Customer experience lives or dies in the trenches — in the everyday decisions that are happening across your organization.
Let me explain with a story. I recently provided a series of workshops for a fast-growing company that develops business software packages. The company was (and is) committed to providing great customer experiences.
The workshops they asked me to facilitate were based on customer expectations and how they are evolving. They wanted to be sure they were staying ahead of the curve. Managers from marketing, technical support, IT and others participated in the training.
Prior to the first workshop, I spent a couple of days doing an assessment, which included talking with employees and getting a sense of their culture. They were clearly focused on providing great products and services. The deeper I looked, though, the more questions I had.
For example, there were obvious inconsistencies in how products were supported. In their support center, which provides customers with technical support over phone and chat, most of their reps spent an average of 10-12 minutes with customers. But one had an average handling time of well over 20 minutes. “We want to ensure our customers have a good experience and get the help they need,” their director told me. “But is there a limit to what that means?”
I spent time that afternoon listening to some support calls. One rep had printed emails from customers tacked to his cubicle walls — dozens of them. “Thanks so much for the awesome service!” said one. “You helped us get unstuck, and then some,” wrote another.
Guess who had the long handling time? Yep! “He’s a bit of a braggart,” whispered one of his peers who sat nearby. “I help twice as many customers in a day.”
One of their workload planners had played some “what if” and looked at the staffing requirements should every interaction have his handling time. It blew their budget out of the water; they would literally have to schedule almost three times their current staff to meet demand.
So, their director had some options. She could force the issue and set a ceiling. Exceed it, and you’d get a warning. But we both knew how the rep with the long handling times would react. “I’m the one providing the best service!” he would say. He might quit. Just as bad, he might stay and poison the environment. (You may have worked in a team with an unhappy employee. It’s so damaging to morale.)
I had some other questions. How did they know the average of 11 minutes was right? The fact that it was an average didn’t necessarily mean it was a good target, or that handling time should be a target at all.
Their director took an approach that was wise and creative. She assembled a small team of several reps, including the one with the long handling time. She arranged for a conference room with a long table and provided them with index cards and markers. “Choose a common type of support call we get,” she explained, “and write each step that you each go through on an index card, laying them out in order.” She didn’t mention the term flowchart or bring up handling time. “Just focus on what we actually do to deliver support.”
She returned a couple of hours later to see cards neatly laid out in a flow that covered most of the table. There was still a smattering of cards yet to be organized at the end of the table, but the team was close to completing a flow chart of a call.
“So, what did you discover?” she asked.
One support rep spoke first. “I’m not going through some verification steps that could help ensure the issue is completely resolved,” he said. “I want to make some adjustments.”
The employee with the long handling time spoke next. “Well, I am clearly walking customers through features that others aren’t. Sometimes they are not directly related to the call,” he admitted, “but customers always benefit. Many will say, ‘Wow, I had no idea the software could do that!’ We have some great capabilities that set us apart.”
After a robust discussion, this rep and his peers decided that he was going beyond technical support and providing, essentially, personalized training. But customers needed this know-how, they decided, along with access to better user guides and online support resources.
I returned some months later to find the handling times of all support reps had fallen into what they felt was a sensible range. More importantly, the team had developed concrete quality standards to guide the services provided. I was especially excited to see the cross-functional initiatives they put in place to improve customer experience. Various teams were working on:
- Product innovation, based on customer input and where they needed help.
- Improvements to user guides and online resources.
- Marketing initiatives that better described benefits.
- Launching and facilitating a customer community that enabled customers to help each other.
Their support reps enjoyed lending a few hours each month to one of these working groups. The rep who once had the long handling time was involved in an initiative to improve customer training and reference resources. As he put it, “We’re working on things that help all of our customers, not just those who contact the support team!”
I’ve seen so many other cases where the hero of our story would have instead been the villain. Where stricter controls are established, and outliers are coached into compliance. Where the creativity, humanity and joy that once existed begin to drain from the operation, and where customer experience begins to die.
My advice: Don’t relegate customer experience to a strategic initiative alone. Build the mindset and principles of customer experience into every part of your organization. Enable CX leaders at every level and in every functional area. Then watch customer and employee experiences thrive, and enjoy the powerful results — repeat business, referrals and market share — that come to your organization.