Discover more from Metacare Columns
Why Exactly is Customer Support so Difficult?
Customer service is a difficult role. Anyone who doesn't agree is either lying, has never worked in customer service or isn't very good at their job. As it would happen, customer support in its current state can be much better than it is—not only because there is always room for constant improvement in our lives, but also because our approach customer support experience is in need of a complete redesign.
But why exactly is good customer service so difficult and so rare? We know for a fact that it is, don't we? Which one of us hasn't experienced first hand or listened to dark customer tales of encounters with obnoxious agents working for companies who treat customer service too casually... at least that's the story, from the consumer's side.
Thanks for reading Metacare Columns! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
It's possible that just as everyone expected some companies just don't see good customer service as a priority. To them its merely an inconvenient cost so they just don't bother to put in the work to build a culture of service where the customer is front and center of everything. It's odd but true, there are some businesses providing services so essential and operating in markets where they own such a large share that there aren't any real consequences to providing sub-par service.
Not every business owner is a large incumbent. Majority of companies will need to be thoughtful about differentiation as competition becomes increasingly stiff. That's what our discussion is about—why does the well meaning savvy business operator who understands the importance of good service find it difficult to design and implement systems that deliver the kind of support that will delight their customers.
Understanding why requires us to walk in the shoes of the humble support agent. No, we don't mean you should get a support job. We'll just explain the parts of their job which make life so difficult for them.
Wanna hear a story? No? Ok, we'll just tell you anyway
Here is Tomi...
She works as an email support agent for BLOO—a cool new app to help tweens and teens save. Pretty cool isn't it? It's a Monday morning. Dani is focused, motivated and ready to take on the challenges of the new week. She fires up her computer, loads her workspace... aaaannd: 140 unread messages.
Some might say it's no big deal, but for each of these messages she needs to read them carefully, analyze them, then extract and confirm meaning from the words on the screen. This is is just to discover what the issue of the ticket is before going along to the solution phase. Tomi needs to do this for 140 people waiting for a response and more messages still keep coming in.
C'mon you're exaggerating
We’re really not. Sometimes customers won't express themselves properly so its down to the agent to decode the meaning of a ticket. In cases like these, the agent will need to ask leading questions to get to the root of the issue. They're not just doing this for one customer, they're doing this for several customers over the course of a work day. Tomi is juggling balls. Let's head over to Tomi’s workspace.
Customer: Hi. My son's account isn't working right now. What's the problem??
Tomi: Hi.. i'm sorry to hear about that. What exactly is the issue. Are you having a problem logging in?
Customer: No I can log in, I can't fund the account.
Tomi: Hm. That's odd. Do you know the steps to fund the account? Should I run you through them?
Customer: I'm not a newbie, I know how to fund the account. It's just not working.
Tomi: Do you receive an error message when you try to fund your account?
This conversation could go on much longer, but you get the idea. She would need to have this sort of back and forth with several customers which might not seem like a difficult thing from where you're sitting, but have you tried doing this for 200 people?
Now to investigate 🔍
When Tomi is done discovering what the issue is, she proceeds to investigate exactly why that issue is occurring. She logs into her Stripe dashboard, maybe the payment service blacklisted the customer. No, that's not it. She checks carefully for any error responses from Stripes servers. There's none of recent. So decides to access the customers account herself, she finds that there are no credit cards or any payment options at all added by the user. Hmm, that's odd. How did the user try to make the payment then. She hops back to her messenger and let's the customer know they need to add a payment method first before trying to make a deposit. The customer asks how she should do that. Dani responds with the detailed steps.
Issues come in different sizes and grades of complexity
Tomi would need to go through this sort of detailed investigation repeatedly for each ticket that finds its way to her inbox, some being more complex than others. So customer support often involves a lot of touchpoints, hopping in and out of apps as the agent drills down to find the cause of the issue the customer is facing. This requires time and patience. Remember that new messages continue to troop into Tomi’s inbox.
Human beings are... tough to deal with
Let's be honest, any customer facing role is challenging and customer support is top of the list. It's a role that involves interacting with people who have problems so the odds that they won't be on their best behaviour are quite high. Working in customer service, Tomi is exposed to people of different personalities. She's confronted with the very best and worst of humanity on daily basis. This is typically somewhat of an emotional rollercoaster.
Tomi just closed a ticket and is feeling quite pleased with herself, it was a tough one with a long investigation process but thankfully the customer was left satisfied. Now on to the next challenge, she opens the next message.
Customer: You guys are so incompetent! Can you tell me why I was charged twice for my last deposit?! 🤬
Tomi: Hi there. I'm sorry to hear you where charged twice. Have you checked in to see if we issued two receipts?
Customer: I don't need you to be sorry, I need a f#@king refund!
This is one of the toughest aspects of the job.
Customer Service involves a lot of emotional labour
By emotional labour we mean the effort that's required to display desirable emotions in the workplace, emotions such as enthusiasm and friendliness. Arlie Hochschild wrote about emotional labour
"The amount of emotional labor required is based on the difference between the emotions an employee is expected to display, and the emotions an employee actually feels"
Working in customer support requires Tomi to be friendly and upbeat even when she doesn't feel like being so. Emotions are severely tested in her customer service job. Customers are often aggressive and rude, yet Tomi needs to remain positive. This takes an emotional toll on her, she becomes irritable and indifferent towards the job. Tomi isn't bad at her job, she's just human. This mental burden begins to affect the quality of her work despite her best intentions. While she doesn't start to lash out at customers, she doesn't exactly put her best foot forward, now she gets by doing just the bare minimum which infuriates customers even more and the vicious cycle continues.
Customer support needs extreme focus and the ability to multitask
In a typical day Tomi is regularly under a lot of time pressure while handling complex problems for very impatient customers. To handle these issues effectively and in a timely fashion she has to multitask. It's often seen as a highly coveted skill, after all everyone wants to get more done is less time. Research has shown that our brains can only primarily focus on one thing at a time so having to keep track of different things leads to distraction and decreased productivity. The truth is that multitasking impacts the quality of our work and leaves us prone to making mistakes. In a role like customer service which involves a lot a lot of data entry and modification, these mistakes could be costly. For instance, inputting the wrong home address for a customer could mean a missed delivery and unnecessary costs acquired.
Tomi has to be a product expert 🥷
She needs to be knowledgeable about every single aspect of the product and we mean every single aspect of the product. Support agents perform a variety of roles; they are mediators resolving conflicts, teachers educating users on a product or service and marketers who cross-sell and up-sell. Succeeding at the role requires an all round understanding of all the products and services offered. For Tomi, this was a steep learning curve. She spent months reading BLOO's product literature, using the software and learning from teammates. Learning on the job and failing forward can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, but its a phase new hires need to go through.
So what's the solution?
Well, that's the thing there isn't one solution. It's really a mix of process improvement strategy and systems creation (Did you nod off yet? Stay with us). This isn't an exhaustive or universal list of recommendations. Of course, a business' unique circumstances will play a big part in what solutions apply, but here's something to get you in the right direction.
Aim to design for and automate as many workflows as possible
A workflow is simply how you get work done. It's a sequence of tasks from start to finish: a process. For instance if Tomi were to handle a ticket where a user was charged twice she would.
Collect information from the user
Hop unto her Stripe admin dashboard to see if there are any records of multiple charges
If there are, she'll email the Stripe support team with all the references requesting for a refund
She'll send an update mail to the user informing them of the progress being made
Send a final mail with the receipt of the refund once Stripe has processed it.
The combination of these individual steps makes up a 'workflows'. In deciding which workflows to automate you should ask the following questions:
Which of my processes take up the most time?
What part of my process seems repetitive and mundane?
Are there ways customers could help themselves?
This is the job of the customer success manager, she is tasked with asking these questions and setting up methods to observe and find answers to them. In our case, the customer success manager at BLOO discovered after some research that collecting the customers details upfront always involves the hassle of back and forth messages. She realized that it was time to build out an extensive ticketing system to handle this.
She's also decided to collaborate with the team to build out an elaborate help center so users can find answers themselves and has implemented a chatbot to handle simple FAQ's and queries. Going forward Tomi’s time is freed up for more essential tasks and she has enough headspace to deal with more critical issues and provide better support to customers.
Continuously monitor the workload of agents
Overworked agents are not operating at full capacity. They will be mentally exhausted and unwilling to put their best foot forward. As a customer success manager, it's important to keep a close eye on your agents workload and know when exactly to hire and onboard more agents unto your team. Simply hiring more people when the team is becomes overwhelmed is a poor model to follow. In the time it takes to hire, train and onboard new agents, a significant amount of churn may have already occurred.
To monitor your teams workload you will need to have the following metrics at your finger tips
The customer base numbers and projections for the future: How many customers/users do you currently have. At what rate on average will they grow year over year or month over month? What are the factors that typically cause a surge in growth? Is it a new product release? Or a new marketing campaign launched?
The average number of tickets per month: Having historical data will be helpful for tracking this. How many tickets do you receive per month on average?
Tickets per agent per month: This is the number of tickets that one agent can successfully handle every month comfortably. It's important to put these numbers into context by monitoring them alongside other metrics such as average response time and customer satisfaction scores. If you agents are easily handling 5,000 tickets a month with AVT's of 1 hour but customer satisfactions scores are plunging then it says something interesting about their quality of work. The formula for calculating this is (Tickets/Agents/Month)
Number Agents you should have on your team: Given these variables, the formula for this is
Total monthly tickets/(tickets/agent/month)
Remember that this must be assessed with context by keeping an eye on your customer satisfaction scores and your customer base growth rate. You can also discount for other variables such as training time for new hires, vacation time, sick leave e.t.c
Divide your team into silos
Sometimes breaking your team into tiers with streamlined goals can take pressure off the entire team. It shrinks the scope of their duties and allows them attend to singular tasks with more focus. For instance, at BLOO billing issues with their complicated troubleshooting flows take up a good amount of everyone's time so a department within the service team is created to handle just billing tickets.
It frees up everyone else's time to handle others tasks and gives the billings team both clarity of purpose and the opportunity to hone a specialty.
There wouldn't typically be a one size fits all model to scale your customer service. Each new scenario will present it's own unique challenges and friction points. Your own ingenuity, creativity and hard work will be required to surmount challenges. This article still remains a good starting point on how to think about scale and empower your agents to do their best work.
Thanks for reading Metacare Columns! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.