A call to a customer department is, in many cases, enough to spike a customer’s blood pressure.
There are long hold times, irritating music or, worse, repeated advertisements. After connecting to a call centre, perhaps one staffed by reps with foreign accents, one will probably be rushed into a quick and easy “fix” that may, or may not, solve the problem — since many call centres rate a rep’s success by how many customers they handle in a set amount of time.
What phone support should — or can — accomplish varies from industry to industry, sector to sector. For retailers, for example, customers may complain about being routed to a centralized support centre.
But the alternative, having staff answer phones at each location, distract staff from being on the floor helping in-person customers. Peter Leppik is CEO of Vocal Laboratories, also known as Vocalabs, a Minnesota company that digs deep into what some companies do right, and wrong, when it comes to customer support calls.
Rather than cast a broad net, his firm’s approach to its National Customer Service Survey, ongoing research on customer satisfaction with phone-based customer service, focuses in depth on three vertical markets: computer technical support, mobile phone customer service and major national consumer banks.
The computer marketplace has its own unique challenges.
“There are a lot of things that can be fully automated,” Leppik says. “But with tech support there are actually very few things that can be fully automated.”
Apple(AAPL), year after year, has been lauded by customers and consumer groups for having stellar support, and overall Vocalab’s research bears out that reputation.
“In most industries there are one or two companies that really get it,” he says. “In terms of tech support, Apple has a reputation that is justified. The statistics we have collected show that they are significantly ahead of their peers.”
What Apple has done right, and where others flounder, is in the “strategic decision that they are going to compete on the basis of customer service,” Leppik says.
It is a lesson other companies might want to emulate.
“You don’t necessarily have to spend a whole lot more money providing a level of service, but what’s important is that everybody on that frontline understands that what the company does is important,” Leppik says. “There are a lot of companies that do not feel like that customer service is important. They send the jobs to India. [For others], they are giving the message to employees that what they are doing is strategically important and the company cares and is watching.”
Despite accolades, Apple does occasionally stumble and could be losing its edge as competitors make improvements.
Vocalab’s 2011 surveys found that Apple continues to lead Dell(DELL) and H-P(HPQ) in customer service quality for phone-based technical support. Customers, however, are reporting more problems with the automated part of their call.
In telephone interviews immediately following a support call, 58% of Apple customers were “Very Satisfied” with the experience during the first six months of 2011, compared with 47% of Dell customers and 53% of H-P customers. Apple’s satisfaction score is down 15 points from a year ago, though, while H-P has improved nine points over the past two years.
Customers remain highly satisfied with Apple’s support agents, with 77% of customers in the first six months of this year being “Very Satisfied” with their technician, compared with 56% of Dell customers and 61% of H-P customers.
The automated part of the call is a different story, with only 24% of Apple customers being “Very Satisfied” with that part of the experience, trailing Dell’s 36% and H-P’s 40%. In this survey period, 40% of Apple customers reported a problem with the automated part of the call, nearly double the 21% rate from a year ago.
“Apple used to be well ahead of the pack in tech support,” Leppik said at the time of the study. “Now it would be fair to say that they are merely at the front of the pack. Apple used to lead on nearly every metric for support quality. Now there are several metrics where Apple is tied with its competition, or even trails.”
Leppik cites Sprint(S) as an example of customer service improvements — and the difficulty a company can have trying to maintain that edge.
“Sprint historically has had very poor customer service,” he says. “At the beginning of 2010, they made a decision that they were going to improve their service level and we saw their numbers go way up.”
Sprint made impressive service gains during 2010, moving from the bottom of Vocalabs’ rankings in 2009 to being statistically tied for first place in many key metrics.
“They were still kind of mediocre, but compared to where they had been they were doing a whole lot better,” Leppik says. “But then, in 2011, I don’t know what their thinking was exactly, but it was very obvious that they had turned their focus on customer service to other things and the numbers went right back down. That’s an example of what happened when customer service is a flavour of the month.”
Leppik stresses that he has no firsthand knowledge of Sprint’s internal strategy decisions regarding customer support. The company, however, appears to be making the common mistake of failing to treat this aspect of customer service as a “project, not process.”
“I think a lot of this goes back to the view of customer service as infrastructure,” he says. “You build infrastructure and then it’s there and you don’t have to keep building it every year. But customer service really is not infrastructure. In a lot of companies it is the only time a customer actually communicates directly with the company. That has far more power on that customer’s perception than anything else the company can really do.”
“The thing about customer service, as a strategy, is that you can’t do it for a short period,” he adds. “It is something that can be very powerful, but it takes time to change the overall perception of a company. It takes a lot of repeated positive customer experiences. It takes a lot of time for that word-of-mouth shift. If you are looking at this quarter’s financial results, it’s not always obvious that the investment is paying off.”
In October research, Vocalabs found that AT&T(T) recovered in the quality of customer service while Sprint continued to lose ground.
During the three months ending Sept. 30, 66% of AT&T customers surveyed were “Very Satisfied” with the experience, up from 56% in the prior period, while 53% of Sprint customers gave the experience their top rating, down from 64%.
This compared with the 55% per cent of T-Mobile and 60% of Verizon(VZ) customers who were similarly satisfied.
The anecdotal reviews of customers, positive or negative, is crucial.
“One negative experience has a lot more of a powerful effect than multiple positive experiences,” Leppik says. “You have to have a long-term, sustained effort and it can be like turning around a battleship. One positive experience for one customer is good, but what you need to have is multiple positive experiences for all customers over time, so that they come to see that the company is treating them consistently well and it is not just getting the right person on the right day. The positive effect of this is that once you have done that, you build up a store of good will and there’s a little more leeway for making mistakes.”
Isolated event and company announcements can sometimes have a temporary influence on how successful a customer service approach is.
Looking at a recent drop in satisfaction levels for AT&T, Leppik suspects that the now abandoned merger with T-Mobile may have been a culprit.
“We are not entirely certain why it went down, but what we saw in our numbers is that right after the merger was announced it dropped, then bounced back up in pretty short order,” he says. “Our best guess is that what was happening is that they were getting a lot of calls from customers asking about the merger and the context was something the customer service reps were not prepared for. They weren’t prepared for the volume and they weren’t prepared to answer the questions.”
By contrast, Verizon saw an uptick that coincided with its offering of the iPhone and the relative simplicity of that product.
Banks have a unique set of challenges, in that they need to strike a balance between offloading routine inquiries to an automated system and providing on-demand assistance.
“I think people are generally less forgiving when their money is involved,” Leppik says. “There is a certain amount of urgency. There are a lot of routine transactions that are very easy to self-serve then, every now and then, you have something which, at least in the customer’s mind, is a real crisis.”
“There is a myth in the customer service business that there are some customers who are only going to be happy if they can deal with a person,” he adds. “I think online banking is a great example of how that is really not true. For basic transactions — checking your account balance, finding out if a check has cleared, that sort of thing — people really do prefer an online channel. It is easier, quicker and you don’t have to wait to talk to somebody.”
The point of failure is when banks get “into the mindset that when a customer picks up a phone and calls them, they need to try to keep them away from a live agent,” he explains, adding that this backfires when a customer has already had a service failure and needs to escalate to live assistance.
Bank of America(BAC) and Wells Fargo(WFC) had better phone-based customer service than Chase(JPM) and Citi(C), according to an October survey by Vocalabs. In telephone interviews conducted immediately after a customer service call, 68% of Bank of America customers surveyed were “Very Satisfied” with the experience, while 63% of Wells Fargo customers gave the experience their top rating. This compares with the 56% per cent of Chase and 52% of Citi customers who were similarly satisfied.
Problem resolution is an issue industrywide, the study found. Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo were statistically tied with 64%, 66%, and 64% of customers’ issues resolved on the customer service call, while 57% of Citi customers surveyed reported their problems were solved.
“Even among routine transactions like checking account balances, over 30% of the customers we interviewed did not get what they wanted on the customer service call,” Leppik says. “Our survey shows that problem resolution is a major driver of business goals like customer loyalty. It also costs a lot of money to serve customers who call back multiple times.”
“Many companies have this mistaken notion that providing good customer service is necessarily more expensive than what they are doing today,” he says of call centre service in general. “We find there are a lot of companies who are providing very inefficient customer service. They end up spending too much money to provide a poor level of service. The key really is to pay attention to the right things, to incentivise the right things, and they can often provide better customer service for comparable amounts of money.”