Flipping through my mail on an otherwise unexceptionable Saturday evening, I casually open a letter from my bank, unaware of the storm that is about to hit. I glance at the statement and my heart stops. No, it’s my breathing that’s stopped: my heart is racing. I sit there, stunned, looking at a credit card bill for almost $11,000. Realizing that I’m not breathing, I inhale, deliberately.
This bill is for charges I did not incur, no way, no how. I had not activated the card for this account: I had not even asked for it. When it showed up in the mail a week or two back, I had called the bank’s 1-800-Just-A-Little-Cranky line and the human on the phone had assured me she would make this card go away.
So what is this bill all about? Fraud? Identity theft? With these thoughts, my heart is in danger of joining my sidelined breathing. I reach out to touch the bank again.
Hitting the standard voice menu — push 1 to report a stolen card, push 2 to complain about your childhood, push 3 if you think you pay too much in taxes — I wait with clenched teeth for the choice that will let me talk to a real live boy or girl. The 8th or 9th option delivered in the irritatingly upbeat tone is the right one; I pound my telephone’s number pad.
A sombre warning that the call might be recorded for quality control purposes and I am ‘in’: I have voice contact. Thirty minutes later, blood pressure back out of imminent stroke range, I hang up.
What happened during that critical 30-minute interval, Holmes?, he enquired.
Well, my good Watson, as improbable as it seems, what happened here was, he paused dramatically and carefully articulated each word for additional emphasis. Good. Customer. Service.
Indeed. The panic line has come through splendidly. I have a satisfactory explanation for what has gone wrong, a credible assurance that they knew about their error before I called, a reasonable level of confidence that appropriate corrective action is already underway, and a reliable way to get back in touch with this same agent if I need to.
Something else has happened too, something that doesn’t become obvious until the next day, when I’m able to consider my options more calmly: the bank has kept me as a customer. It might have gone differently.
Life happens: if it didn’t, they wouldn’t have those t-shirts. With all the training, standard procedures, process checks, and the best will in the world, people still make mistakes. A single mouse click and a moment of inattention link a credit card application to the wrong computerized profile: it’s all downhill from there. Completing the initial transactions in-person (no need for a pesky activated card), the bank employee helpfully transfers outstanding credit card balances from other banks to the new account. Meanwhile, across town, all hell breaks loose in my house.
To err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer: 30 years ago that sounded cute. Since then we’ve grown more accustomed to computer-assisted mistakes, in which the computer didn’t cause the error but made it harder to explain or rectify, and we are correspondingly less amused. But as the computer taketh away, so also doth it giveth: in this case, the capacity for a call-centre agent in Halifax to view remarks entered by Toronto staff on an online trouble report, and use them to help talk down a woman in Ottawa whose sputtering can be heard on the east coast. All at 8 p.m. EST on a Saturday.
Yet the story here isn’t about a technology triumph: that was a wash, the computer facilitating both mis-step and recovery. Rather, in a speed-and-feed work environment stereotypically focused on call throughput, someone knew what was necessary to get this interaction right and took the time to do it.
In the broader context of putting first things first, Stephen Covey refers to ‘subordination of schedules to people’: thinking ‘effectiveness’ rather than ‘efficiency’ in dealing with people. What was he thinking?
Living as we do in a ‘Go! Go! GO!!!’ style reminiscent of Hollywood’s Navy SEALS, it’s hard to think ‘effectiveness’ in our everyday interactions. Never mind connecting at a human level, even momentarily, with that person who waits on us in line. Let’s just get on with it, shall we? Every nanosecond is precious. There’s certainly no need to smile, and who cares what kind of day they’re having at the other end of the phone, or what they think about the weather?
At work, an otherwise laudable task focus seduces us into devaluing relationships, both with co-workers and customers. Internally, never mind waiting for input, soliciting and considering other points of view, developing subordinates, coaching colleagues, mentoring newbies, listening as others vent or describe their personal joys and tribulations: time is money. Never mind talking amongst yourselves: get back to work.
Managers must pay attention to productivity, but where human interactions are the product or service, a preoccupation with efficiency measures can lead insidiously into a disregard for effectiveness with customers. It’s no wonder: think of your mental picture of a call centre. Crammed into an efficiency expert’s dream environment, going mano-a-mano verbally with a never-ending stream of customers — a cranky, ill-informed, impatient lot if ever there was one — it’s a wonder that anyone retains any milk of human kindness.
Yet even under these extreme work conditions, workers will respect what the managers inspect. Measure call throughput and call throughput will speed up. Evaluate success in problem resolution as well, and an agent will invest however long it takes to handle an exceptional occurrence for an ordinary customer.