Call it customer satisfaction, customer loyalty or the perfect customer experience – every business wants to create positive, enthusiastic fans who will spread the word about their products and services, in addition to becoming repeat buyers themselves.
For organizations that rely heavily on telephonic contact with customers, it’s particularly important to keep these goals in mind. It’s easy to fall into the “trap of the boxes,” focusing more on satisfaction survey results and the percentages of customers who fall into the top two (or sometimes bottom two) boxes on the surveys, rather than on the human behaviors that drive the rankings. But it’s at the behavioral level where your business can make the human connections that result in customer satisfaction and loyalty. This isn’t a theoretical discussion.
The current economic realities have created a new marketplace. The frst response on the part of many companies was to cut costs by reducing staff, vendors and any other expenses deemed extraneous. And what happened during that time? Having fewer staff led to more electronic interactions and fewer human interactions. As personal customer conversations have become more rare, managing inbound calls has become more important as a way to create value and relationships, as well as a certain sense of obligation, on the part of customers who were satisfied with their interactions. You know the numbers: the first priority is to retain good customers, no matter what the industry. But there’s more to it than retention – you want to increase the purchase value of current customers and get them to become your advocates in the marketplace.
With that in mind, we think it’s the right time to take a look at the conventional wisdom underlying much of what we know about customer satisfaction. Our preliminary observation is that it could be a lot wiser. And to back that up, we’re presenting what we call “The Five Myths of Customer Satisfaction.” This white paper encapsulates some of our experience and observations related to customer motivation and call center agent behaviors. We hope these insights will be of assistance in moving the discussion beyond conventional wisdom to data-based and customer-focused solutions to your customer satisfaction challenges.
The squeaky wheel deserves the most attention
(or, if I can just fix this complaint, everything will be better)
It happens in every part of your life. The child who throws a tantrum eventually gets what she wants so you can get her to be quiet. The whiny employee finally gets the better office because he wears you down. Why, then, do we think we’ll behave differently when it comes to unhappy customers – even those who can’t be satisfied? Let’s take a closer look at what’s really going on in the squeaky wheel situation:
- Based on the dogged hope that resolving a complaint from a persistently unhappy customer will actually turn that customer into a fan, there’s a temptation to spend undue time on complainers, particularly when their complaints have escalated up the management chain. Read more about the “Service Recovery Paradox”
- Instead, look at the broader picture — what are your dissatisfaction numbers? Typically, fve to 10 percent of the total volume of customer opinions fall in the bottom two boxes. At these levels, particularly the lower ranges, complaints are more likely to be exceptions rather than a systemic issue related to processes, people or policies. They aren’t reflective of what the market thinks of your company — only what those on the fringes think of it.
Certainly these complaints should be monitored, causes identified and solutions achieved, but the time allotted should be proportionate to the benefits to be derived. Realistically, resolving these issues only eliminates your squeaky wheel – it doesn’t make the car run better or impact your remaining customers. The loudest noise isn’t always coming from the biggest problem either.
However, once the bottom box numbers inch up to the 10-20 percent range, it’s likely there are process design or people performance issues that should be attended to. As you monitor the numbers and identify your squeaky wheels, look for patterns. If certain employees are involved frequently, it indicates a need for coaching or As you monitor the numbers & identify your squeaky wheels, look for patterns. even removal. If certain processes or problem types appear to be at the root of the issue, examine the process to redesign it or adjust the policy that causes the complaints.
At the same time, though, keep the issue in perspective. Once your bottom box numbers are below 10 percent, the squeaky wheels should drop down in your priorities – and those of your senior management – so they can be handled on an exception basis.
Our client, a major credit card company, began to publish data internally on its dissatisfaction (DSAT) drivers. Approximately 12 percent of customers fell within the bottom two boxes of the survey. As noted earlier, this percentage falls within the range that indicates a need for attention. However, management seized on the numbers, declared this a priority and assigned significant resources that were, perhaps, disproportionate to the magnitude of the issue.
Our analysis showed that their drivers of dissatisfaction had their own unique flavor. Customers complained of conversations that felt scripted and representatives who lacked the authority to waive fees or grant exceptions. Although these complaints about fees were justified, the policies were unlikely to be changed. And the scripted feel to calls was attributable to a small group of representatives who hadn’t yet reached maturity in their new jobs.
We identified the following elements that allowed the client to adjust their perspective and priorities from the exception to the rule:
- Once the dust-up of complaints had cleared, a much larger opportunity appeared. More than 75 percent of customers had had only an average or slightly better experience– more than six times that of the complainer category.
- More systemic issues were then identified that allowed a full 10 percent to be moved into the top box of superior experiences. In these cases, positive customer attitude change was possible (sometimes even without resolution of the problem) when the agent was personally engaged, educated the customer properly and maintained control of the call. Specifically, these agents showed an easy conversational style, were knowledgeable and kept the customers aware that they were listening. These were the skill sets that set the agents with the highest satisfaction rankings apart from those with more average rankings. With even moderate improvements in these skills, great gains were achieved because of the large number of customers with middling experiences.
The person is the experience (or, if agent soft skills are good enough, satisfaction scores will be where they should be)
The premise behind this myth is actually sound – if a customer has a positive experience with an employee, that good will extends to their feelings about the brand and creates a level of trust in the company.
So far, so good. The problem comes in placing too great a reliance on agent soft skills to the exclusion of a focus on knowledge of processes and products, and the confidence that comes along with that. Soft skills include attributes like empathy, listening, call control, diffusing anger and creating rapport.
This myth is an easy trap, because agent behavior is one area we believe we can influence. And, in fact, soft skills do make a difference – although most often in the difference between “satisfied” and “very satisfied” rankings.
Maintaining the proper perspective is critical. Coaching agents to improve soft skills can create positive changes in customer attitude. However, while improvement in the right soft skills can spell the difference between good and great customer experiences, this applies primarily to agents who already perform well, and moves their rankings at the upper end of the spectrum from good to great.
Unfortunately, poor performers require much more than soft skills coaching, as they are more likely to be deficient in knowledge, confidence and effective listening. And, although confidence may be hard to measure, it’s clear which agents aren’t knowledgeable and that’s something that training can fx. More often than not, though, there are more fundamental problems – with cumbersome processes, slow systems or policies that simply disappoint customers — that no amount of interpersonal skill can overcome.
Our client, an insurance company, had set a goal of 75 percent customer satisfaction (CSAT) rankings in the top two boxes, and less than 10 percent in the bottom two boxes. But satisfaction scores had lagged at the 65 percent level for some time. Agent skills were suspected, so there was an emphasis on improving empathy and issue ownership.
In reviewing their data, we found that customers were sensitive not only to the call experience, but also to the entire amount of time required to bring a request to closure. With many processes like claims and disbursements taking days or weeks, the amount of time spent on
a single interaction started to seem less important. Our observations and recommendations included:
- Callers were actually much more interested in how well the company kept its word. If a representative set an expectation that documents or a check would arrive in 10 business days, meeting that expectation was most important. Eighty percent of callers whose expectations were set and met considered their overall experience superior. Less than 12 percent reported a superior experience if a commitment was missed, or simply not remembered. Thus, dependability was more important to customers than their personal experience with the agent.
- Agents should set clear and accurate expectations. Rather than giving the corporate sounding “10 business days” statement in all cases, commitments should be realistic. If the customer will typically receive the documents they’ve requested within a week, saying “you should receive this by next Wednesday” is a commitment likely to be remembered and trusted.
- Agents should go beyond the discussion of time frames to explain the process. This allows customers to understand that the proposed time frame is reasonable and builds confidence that the outcome will be achieved – thus forestalling the sense of impatience customers inevitably express if they believe the process is taking too long.
Solving the problem always leads to customer satisfaction (or, we just need to get it right the first time)
A number of customer satisfaction studies have demonstrated that customers who complete the agent interaction with their problem resolved appear to be the most satisfied. The logical conclusion here is that the resolution has caused the satisfaction. As a result, many companies measure first call resolution as their top priority, since it seems to be a more tangible metric than overall satisfaction. And it has led to motivational programs and rallying around catch phrases like “one and done”. Although it seems obvious, there’s more to the customer experience than can be measured with a simple yes/no question about resolution. The result is that the FCR number becomes a false proxy for customer satisfaction.
Using FCR as a singular metric has two problems:
- FCR is also hard to define and measure. In some cases, it’s measured by the customer’s lack of follow up action. For example, if the customer calls once and either doesn’t call again or doesn’t call within a set period, the assumption is that the issue was resolved. This begins to fall apart when customers with “closed” cases receive the surveys, as it’s common that more than 15 percent of them will respond that their issue was not yet resolved. In other words, just because they didn’t call back doesn’t mean you fixed the problem — and now they are irritated because you are asking them how satisfied they are. And they are asking themselves why you thought they would be satisfied.
- The second problem relates to the false premise that customers with good experiences had their problem resolved. Yes, resolution is important, but it does not guarantee a good or great experience. In a recent example, the happiest customers generally had their problem resolved in the first call (90 percent). However, customers in the next box still rated their experience as satisfied even though fewer than 70 percent had reached closure in the first call.
Although we aren’t suggesting that our clients discard resolution of the customer problem as one of their metrics, we do suggest they take a look at the process low and modify coaching to arrive at the best possible conclusion for the customer. We want clients to recognize that the customer has needs other than resolution that must be considered in providing a good customer experience. These include:
- Ability to relate to the service person, conduct a conversation without interruption and speak to an agent with good listening skills, empathy and understanding
- Confidence the agent has sufficient knowledge to take the customer through the proper steps. If the agent cannot resolve the issue, she/he can be relied on to direct the caller to someone who can.
- Sufficient soft skills to give difficult responses without offending or disappointing the customer. Sometimes there just isn’t a nice or easy answer and sometimes the agent must say no (for example, “no, we can’t increase your credit limit” or “no, you can’t return the product because it’s out of warranty”). The trick is how the agent gives the difficult response. This is a skill that can be taught through role playing and listening to best-practice call models.
The solution is both process-based and people-based. On the process side, policies should be such that they do not create disappointment for customers, and staff should not be penalized for the low satisfaction scores these situations may generate.
On the people side, agents should know when to hand off – when to realize they cannot resolve the problem and should refer the customer to someone who is in a better position to do so – as well as how to cushion the blow of a difficult answer.
Our client, a cell phone manufacturer, felt its satisfaction scores were lower than they would have liked, even though the metrics showed high numbers for first call resolution.
When we listened to sample calls, we detected that calls – both resolved and unresolved – were taking too long. Agents knew the process was lawed but were also aware that their primary evaluation metric was FCR. As a result, they often kept callers on the phone while they exhausted all options, rather than redirecting the caller to someone else better able to resolve the issue, like their wireless carrier or the shop where they bought their phone.
Compliance with a mediocre process is never the best path. The unexpected consequences of measuring the wrong factor were that customers became increasingly frustrated the longer they were on the call, which in turn led to lower CSAT scores even when the problem was solved. We recommended the following process revisions:
- Train agents to send the customer to the best resolution path and expand the scope of agent evaluation beyond that of first call resolution.
- Perform more effective triage. During the first 30 seconds, agents now identify who “owns” the issue and make the handoff as quickly and gracefully as possible. This allows agents to act in the customer’s best interests – a behavior that resonates positively with customers.
- Shorten the overall experience by giving customers the tools to finish the job on their own. Callers who needed help reconfiguring their phone or features appreciated receiving an email explaining the process, instead of having the agent walk them through those steps over the phone.
More time = better experience (or, if we spend more time with customers, they’ll be happier)
It seems to be part of human nature that we believe that being generous with our time is valuable – that it’s one of the most important things we can share with others. Whether it’s the school teacher who spends more time with one of her students until he understands the new math problem or donating our time to a local charity, our time is valuable currency that we assume will be appreciated by others.
So it’s no surprise that this view spills over into customer service, with the idea that solving problems for customers “takes as long as it takes.” Some companies have the attitude that they will give this amount of time, believing they’ll get customer appreciation in return. Others, though, are willing to accept the tradeoff by keeping calls shorter, knowing that the penalty could be lower satisfaction.
Where the surprise comes in, though, is that customers often aren’t the beneficiaries of the extra time spent. Instead that time may go to the less effective agents, who no longer feel the pressure to be efficient.
In reviewing the length of customer service calls, we have routinely found that there are always calls that are much longer than the average. And while this “long tail” may only be 10-15 percent of the calls, they can be more than twice as long as the average and represent 25-30 percent of all time spent with callers.
This would be fine if these were cases in which the problem really needed more time, and the customer was more satisfied in the end. But the opposite is the case. These are usually an inefficient, and often ineffective, use of customer time – and are more likely to have a negative than positive impact on customer satisfaction.
This issue is one that can be resolved by peeling back a layer and going a little deeper into the specific reasons that cause customers to call. Some reasons are relatively simple to address
- an inquiry on their bill or a question about a feature on their phone. These calls should take less time. Other calls are more complex – troubleshooting an internet connection or reinstalling software on a PC can take quite a bit longer. But for each type of question, there can (and should) be a standard for how long the call should take, and then staff should be held accountable to ensure that the longest versions of these calls don’t deviate too far from the standard (or if they do, it’s because of the customer, rather than agent inefficiency).
Our client, a manufacturer of laptop computers, was hesitant to control the length of individual service interactions, believing that the “call takes as long as it takes” and wanting customers to value their superior level of service. In the situation we reviewed, 12 percent of calls exceeded 30 minutes in duration, representing 33 percent of all time spent with customers. Although the client was not concerned about the imbalance, customers said they didn’t like it – even when the long call resulted in problem resolution. In fact, customers were prepared to terminate calls in some instances, even though the agent was willing to stay on the call.
Our recommendations included:
- We identified and discussed the measurement challenge, which revolved around agent fears that a briefer call that might lead to a callback was worse than a really long call. Actually, customers reported a better experience with a shorter call, as long as they felt the agent was helping to resolve the issue. Many callers were embarrassed to be wasting the agent’s time if it involved waiting to reboot the caller’s PC or reinstall a driver.
- By allowing calls to run long, the client was masking poor performance on the part of some agents. In fact, the better agents were able to handle similar questions in considerably less time – a factor that lent itself to coaching and training for the less skilled agents.
- We recommended coaching agents on how to ask more effective probing questions, make better use of the knowledge base and ensure the problem was diagnosed properly before they moved to problem resolution. We also observed that more tenured employees often believed they knew the issues by heart and forgot that not every customer has the same root cause of an issue.
Satisfaction = loyalty (or, if our top two box customer satisfaction scores are OK, we’re doing fine)
The most common corporate metric of customer satisfaction is the “top two boxes” score, which measures how many customers are satisfied or very satisfied with the company’s product or service. Conventional wisdom leads many managers to assume that satisfied customers will be loyal, despite a body of research that would suggest otherwise. To read more on this, review “Why satisfied customers defect” a Harvard Business Review classic.
Human nature being what it is, many respondents to satisfaction surveys are reluctant to rank their experience in the highest box unless it was truly exceptional and provided unexpected value. This is why many clients combine the scores of the top two boxes when they set their company goals – typically targeting 70-75 percent of the responses in the top two boxes.
However, the distinction between the top two boxes is extremely important. The customer responding with the highest possible score is an advocate – the ideal customer. As a result, moving customers up a box, from the second to the first, can have a huge impact on future sales. So when you present to your CEO that your customer satisfaction scores are 75 percent within the top two boxes, you should breathe a sigh of relief if you aren’t asked how many strong advocates are in the top box, vs. more passively satisfied in the second box. There is a world of difference between these two scenarios:
Assuming that processes are sound and metrics have been developed with the right goals in mind, the top-box customer experience reflects the quality of soft skills employed by the agent in forging the most pleasant and effective personal relationship possible. Customers want to be helped and hope the agent will be their personal advocate. Methods to accomplish this include:
For those agents receiving scores just below the top rankings, identify their most important soft skill needs. Listen to the calls in the top box category and compare them with those that fall a little short to learn how the best agents deliver the customer experience. The best calls typically show more agent ownership, confidence, clear expectations of what is to come next and exceptional listening skills, so the solution “works” and shows the agent was paying attention. Agents who can be coached to this level will be more likely to garner higher ratings and will frequently exceed customer expectations.
- If exceeding expectations is an unrealistic expectation for anyone to achieve every day, all day long, with every customer, then the other alternative is to make the experience as easy as possible. The same skills described above can also be used to take customers through the service process with the utmost of ease, earning their respect by not wasting their time and effort. New research now supports the idea that reducing customer effort is a powerful way to improve loyalty, or at least reduce defections. Review “Stop trying to satisfy your customers” to learn more about measuring customer effort.
Our client, a wireless service provider, aggregated scores in the top two boxes. In listening to their calls related to either cell phone plans or billing, we identified what we called “the loyalty moment,” in which customers believed they had received the best care – as well as the best deal. It was as simple as agents either suggesting an alternative plan better suited to the customer’s needs (the optimal case) or responding helpfully to the caller’s request for information on alternative plans (not optimal, but still good). The least satisfied callers were those for whom the opportunity to optimize their plan was not identified or discussed.
The impact on scoring was that the loyalty moment could move callers up one step into the top box, something that would not have been detected if the scores were viewed only in the aggregate. And it’s the top box customers who are your loyal and enthusiastic advocates – your source of repeat business and referrals.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
These myths are really just traps that people fall into inadvertently, despite the best of intentions. And at a given point in time, each of these approaches has its merits. But it is the balance of techniques used that matter the most, applied for the particular problem at hand. The two-pronged recipe for success that we often use is:
- Be clear about the business goal you want to achieve. Do you want customers to simply renew their contract and not defect, buy another product from you or enthusiastically recommend you to others? The goal helps clarify which end of the spectrum you should work on first.
- Choose your “box.” Each experience box has distinct inherent problems that have different solutions; thus requiring different approaches. Whether it is managing exceptions at the bottom, basics in the middle or more subtle soft skills at the top, no one strategy will impact everyone. So choose wisely.
We believe our clients should settle for nothing less than developing as many advocates and champions as possible for their brand. We also believe in management by exception – that by capping the bottom box problems, energy can be focused on the top boxes until as many customers as possible move into the very top category.
Connection with the customer is what makes the difference. That’s how customers go from relying on a business — an impersonal entity — to individual people they trust. At the risk of venturing into a cliché, what it comes down to is that ours is a people business. As important as our technology and processes are, they are delivered by people. And the best of these people are knowledgeable, accessible, compassionate and good communicators. Fortunately, these are skills that can be measured, taught and coached so that customer satisfaction can continue to improve – helping meet those important retention goals as well as generating new referrals.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michael Clarkin, Global Vice President, Advanced Solutions, Sykes Enterprises, Incorporated, leads the development and communication of SYKES service offerings to its global clients concentrated in the Financial Services, Telecom, High Technology and Health Insurance marketplaces. He is deeply involved in bringing an analytical approach to evaluating customer needs and satisfaction, and developing breakthrough products and initiatives as a result.
SYKES Insight Analytics was named the 2011 winner of the North American Customer Value Enhancement Award in Contact Center Outsourcing. The award was presented by Frost & Sullivan, a global research company who recognized SYKES Insight Analytics for exemplifying the following key performance drivers: Operational Excellence, Distinct Analytic Approach, Research Team Rigor, and a focus on customer needs, outcomes, and profits.