Call Center Chaos and Appreciative Inquiry

While this article discusses government call centers generally, and New Mexico (NM) Government call centers specifically, please do not think the problems described are specific only to, or lessons could not be applied to, many other call centers.  New Mexico Government call centers all have a common problem, they are purposefully designed to not help or serve the customer.  Worse, the work processes are convoluted to the point that work takes anywhere from 10 – 15% longer than it should, costing 30 – 50% more than it should.  Worse, if a customer gets connected to an “Escalation Department,” the workers in that department have no authority, no tools, and nothing they can do but repeat marketing materials, and hope the customer goes away.

Cute CalfEssentially, the NM Government call centers, at the city and state levels of government are as emasculated as a spring-born calf!  Let that sink in for a moment.  No tools, no authority, no support, and only their verbal wits to make the customer go away.  If you think this problem is only apparent in government call centers; well, you are wrong.

AT&T has a very similar, though not as endemic issue.  Sprint, the problem is both apparent and not considered a problem.  AIU, COX, Comcast/Xfinity, FEDEX, UPS, UoPX, and more, you all have very similar issues where the work processes and the customer service are disconnected, leaving employees emasculated and stuck spouting marketing lines in the hope of appeasing the customer.  Sure, some of you have better call escalation processes, but these escalation processes only show the emasculation of your people more exactly.

For example, take today’s interactions with a NM Government Call Center.  The representative on the call escalation line could very easily reach out to their supervisor and take the criticisms and ideas from the customer’s call, put them forth as their own ideas, and improve the call center and customer attentiveness of the organization.  Unfortunately, sad experience has shown that new ideas in NM Government Call Centers are anathema to the good order and discipline of the call center.  Thus, proving that the endemic lack of customer attentiveness is systematic in NM Government Call Centers and considered a benefit to the customer/taxpayer using the government service.

Purposeful customer abuse is not appreciated, not acceptable, and eventually leads the call center to ruin.  Which is a monumental waste of the potential in your employees, as well as being ruinously expensive for some future disaster.  In speaking with retail associates at Comcast/Xfinity and COX Communications, one learns from frontline representatives what to expect from calling the call centers.  If the retail associates are frustrated with the inability to be served, this is automatically passed to the customer.  Bank of America has this problem in spades!

Appreciative InquiryAppreciative inquiry is a growth mechanism that states that what a business organization needs, they already have enough of, provided they listen to their employees.  Appreciative inquiry and common sense tells leaders who want to know and change their organization, how, and where to go to begin.  Appreciative inquiry-based leadership is 6-continuous steps that start small, and cycle to larger problems as momentum for excellence permeates through an organization.  But the first step, just like in defeating a disabling addiction, is admitting there is a problem.

Coming back to the NM Government Call Center, the front-line supervisor upon hearing about this representative’s experience, chooses to believe there is a problem.  Knowing that the problems are endemic and systematic in the organization, decides, “For my team, we will be the core of excellence.”  Thus, this supervisor is now motivated to take the second step in the appreciative inquiry cycle, “Define.”

The supervisor defines what they can change, and then from that list of items that they can control will select the first item to change by asking themselves and their team, “Which item on this list can we tackle first?”  Thus, leading to the third step in appreciative inquiry, “Discover.”

Imperative at this step is the focus upon what is already going right on the topic selected.  Not focusing upon what is wrong, or upon what cannot be controlled or influenced by the team.  Focus on the positive, list the best of what is going right!  For example, if the inquiry will be reducing hold times, and the team has been trending down from multiple hours to single hours of hold time, focus on the positive, and get ideas about tips used from those who are successful in reducing hold times.

The idea in discovery is to create the motivation for the next step in appreciative inquiry, “Dream.”  But, do not dream small!  Remember, when you shoot for the sun and miss, you still land among the stars.  Dream BIG!  Dreaming is all about setting your sights on what currently is considered impossible, that your team can make possible.  Going back to reducing hold times, set the dream at 30-minutes.  You can always come back and dream bigger or repeat the appreciative inquiry cycle on this topic again in the future.

Next, “Design,” design the future and it becomes your destiny; which also happens to be the remaining two steps in the appreciative inquiry cycle.  President Thomas Monson is quoted as saying, “Decisions DO Determine Destiny” [emphasis in original].  If you decide the status quo is acceptable, that decision determines the destiny, and ruination will follow.  If you decide to pursue excellence, this decision will determine how successful you and your team can be.  Design the future you desire, state the goal, write it down, post the goal, speak positively about the goal, and build momentum through accomplishing small steps towards the goal.

Thus, the destiny is born into fruition and what today is impossible, is tomorrow’s reality.  Destiny in the appreciative inquiry cycle is defined as creating what the future will be.  Positive growth occurs through incremental steps and changes the destination.

A pilot friend of mine loves the story about a new pilot who is making their first cross-country flight with a more experienced pilot.  The young pilot is close to being able to solo, and the experienced pilot knows the route, the weather, and decides to let the young pilot fly solo for a few hours.  The new pilot gets bored holding a single course and wavers a little to the left, and a little to the right of the base course and does not think anything of the consequences.  Several hours go by and the experienced pilot returns to the flight deck to discover bad weather is moving in fast, the small lane cannot fly in the weather that is coming necessitating an unscheduled landing, and the plane is 400-miles off base course.  The young pilot said, I only moved a few degrees left and right, we cannot be that far off course.  Later the experienced pilot shows a track of the airplane on a map to the young pilot and reality sinks in, by a matter of a few degrees, over time, the plane got in trouble.

A few DegreesAppreciative inquiry is exactly like the plane, by having a destination, defined according to positive desires, through the process of discovery, dreaming of the possible future, while designing the future, the appreciative inquiry leader can make the small changes today that move the destination from ruination to success.

The first step is admitting there is a problem, and desire to fix that problem at all costs.  What are you passionate enough about to fix at all costs?  Whether you are a representative or a company director, the same question applies and the answer will determine your ultimate destiny.  The key is action at all costs.  The efforts, time, resources, etc. will be spent to achieve does not matter, the new destination does matter.

A call center supervisor friend of mine had three stellar and highly experienced employees on their team.  My friend also had some young talent with incredible potential.  Because the three stellar employees did not want to become supervisors, this effectively blocked the new employees from achieving potential.  My friend had to make a choice, lose the new potential, or reorganize the team.  My friend chooses to keep the experienced people, and shortly after this decision was made, two quit for other opportunities, the new potential quit because they longed for professional growth, my friend was promoted, and the new supervisor had no depth of experience left on the team.

Some would blame the new employees for quitting too soon, others would lay the blame on the supervisor for not developing the talent pool, others might express dismay at the senior talent leaving; honestly, they are all right, and all wrong!  My friend decided to hang the costs, and the decision was a tremendous learning experience.  Using appreciative inquiry will provide similar learning experiences, prepare, and commit, now to learn first and stay focused on the positive.

Appreciative inquiry can help; there are six operational steps:

  1. Admit there is a problem and commit to change.
  2. Define the problem.
  3. Discover the variables and stay focused on the positive.
  4. Dream BIG!
  5. Design the future and outline the steps to that future.
  6. Destiny, create the destination you desire.

Follow the instructions on a shampoo bottle, “Wash, Rinse, Repeat.”  The appreciative inquiry model can be scaled, can be repeated, can be implemented into small or large teams, and produce motivated members who then become the force to producing change.  Allow yourself and your team to learn, this takes time, but through a building motivation for excellence, time can be captured to perform.

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

 

Moving Past Active Listening to Facilitate Communication: Shifting the Paradigm

GearsIn several previous professional positions, especially those in call centers, there has been considerable time spent training people to actively listen.  The problem; active listening can be faked, and fake active listening is as useful as a shower without soap or shampoo.  You might get wet, but you do not feel clean.

Listening has four distinct levels, these are:

  • Inactive listening – Hearing words, seeing written communication, zero impact mentally. Mostly because your internal voices drown out the possibility for communication.
  • Selective listening – Hearing only that which confirms your own voices, opinions, and biases. While others are speaking, you are already forming your response.
  • Active listening – Show the other person you are paying attention, engage with meaning in a reply. Focused upon removing barriers to get your point across.
  • Reflective listening – Paying attention to intent and content, reducing emotion, two-direction as both parties are engaged in achieving mutual understanding.

Tools for listening effectively, which for all intents and purposes, means listening reflectively, requires several tools, along with considerable experience in using these tools.  Customer service focus – not sales in disguise, not having a hidden agenda, and not covertly looking for opportunities to turn the conversation back to you.  The attitude of service – is all about what your intention is after listening.  Sales are all about attitude and winning over someone else; however, how many sales require first being able to reflectively listen; every single one.  Desire – desire determines your choices, your choices form decisions, and decisions determine destiny!

ElectionConsider the press conferences at the White House.  A room is full of people who would claim they are professional listeners, who then report what is being said.  Yet, how many times do you see questions asked with an agenda, personal opinions warping what is said into what they desired to hear, and then reporting what they erroneously heard to satisfy their desires politically; every single time.  Hence, the problems with active listening and how active listening can be faked.  Desire and attitude of service are not being applied to improve customer service focus.

Communication occurs in two different modalities, verbal and non-verbal.  Good communicators adapt their message to the audience.  Adapting the message requires first a choice, determining who the primary and secondary audience is, then focus the message onto the primary audience.  Next, adaptation requires prior planning, which includes mental preparation, practice, and channels for feedback.  Finally, adaptation requires listening to achieve mutual understanding, careful observation, asking questions designed to lead to mutual understanding, and clarifying what is being said to achieve mutual understanding.

Too often, those labeled as “good communicators” cannot listen reflectively.  They have never learned how to use the tools of desire and attitude of service, in a manner that builds customer service focus into reflectively listening.

Leadership CartoonConsider two people the media has proclaimed as great communicators, Presidents Reagan (R) and Obama (D).  President Reagan was listened reflectively, asked good questions, listened to the answers, asked more questions, and then listened some more.  In listening and asking questions, President Reagan built people (customer service focus) and was respected by enemies and friends for his ability to communicate (personal desire determined destiny).  President Obama has been labeled by the media as a good communicator; but by all accounts, he never listened, his questions showed he desired to be heard, and his focus was all on him as the smartest person in the room.  Desire builds an attitude of service, which then forms the customer service focus, which then reflects a desire to reflectively listen and achieve mutual understanding with those being communicated with.

One of the most despicable problems in customer service today is a theme established by Stephen Covey, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  On a recent issue, a letter was sent to Senator Martha McSally (D) of Arizona, the response has formed the epitome for not listening in written communication as the response had nothing of the original issue even discussed.  The response was a form letter, on a different topic, and lacked any response that the sender had been heard; but, the letter advertised Sen. Martha McSally and her commitment to listening to her constituents.  But, you might say, a Senator is too busy to respond to every communication delivered, a few other examples of both verbal and non-verbal communication failures.

  • Two lieutenants, representing the Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Police Service, stationed at the Phoenix VA Hospital. Engage a person not wearing a mask.  Body language clearly states they are the authority and will broker no resistance.  The officers spend 45-minutes haranguing the patient before cuffing and frog-marching the patient to a holding cell, where the patient who was seeking services in the emergency room, waits for an additional 60-minutes before being forced off Federal Property.  The patient informed the officers multiple times of their pre-existing condition and inability to physically wear a mask.  The hospital mask policy allowed for a face shield to be worn instead of a mask, and after the patient put the face shield on, the officers continued to verbally engage without listening, until the foregone conclusion of arresting the patient could be justified.  The patient was fined $360.00 (USD) for “disorderly conduct” by refusing to wear a mask.
  • Calling a major cellular phone provider (AT&T) with questions about the price plan. The representative answered every question but needed to make a sale, and their focus was on making that sale, not on assisting the customer.  Not the agent’s fault, the policy of the call center is to up-sale on every call.  If the agent does not up-sale, the call is automatically downgraded in quality assurance and the agent gets in trouble.  Hence policy dictates that the customer not be listened too reflectively as the sale must come before the customer.
  • Hotel check-in, online registration was made specifically for a particular sized bed, but due to late check-in, the customer is not provided what was asked for, and the attitude of the clerk is one of disgust at being bothered. Verbal and nonverbal cues are sending messages that the customer is the problem and is interrupting the life of the clerk.
  • A patient receives a call to make an urgent appointment with a VA medical provider in general surgery. The medical provider has demanded the patient be seen in the clinic, thus negating a phone or video styled appointment.  The patient’s record clearly states the patient has trouble complying with mandatory masking for patients seen in the clinic.  The provider arrives 20+ minutes late to the appointment, and because the patient is not wearing a mask immediately refuses to see the patient, wasting 90-minutes of the patient’s day.  The provider gets off in 10-minutes, and seeing the patient will make the provider late getting off.  Was the mask really the problem; not likely.

Social Justice Warrior 2Not listening is probably the largest social problem in the world today.  Everywhere fake active listening is observed, along with copious amounts of observable inactive, selective, and active refusals to listen.  Some of the problems in improving listening are policies and procedures that do not allow for individual adaptation or situational understanding.  However, too often, the individual choices to grab power, exercise authority, and pass along inconvenience are the real problems in not listening.  Harvey Mackay is reported to have said, “Easy listening is a style of music, not an attribute of communication.”  Proving again that listening is a choice, a personal choice, borne from desire, bred on attitude and reflected in verbal and non-verbal patterns of communication.

The following are some launch points for improving listening in society:

  1. Understand your desire.  Know that your desire choices are determining your destiny.  If your destiny is not one, you appreciate, return to the desire and make different choices.
  2. Practice mental preparation, based upon previous situations, to make different choices. Listening is a voyage of discovery to reach a mutual understanding, but mental preparation is key to safely reach the destination.  Prepare, use a mirror, practice until what currently feels alien becomes familiar.
  3. Reduce emotion. The principle of empathy and sympathy are destroying listening and only reflect the internal voices.  The volume of internal voices is silencing the ability to reflectively listen, necessitating the need to fake actively listening for employment’s sake.
  4. Listen as you would have others listen to you. This is an adaptation of the “Golden Rule” and remains applicable as a personal choice.  How you choose to listen will determine your destiny.
  5. Listening remains the number one tool you control and has application to written communication and verbal communication channels. Body language is a non-verbal communication channel that can be heard as well as seen.  How are you communicating non-verbally, which is interfering with your written and verbal communication attempts?

Listening is a choice.  Listening is hard.  Yet, many people have pointed out that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as often as we speak.  Choose to reflectively listen, choose to reach a mutual understanding, watch your destiny change.

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury

The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the pictures.

All rights reserved.  For copies, reprints, or sharing, please contact through LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/davesalisbury/

Defining Customer Service: Some Examples – Shifting the Paradigms

Gitomer’s, “Customer Service is Worthless: Customer Loyalty is Priceless (1998),” customer service has changed in ways that motivate me to investigate, cheer when found, and when negatives are experienced I want to help fix the problems. Several books and research papers in my library confirm every point Gitomer makes; thus, the following four interactions are compared to Gitomer’s text to supply solutions that can be benchmarked as Gitomer is much easier to read. The intent of this article is to power enthusiasm for change in how customer service is found and improved to inspire customer loyalty.

The Chase bank app delivered an error that made no sense. I called the “Mobile Banking Line,” and then was transferred to another department with “tech-savvy people who could assist me further.” Those representatives were not only unable to aid, but they also could not understand the problem as described, and offered a “local branch.” Upon learning that I lived 264 miles to the nearest Chase bank branch in El Paso, Texas, the representative had no other solution, offered no additional explanation, and for being a senior, tech-savvy representative, was less useful than the first representative I spoke with. Thus, I drove the four hours to El Paso, to be at the Chase Bank branch by opening. Not only was the teller having difficulty performing the transaction, the Chase Bank “Customer Service Star” desktop guide posted where I could see and evaluate performance. I was correctly greeted, in the standard big bank demanded-greeting that means nothing and has no humanity, good-job. Everything after that went downhill. When the teller was told that the El Paso branch is the “local” branch for Albuquerque, NM., there was no response. Eventually, the transaction was finally completed, and I was offered a big corporate bank, no humanity farewell, good-job. For a transaction that I can normally complete on my phone, to take 25-minutes in the branch, after a four-hour drive, you would think the teller would have cared, responded, or simply had humanity.

Gitomer offers several suggestions that a customer needs; I offer the most critical customer need, “Response!” When the customer begins a conversation about having to drive from another state to your location, respond. Show an attitude of gratitude, express amazement, ask about the trip, but to ignore the customer and only focus on the transaction, I could have stayed in Albuquerque and gotten that response from the telephone line. Gitomer claims the best customer variable is loyalty. Washington Mutual was my bank; I was loyal from the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night, I told everyone to change to Washington Mutual. Chase acquired Washington Mutual during the banking crisis, and I have been provided a reason to be loyal to Chase to date. I have not been presented a reason to enjoy banking with Chase. Why; because every transaction is ruled by the corporate thinking and inflexibility of big banks who consider themselves “Too big to fail.” Well, lose some more customers, keep ignoring the customers you still have, and another merger to an even bigger corporate bank will be the future.

AT&T, there are several issues in the following story of recent customer service. Frequent readers of my articles will see a common trend, training. Here is another matter where training wins customers. February, I called AT&T looking for a solution; I got a larger price plan and thought all is well. March, I am introduced to the mouse print and discover that “Unlimited Data” has several limits; who knew, obviously not the AT&T telephone representative, or the online Chat representative, I had to visit a local store for an explanation. April more calls to the telephone line, more guesses to close the call. Another visit to the local store for help. Like the shampoo bottle’s instructions, “Wash, Rinse, Repeat” May, June, July, and August will see me going into the local store again on Monday. I promise, my trips to the store are not because I am finding customer service, especially since I must keep dodging sales to get questions answered. AT&T, what is your company training philosophy, procedures, and strategical and tactical reasons for conducting employee training? The current results are not satisfactory, and that problem is not improving.

Gitomer discusses how converted employees become loyal employees. I was a converted and loyal customer to Cingular Wireless, which was bought by AT&T. I was a converted customer of Alltel, which was merged into Verizon and AT&T. I was converted to these companies for the service, clarity, and the lack of mouse-print conditions that the employees do not even know or can explain. Banking and Cellphones have something in common, the product is remarkably similar, and the service provided by employees is the only separating variable between your company and your competition. Chase, AT&T, where is the employee training on distinguishing service and building customer loyalty?

“#6 WOW! Variable: Truthful – Customers want the truth! The customer will find out eventually, so you may as well start with the truth – [especially] if [the truth] hurts” (Gitomer, 1998, p. 97; emphasis mine). AT&T, please heed! Chase, you might want to have the same conversation in your call center as well. When customers start with the telephone line looking for information and receive a lie, you are building a customer event that will cost your company customers! Lying loses customers; this equation should be the number one discussion with every employee. I have spent hours on the phone receiving one piece of information, only to walk into the AT&T store and get handed more mouse print. Thus, when training, emphasize the need for clear, concise, truth; served openly and with conviction.

Like many US Military Veterans, I am regularly stuck between two bureaucracies in dealing with the Veterans Administration. However, there is nothing more frustrating than getting the same issues in non-government health administrations. Corporate medicine began in the late 1980s in America, and since then community hospitals have become giant behemoths where bureaucracies reign.  These establishments have yet to understand they must pay attention to the customer/patient, not the insurance company, and indeed not the voices in their heads. Hospital directors, leaders, and providers, what do you do when a patient/customer walks in with cash and asks for service? I walked into the University of New Mexico, Orthopedics Department, plopped $2000.00 in cash down and asked for 60-minutes of time with any provider who was available for a letter I need. Records were available, x-rays, MRI’s, and a host of data. The letter would take less than 60-minutes, and I do not know anyone who would turn down cash and a payday of $2000.00 for an hour or less of work. Yet, not only was I turned away by the bureaucracy, I was informed I would have to travel an hour to another location instead of where I was, because I had been treated there two-years prior. But, I would still not be able to obtain the letter I needed as the other department is neurology. To receive treatment at the specialist demanded by the VA bureaucracy, I must first find a primary care provider who would refer me to a specific provider in orthopedics, before I could finally discuss the potential to fill my need.

Gitomer talks about this principle. The customer does not care about your processes, procedures, policies, and propaganda. The customer cares about what they need, what they offer, and how to obtain what they need. When I called AT&T this week, the third person I spoke with started every answer with “I apologize.” The UNM representative did the same thing in refusing my money and their services. The UNM representative also pulled the “Let me check” run out the office, reappear, helpless, act, to attempt actually to be helpful. The same act is done by telephone representatives who place a customer on hold to “check with a supervisor.” The customer knows what you are doing, and I, for one, am not impressed! Gitomer emphasizes on this point, and if the apology does not come with a solution that gets the customer to what they need, the apology is an excuse that is lame, weak, and useless.

03 August 2019 email messages were sent to three Federally elected representatives of New Mexico, Congresswoman Debra Haaland (D), Senator Tom Udall (D), Senator Martin Heinrich (D). I asked them if they were interested or cared about the veterans in their districts and what is occurring in the Albuquerque VA Medical Center. Their silence testifies to their disregard to their constituents. Unfortunately, this treatment or abuse of their constituents is not limited to the few representatives from New Mexico. Friday, I received a boilerplate email response from Senator Tom Udall’s staff, auto signed, with wording that clearly claims, I do not care about you or your issue, leave me alone, and stop bothering me. As the sole respondent in three elected officials, as the customer, voter, and citizen, I am not pleased!

Each of the above situations breeds a question; “Why should I remain a customer, patient, voter?”

The solutions are clear:

  1. Train employees. Encourage employees to walk customers through different solutions using the truth mentally. Apologize only when you have a solution and mean you are sorry. False apologies are as useful as a blunt needle, you might get the job done, but you are going to drive yourself and everyone else crazy doing the job. Show why training is occurring. State the strategy, so the tactical actions requested make sense to those being trained.
  2. Respond to the customer. Active listening is only half the communication effort, forming proper responses means building upon what the customer said with your response. Failure to respond appropriately, and the customer situation is worsened for the next person to communicate with this customer.
  3. Gitomer asks the following question, “What will it take to end measuring ‘[customer] satisfaction’ in your business” (Gitomer, 1998, p. 257)? I guarantee that the answer to this question is going to cause significant angst in why and how you communicate with customers. I am fairly certain, the answer to this question is going to disrupt every communication channel’s operations and daily tactical actions requiring a review of operational strategy. Business leaders, do you dare to ask the question? Are you prepared for the answer?
  4. Gitomer, Chapter 16 (p. 234-248) details change and how to make the change effective in your operations. The 10.5 points are useful, but what comes next is the best plan for moving forward successfully.

Leading to the final question:

“What will you do now?”

 

Reference

Gitomer, J. (1998). Customer Satisfaction is Worthless, Customer Loyalty is Priceless: How to Make Customers Love You, Keep Them Coming Back and Tell Everyone They Know. Atlanta, GA: Bard Press.

 

© 2019 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved

The images used herein were obtained in the public domain, this author holds no copyright to the images displayed.