July 29, 2014

The realities of ineffective Customer Support call centers, from entry level to management. Part 1

This is a call to Comcast Customer support to cancel service. It is not the absolute norm, but it is also far from discouraged by the employer.

I couldn't make it through more than 4 minutes of this and this customer ended up spending over 10 minutes requesting that his account be canceled before it was done.

That was so painful, and I know the realities of it so personally. I worked in  Customer Support for a major telecom for 7 years, from entry level to executive escalations, CS training and assistant supervisor. The very reason I did not stay or continue to get promoted was because of my open disagreement with management over the treatment of our members who were trying to cancel. ( I was at Earthlink) What started off as special retention teams of experienced reps using excellent service and problem solving to save customers turned into teams of pushy, never take no for an answer abuse. It was a daily event to have a customer crying, or screaming or both to cancel before the reps would begrudgingly click the one button necessary.  I got a sit down talk with the West Coast senior manager about my unfortunate attitude after I had had words with a rep who had made an old lady cry because he kept pressuring her. I had been in on the call, it was obvious it had been sold to her by a door to door rep, she did not own a computer and had been paying for it for 3 months while living on social security; but the little prick wouldn't let up on her.  

Yeah so that got me a official verbal counselling. My senior management denied my request to cross train sales with support to reduce call volume at a bi monthly all senior staff meeting. They said "We do not want our sales to team to learn anything that might stop them from making a sale." When I replied "So you are aware that over 1/3 of those sales were secured with the promise of false information? How is lying to people and selling an unusable or unneeded product profitable? Every single dissatisfied customer that calls in costs the company 5-8 $ and on cancellations we go negative 18.00 to 25.00 per call. Worse than the money lost is the bad image and word of mouth negative responses being generated by these interactions. We are actually paying to create bad consumer feedback and damage the company image."

I know now that from a corporate viewpoint, I had just assassinated my career with Earthlink. The room went still; all the senior supervisors looked away and my manager said "We do not think that's the way it should be looked at."

Yeah, within a couple months I got shuffled from assistant supervisor at the main branch to one of the email support departments at a recently acquired  ISP on the other side of town. Over half of the legacy support staff and supervisors had opted to accept a 2 months severance package and leave the company rather than get a small raise and watch the company they had all helped build get swallowed by a hungry competitor. All that was left was handfuls of temps and a skeleton crew of mediocre reps with less than 5 months of experience, the ones who hadn't been with Mindspring long enough to qualify for the severance package basically, i am sure half of those would have left as well if they had been offered it. Worse than that was remnants of middle and upper management that had been offered large bonuses to stay. It was almost immediately apparent that these managers and supervisors were the hangers on, the worst the company had hired, then promoted simply because they met the minimum requirement and had seniority. Nasty, selfish,  uncaring, and stressed out supervisors  who were openly aggressive and abusive about any solutions or activities that required anything other than the absolute minimum of their attention.

When Earthlink started we had the lowest % of employee turnover and the single highest customer retention in the entire business. Within 4 and a half years our new employee turnover was 55% of each class trained within 6 months, average new employee retention after a year was around 22%. That meant for every 50 people we hired, we would have less than 23 trained and useful representatives that had passed the probation period and were given their first performance appraisal and pay increase. Maybe 11 of those or less would be around before the end of a year. The old (Mindspring) location became the place they put people who they were never going to promote or move to any special projects. 2 years after I left Earthlink, i had contacted a close friend and co-worker who I had trained when I was a assistant supervisor. He informed me that everyone we had worked with except for himself and a couple others were gone. That, in fact, almost the entire customer service and technical support sections of the company had been laid off and replaced with remote location, oversea outsourced support from India. The only department still left for inbound customer support was my ex-coworkers, and they only handled support for major corporate clients and special retention for business account cancellations.

During my time at Earthlink I had learned a lot. I had always been very energetic and respected problem solver in my jobs; with a ever deepening desire to provide excellent customer support. My wife and I both had moved up the ranks in various service industries through our customer support skills and had almost made a theology of it. At Earthlink I had been trained by the very finest in customer support for corporations, and a man who I respect deeply and maintain contact with to this day, almost 20 years later.  I helped build the internet, and had many hundreds of unforgettable interactions with incredible people and customers; one was even my childhood hero (Ranger Rick) the environmentally conscious cartoon activist that had a activity sheet delivered to our schools every few months.

   It was also one of the most soul crushing times, watching everything that had brought me joy and personal success rot in front me. The company values I had lived and breathed for 3 years, gone.

 They vision statement of our little ISP, "To Provide the very best in customer service and support." That goal was the driving force of Earthlink and it was the one and only reason we rose up from a small warehouse in LA to the nations number one ISP; surpassing AOL who had almost total market dominance, within 3 years and it was all done with customer service.  Our unspoken motto, "The customer is not always right, that is why they are calling you. You will let them know what can be done and assist them with being right. We will always give the customer exactly what they need, and we will do so in a friendly and respectful manner. "

How very depressing to see all that hard work and positive energy being put out into the world,  our customers happy and our employees proud of the good work; all torn down in a few short years; right after we became a publicly traded company.. Then it was greed and the old business model where numbers mean everything and people mean shit.

So why have I gone on and on about this? Maybe so their is a record of how it happened from the inside, and maybe someone will read it and not make the same mistakes over and over again. The message behind all of this, the moral of the story?  Be respectful and give the very best you can when dealing with customers and your staff. We proved that a company that treats people like welcome guests will thrive in this world. Those people you help who would have been treated badly by others will feel how well they were treated and will be happier. What is is also important is that they will not go on with their day filled with negative vibes, resentment, frustration and anger in them. Every single thing that happens to them that day has the opportunity to make other peoples days better; such as  stopping your car to let someone into your lane when no one else will, instead of angrily forcing your way to block them. These little tiny interactions we have every day matter, just as a positive and helpful attitude towards your day will naturally create more positivity in the world around so can negativity about an unrelated event cause a cascade effect of negativity

 When business is only interested in the bottom line, people become numbers, there is no empathy, there is no community and it makes the world a meaner, more frustrated place.

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