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“Computer says no” is not the answer customers or supporters want to hear


There is a Little Britain TV sketch showing the funny side of what passes as customer/supporter service in modern Britain.  Basically, it parodies the fact that many front line staff appear to have been totally disempowered when it comes to dealing with the public.

‘I can’t do anything as it’s a system-generated decision…’ is heard from call -centres all too frequently.  This provokes two questions:

1. Do organisations think that supporters and customers care in any way shape or form that THEIR system is the problem?

2. Do the same organisations think customers and supporters can be placated by hearing that it’s the computer’s fault?!?

This doesn’t just apply to multinational corporations either.  Last week I heard a friend tell a story about their charity’s membership services which illustrates the point perfectly.  The charity in question knows that its database needs cleaning up and is making significant efforts to do so but all that positive action can be undone if the experience of the supporter calling in goes something  like this:

Supporter: Hello, you’ve written to me about arranging legacy and in-memoriam funds for your charity before and during funeral services.

Staff member:  Yes, that’s right, we really need help from people in your industry to help make a difference to people with XXXX.

Supporter:  (audibly upset now) Well I need to tell you that I’m not and nor have I ever been a funeral director or a fundraiser for you.  We did set up an in-memoriam fund when our son died a few years ago and you keep writing to us about it…. (angry now and breaks off mid sentence)

Staff member:  Well, we’ve been having some problems with our database, I’m sorry but it’s not my fault…

Things would have gotten a lot worse if it weren’t for a switched on team manager over-hearing the conversation in the open-plan office.  She asked for the call to be put through, apologised profusely, thanked the supporter for everything they had done and personally undertook to sort out the database entries.

This week, I’ve had a similar experience with Santander.  Their customer service teams seemingly only need to learn the phrase “the system has made the decision sir, there’s nothing I can do…”!

I’m not naive. I fully appreciate that not every organisation has the resources to staff-up front line services.  And those that do seem to prefer to cut costs by automating way too much and relying on technology to think for them.  But I don’t agree that customers and supporters can’t be dealt with as humans, by humans where it’s warranted.

I believe there are actions every organisation can take to ensure at the very least, its automations and cost-cutting isn’t at the expense of being able to retain supporters and customers.

  1. Empower your people to take ownership of the problem.  It doesn’t matter if it’s not a specific individual’s fault, front line staff represent the organisation as far as the customer or supporter is concerned.  So listen, take down the relevant information, apologise if necessary and make the caller/writer feel like you give a whotsit and the organisation values their contribution or custom.
  2. Closely linked to this, empower your front line staff to DO something – even if it’s only to escalate more quickly.  Everyone is after resolution so action is key to maintaining any kind of loyalty.
  3. Follow up meaningfully with the customer or supporter.  That means don’t call back with nothing to say and certainly don’t call just to reconfirm everything that’s been said already! (remember the action point above)
  4. Wherever possible, actually have a decision-maker available or at least accessible!  No need to explain this any further, I think.
  5. Do not, do not, do not blame ‘the system’!
  6. Lastly, don’t expect front line staff to be able to do all of this without training and coaching.  These people are an organisation’s most powerful brand ambassadors (if you like, they are the repeat-sales or supporter retention team).  Give them the skills and confidence to do all of the above for the supporters and customers and by default, the organisation.

What do you think?  Do you have any examples to share of organisations that have cracked this?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12/08/2011 2:46 pm

    Thanks for the post Kevin. It reminds me of a conversation I had in Northern Ireland in 1997:

    Me: Hello, I’m here to collect my body armour.
    Stores Sgt: OK – can you tell me your service number please?
    Me: Yes – it’s NO47593P.
    Sgt: That’s not a number, it’s got letters in it!
    Me: I’m a Royal Marine on loan to the Army. We have letters as well as numbers.
    Sgt: My computer only lets me issue body armour to people with proper numbers.
    Me: Are you serious?
    Sgt: Yes Sir, I’m sorry.
    Me: OK – I’m not leaving this store without body armour. I suggest you sort out your relationship with your computer. We’ve all been ordered to wear body armour, so you or your computer will need to explain yourselves to the Commanding Officer if I don’t have any.
    Sgt: Er… OK. Here’s some.

  2. 12/08/2011 6:05 pm

    Thanks for your comment Ben

    At least you had some kind of satisfactory answer… (thankfully for you).

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