially, I was met with resistance. The primary concern was that our customers had become accustomed to "a high level of individual customer service" and would resent the more impersonal approach I was proposing. On the surface, it was entirely logical, and many customers did complain righteously when the new policy was first put into effect. After all, it's counter-intuitive that making customers go through more bureaucratic processes and policies in order to reach a party they need to talk to would increase customer satisfaction – but at a certain point, that was the truth.
We instituted this policy, and complaints about not receiving follow-up calls virtually disappeared, almost overnight. On the rare occasion when it did happen, more often than not, that person has bypassed the policy and directly called an employee rather than going through the help desk queue. I hate to be immodest, but the policy was wildly successful. Arguably, the help desk staff wasn't overjoyed by the slight bump in call volume that they had to handle directly, but the benefit in improved customer satisfaction couldn't be overstated.
The intent to deliver all of the desires and requests of your customers is a good one, but like any relationship, you must know when and where to set boundaries and expectations. If you don't, you and the other party in the relationship will both ultimately be dissatisfied with the results.
Clearly, there are some incidental problems with this approach, and likewise, there isn't a silver bullet for dealing with every customer satisfaction issue you might encounter. In this case, consistency in policy and process reduced missed connections, misunderstandings, and potentially even baseless accusations of neglect.
Apple has leveraged understanding this philosophy into one of the most successful smartphone platforms ever, and the lesson learned from observing this can be applied in countless situations in your professional life.
There is growing discontent among the Android market, and a large part of this is the result of Android's attempts to accommodate customer requests or handset manufacturers trying to modify Android to meet customer desires. On the other hand, Steve Jobs is renown for his curt, one-line responses to customer complaints, which often boil down to one thing, "I hear your complaints, but I'm not changing my mind. The answer is no."
If customers want porn on their mobile devices, Steve Jobs famously said that they should go to the Android platform. Honestly, a lot of consumers do take Steve's advice and go to other vendors – and then they complain about the issues that are related to the feature that drove them to that vendor in the first place.
The result is that Apple customers are among the most content, loyal, and satisfied users in any industry. They've been told what they're buying into, they're aware of the limitations and parameters, and they know about the benefits for accepting those firm policies.
Android users, on the other hand, are not as content, loyal, or satisfied. From my perspective, I would rather have content customers who clearly understand the policies and procedures that will deliver them the best service.
What do you think? Is this just an excuse for delivering substandard service and shifting responsibility, or is this a solid plan for delivering a better customer service experience to your customers? Let me hear your opinions in the comments section.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.