The Hard Truth About Customer Service

Photo by Adria Berrocal Forcada on Unsplash

What is the job of customer service? Customer service representatives (CSRs), often referred to as frontliners, are considered one of the most important members in an organization — at least on paper and in interviews. A quick Google search returns supports customers by providing helpful information, answering questions, and responding to complaints. True and what a great experience customers will get should the CSRs be able to perform exactly those. However, the main objective of customer service itself is — and to some extent, should be — much more than just that.

Thank you for calling

Right after college, I started my career in customer service working in a call center as an outsourced customer service representative for Office Depot — an American office supply retailing company headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida. The main job was to answer pre- and post-sales inquiries from customers. I got paid $260 a month which I thought was fair. I was clueless on how much I should be getting anyway.

This was in 2009 so ecommerce was just starting to really gain some traction. Customers usually called in, one of our thick catalogs on one hand, and placed an order by dictating the SKUs and giving us their credit card details at the very end. We accessed the system via a VPN and had notepad open to type, copy, and paste any information the customers were providing over the phone.

To this very day, I know that 348037 is the Office Depot eight and a half by eleven copy paper, case of 10 reams. Would you like to place an order for it?

A mishmash of customer details and coupon codes from 2009

Built to fail

Pretty soon, by a huge amount of luck and divine blessing, I found myself in startups setting up customer service teams from scratch. I brought along with me the things I’ve learned during my three-year stint in the call center industry. I immediately got my ducks in a row making sure we had enough agents and the typical key performance indicators (KPIs) of first response time, first contact resolution, and full resolution time were in place.

I had with me Excel files I used in previous gigs and made our own little call center in-house. We ran with what we had and in a short time we were averaging pretty good numbers. We started measuring customer satisfaction scores and ours were through the roof. It was a moment of collective festivity and I thought to myself, well that was pretty easy.

Nothing the customers threw at us could startle us. We knew our shit and we resolved their issues and concerns like nobody’s business. Our abandon rate was practically non-existent. You’d wait a short 3 to 5 seconds before speaking with a live agent and can be assured that your case will be handled and solved within 5 minutes. We were pretty efficient.

Except there was still a problem. Despite all our efforts and early success, the biggest problem remained: customers were, in fact, still calling. And this is what those who worked in call centers or, more accurately, business process outsourcing (BPO) companies, usually miss.

Of boxes and partitions

Looking back to my time in the call center, I realized we were in a box . We were completely separated from the other parts of the business (i.e. marketing, sales, operations, etc.) yet we thought by supporting customers by providing helpful information, answering questions, and responding to their complaints we were doing our jobs.

Call centers are usually incentivized to rally everyone behind this notion. Think about it. It’s almost counterintuitive for them to come up with ways to bring the number of tickets down. The more requests, the more money they make.

However, as an in-house customer service team, we were missing the forest for the trees. You see, only when you step outside of the customer service box and see things from a broader perspective will you realize the hard truth — that supporting customers by providing helpful information, answering questions, and responding to their complaints are mainly key results but not the main objective.

A customer calling means something broke down in the process. Systems thinking will tell you this. We draw our process flows based on best case scenarios that we overlook very important things. To my point, I’ve never seen an up-and-coming logistics company design a system which included a returns module at the very onset. Only when the first request to return a package comes will the idea to design and build it hit them — which by then would already be too late.

“I have seen far too many people who upon recognizing today’s gap try very hard to determine what decision has to be made to close it. But today’s gap represents a failure of planning some time in the past.” — Andy Grove

The hard truth

The hard truth about customer service is that its main objective is to make itself obsolete — unnecessary. What we needed to do was not to answer calls and emails from customers and provide them with helpful information. What we needed to do was to prevent them from actually calling in the first place. And I’m not talking about hiding all contact information and disconnecting our phone lines. I’m talking about providing a service so good that customers had no need to reach out to customer service at all.

The entire organization needed to do exactly that. And who best to lead this effort but the ones who are on the ground and hearing it directly from the customers themselves. To do this, we had to take a couple of steps back to get a glimpse of the bigger picture. One almost had to unlearn everything from his or her time in the call centers.

The great thing about startups is that you can be nosy and people will gladly welcome it — more so encourage it. We combed through the tickets and identified trends in the requests that came in. We worked cross-functionally with other teams to address a variety of customer issues and concerns. This essentially gave birth to our own version of customer experience.

In true Pareto fashion, we focused on the top 20% of the concerns by physically going to the operations floor and revisiting, while at the same time, improving processes we currently had in place. We took down products that were generating a significant number of complaints regardless if they were one of our top sellers.

Pretty soon, complaints lessened and the overall number of contacts went down. With our new goal of getting that number to zero, which we all knew was virtually impossible, we now at least had a clear north star we can rally everyone behind. The customer service team stopped being relegated into a box and was now leading the charge in improving the experience for customers.

To end, if there’s one bit of advice I’d give customer service leads, it’s this: the goal is to make you and your team unnecessary — any time a customer calls in, you’ve already failed. And by you I mean the entire organization. Fix that and keep on fixing things proactively until there’s nothing to fix. I think that’s a good and tangible goal to have which, at the end of the day, benefits the most important person in the organization: the customer.

Married to one amazing woman. Dad to two humans & one Chihuahua. Jack of some trades. Chronic overthinker. 3x failed startup founder. INFJ AF. Views my own.