The Call Center Launch Pad

All call centers are not equal.

I’m not just talking about the quality of customer service. I’m talking about the opportunity a company’s customer service department offers to its employees.

Sure, some call center gigs are dead-end jobs. Let me give you an example of what happens when the people who work in customer service know they are an afterthought to brand loyalty.

I recently had one of the worst experiences ever with a brand I have loved for decades. That brand is Hewlett-Packard, once arguably the single most shining icon in all of Silicon Valley history. The second HP printer I had purchased in three years died. Although I suspected HP had devolved into more of a subscription ink factory than a technology innovator, I bought the second printer with a two-year warranty to make sure it lasted two years. It did not.

When I called for support, I was handed off dozens of times from one failed interaction to another. Their technical training was all over the map, but no one could solve my problem. They put me on hold without setting time parameters. They dropped calls and didn’t call me back as promised. I invested hours in this runaround until my wife asked me what I thought my time might be worth to continue being poorly treated.

My case was escalated with the eventual offer of a “refurbished” printer because they did not have a record of my two-year warranty, even though I sent them documentation supporting their brand promise. The escalation manager had a broken headset and couldn’t complete our phone call, thus redirecting our negotiation to email spread over days. Finally I gave up and now own a competitor’s branded printer. I will never again own an HP printer. The HP Way is no more. That is a customer tragedy.

This got me thinking about all the product managers, software engineers, and information technology professionals I have hired or promoted out of customer service over the years. I don’t think of customer service as a cost center; I think of it as a profit center. Customer service is a place we invest in our brand and invest in our people. When we do that, our customers benefit and our employees benefit. That is the definition of a win-win.

If you are reading this today in an executive marketing role, ask yourself how you categorize the expense of customer service. Is it a necessary evil where unappreciated, low-paid people might be severing ties with your customers? Or is it a gateway for talent to join your company where well-trained people do their best to bond customers for life and in doing so ready themselves for significantly greater career opportunities within your enterprise?

For those of you currently in a customer service job, the question you might ask yourself is how you can transform your current day-to-day, sometimes thankless complaint handling into a launch pad that puts you on a path to be considered for your boss’s job and later your boss’s boss’s job. It happens, I promise you, but only if you position yourself to make it happen. Here’s a simple framework.

Choose Wisely

Look for an emerging company where promotions are frequent rather than a legacy behemoth where you’ll never got out of the boiler room. Don’t envision the call center where you work as a windowless dungeon, even if you are working at home, but instead see yourself in a trend-setting pool hall where you are setting up your next shot. If you are so remote and isolated from corporate management that no one who can promote you will ever know who you are, then you probably are in an inescapable place. Since you’ve chosen to do the work, do it somewhere where you will be noticed and appreciated.

Learn Every Day

The work you do today answering emails, chatting, or talking to customers on the phone is just that—it doesn’t have to be the work you do forever. Ask yourself: What did you learn from your last customer interaction? What did you learn about the product technology when you searched the database to address a customer’s problem? What insights about the next-generation product features have you gleaned from the thrashings you endure listening to the gripes of unhappy customers? One of these days you are going to bump into a company leader in the hallway who might ask for your opinion on something. Do you have an opinion that is built on valuable learnings that make you unquestionably promotable when that opportunity surprisingly emerges?

Do More Than You’re Asked

You were hired to do a job the person to the left of you and the right of you can do. If you do just that job, you will get paid as promised, rinse and repeat. If you want to do more, ask to do more. Volunteer for special projects. Don’t wait to be asked. Show initiative. Go to your manager and say you’d like to write a white paper on why returns are so high on a current product in market. Maybe your manager says yes, maybe no. If they say no too many times, see the section above labeled Choose Wisely. I tell every manager wanting to be a director and every director wanting to be a VP the same thing: Find a way to start doing the job you want before you have it. Those are the kinds of people companies want to retain. A customer service associate who knows things becomes a company leader who can fix things. Claim your own success.

Gut It Out

When your boss is unhappy with your performance, don’t quit on the spot because your feelings are hurt. Find out why your boss is displeased. If you ask and get a candid answer, listen to the critique calmly and internalize it. If you don’t get an honest answer, see the section above labeled Choose Wisely. If your boss suggests you are dialing it in and not living up to your potential, maybe this is a wildly constructive moment. Accept the feedback, up your game, and try even harder to do the best job you can. Leaders in companies do not give up because they have a bad week, a bad day, a bad hour, or a bad customer interaction. If you can hang tough in customer service, you have a shot at hanging tough when you are promoted. Grit matters, not just because of what it teaches you about resilience, but because of what it says about your commitment to exceeding expectations.

Love your brand, love your customers, love the opportunity hiding behind the door that is not yet open, and when you nudge that door open, your entire life might change in an instant. How sure am I? I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. I’ve also seen too many times what happens when a company doesn’t get this right and spirals into oblivion. Taking your customers for granted as you grow is a clear path to the dead brand graveyard. A culture of aligned incentives that secures customer engagement is the rocket fuel that resists inertia.

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Photo: Pixabay

But We’ve Always…

It’s December. For those of us who make our living in any form of consumer business, that usually means two things:

  • We have made it through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with our projections now being evaluated against actuals.
  • In less than a month it will be a new year, where we can either make the same mistakes again or invent new ones.

That leads to two takeaways I would like you to consider before the year ends:

  • Customer behavior tells us almost everything we need to know to be successful in business, particularly when we study data and benchmark assumptions against metrics.
  • We ignore the realities of customer behavior at our own peril, but darn it all if we don’t come up with really good reasons to flagrantly repeat our mistakes with passion and conviction.

How does our eye come off the ball precisely when it is crossing the plate and our bat is in swinging position?

It all begins with three wretched words:

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS.

Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these pronouncements before:

I know our customers complain when we send them too many emails, but we’ve always sent them at least four offers on Thanksgiving Day.

I know our customers don’t trust our pricing, but we’ve always jacked up our regular prices in the weeks before Christmas so we can mark them “50% off.”

I know it’s irrational to cover the cost of free expedited shipping and lose money on every sale, but we’ve always managed to convince our boss that losing money is the only way we can compete with Amazon.

I know our brand promise is what matters most to our company, but we’ve always managed to slip in a few low-quality products with our best inventory to even out our margins.

I know we believe our customers are loyal and have a lifetime value, but we’ve always cut our customer service costs to force our bottom line into compliance with our budget.

Yep, we know what we are doing is wrong, but we’ve always found a way to justify our shortcomings, weak logic, or poor decision-making because we’re out of time, out of patience, or out of energy to argue for doing what’s right.

Earlier this year I attended the third-annual ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas. It had grown 50% over 2017 with more than 8400 attendees. Ecommerce remains an escalating magic buzz word. There were two types of presentations:

  • “People may think our proud, established, vastly well capitalized legacy brand can’t adapt to new technology, but we’ve always been a customer favorite and there’s no reason anyone should bet against us.”
  • “We’re a new brand and will lose our jobs if we don’t succeed, but our investors are betting that if we brainstorm new experiments and focus on customer behavior, the results will tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

Which bet would you place with your own money?

Let me restate the choice:

  • “We’ve been around more than fifty years, we know exactly what we’re doing having coined a business model for hard-won success, we’re a household name, and we’ll still be a household name fifty years from now.”
  • “We have no idea if we’re going to be around in two years, but we’ll take whatever runway we have to figure out how to do what’s never worked successfully before.”

Don’t bother answeringit’s a trick question. The truth is you need some of both to win the long game, some of the newbies and some of the dinosaurs. Yet too many people convince themselves there’s little downside to a buy-and-hold strategy with “forever” companies like GE or GM. They won’t invest in a risky start-up with a funny name and an unproven business model like Amazon or Apple until it’s a fully valued blue chip.

No one knows what companies are going to win in the future, whether cemented or emerging. They all have unpredictable choices to make. It’s supposed to be that way. It’s how new companies are born and old companies die, or old companies are reborn through reinvention. It’s called creative destruction.

My point has nothing to do with improving your stock portfolio. My point has everything to do with recognizing the death knell of an established brand and bringing life or invigoration to a challenger brand.

It can be a fair fight. An established brand can be a challenger brand when it acts like an underdogwhen it stomps out the status quo and humbly looks to customers for confirmation or rejection of any working thesis.

I am willing to bet few employees at Amazon or Apple wander the halls uttering the words “but we’ve always” as a response to why they aren’t trying something new. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they are becoming slow, cynical, and comfortable that they know what they are doing. I doubt it, but if they are, an opportunity for a challenger brand is out there for the taking.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Sears.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Toys ‘R’ Us.

When was the last time you said it? Still feeling good about that?

This year’s holiday shopping strategy is already behind us. There’s nothing we can do with history except study and learn from it.

The new year awaits all big ideas, particularly those focused on truly delighting customers with a sustainable business model and a resonating brand promise.

My advice going forward in whatever you are doing?

Eliminate the phrase BUT WE’VE ALWAYS from your company’s vocabulary before it eliminates you.

Erase those three words entirely from all conversation.

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS is defensive, uninspiring, and telling.

Try something instead that hasn’t worked, something that you think might work because you have reason to believe in a thesis. Measure the results. If there’s promise, hone it with precision. If it starts to work, stay humble. Stay inquisitive. Question the potential interpretation of every collected data point. Remember that every successful idea has a life cycle, and a bad idea yesterday might be reformed under changing market forces as a good idea tomorrow.

When an idea works dependably and someone questions it in a future review, just don’t say BUT WE’VE ALWAYS done it that way. You haven’t always done it that way. It had a beginning. It can have an end. What can’t end is innovation.

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Image: Pixabay

You Call This a Loyalty Program?

Try this episode on for size and tell me how it makes you feel about the brand:

I recently logged into one of my hotel loyalty accounts where I had amassed several hundred thousand points. That is, I thought I did. All my points were gone. Apparently this chain has a policy that deletes all your points if you don’t stay at one of their properties for a year. Did they send me a courtesy email reminding me I needed to stay there toward the end of the twelve-month lapse? They did not.

I called customer service and they recited the policy back to me, willing to say farewell to a customer who had paid the freight to accumulate several hundred thousand points in its loyalty program, just not in the past 14 months.

Then I tweeted my complaint about the forfeited points publicly. A few hours later whoever runs the company’s Twitter account tweeted back publicly that the company was very sorry for the situation and dedicated to my satisfaction. The Twit-master asked that I send a private tweet to follow up, which I did. Then we moved the correspondence to email.

I was then told that the company had a one-time exception to the policy where points could be reinstated, but that had already been done for me approximately 13 years ago. Silly how I could have forgotten their grace. However, they said that in an attempt to reinstate my customer satisfaction, they would restore half my forfeited points now and the other half if I agreed to stay at their properties at least three times in the next six months. I wrote back that it sounded a bit ridiculous to be playing Let’s Make a Deal – Loyalty Edition with them, but I would agree because, well, why not?

To their credit, they did return half my points upon receipt of our “written agreement” in that email thread, and I have booked one stay with them. I just wonder, is this what they really set out to accomplish in developing their loyalty program? Is it a loyalty program at all, or just a rewards program that effectively gives me a rebate on what I spend provided I do it on their timetable?

If you give me a reward for my business, then take it away because I didn’t precisely follow your rules, then give it back conditionally with an expectation that somehow I have become pleased by our interaction, how has this helped me as a customer or you as a business? It’s a quid pro quo. I don’t think a quid pro quo has anything to do with loyalty.

When I think about loyalty, I think about preference. When I think about preference, I think about what brand comes first to mind when I need a particular item or service. I choose that brand for a host of reasons, for the totality of my experience with the brand.

I prefer to fly Alaska Airlines because they tend to treat me better as a human being, so I am loyal to them. I am also a member of their loyalty program, but that has very little to do with my loyalty. The way we interact all the time has to do with my loyalty. There is a consistency in my interaction with their airline personnel whether I am flying in coach or upgraded to first class, whether I bought a discount or full-fare ticket. That consistency is what creates loyalty.

I prefer to shop at REI for sporting gear because they are patient with me when I come to their stores not knowing nearly as much about hiking or biking shoes as they do, and when I leave it is with the right pair of shoes. I am also a member of their co-op because that is required to shop in the store, and I get a member rebate every year, but that is not why I am loyal. I am loyal because when I am on a trail or in spin class and my shoes are comfortable, I remember how great they were about helping me get the exact fit and charging me nothing more for their time.

I don’t prefer the hotel chain that gave me back half my points now with a contingent promise for half my points later. We have a transactional relationship based on price and location. I wouldn’t seek them out. I could, but they have given me no reason. Now when I think of them I think of my Let’s Make a Deal experience rather than any experience staying under their roof. That’s sad.

Maybe the problem is terminology. Maybe there is no such thing as a loyalty program. Maybe they are all just rewards programs masquerading as loyalty programs. That’s kind of a punt when you think about it. We could design a loyalty program that involved every point of customer interaction to ensure your satisfaction, but heck, that would be hard, why don’t you just take these points instead and we’ll play like we’re loyal to each other even when we know, wink-wink, we couldn’t care less about each other. It’s a bed and bathroom and points if you follow our rules, so come here at least every twelve months and someday maybe you can cash in those points for a standard room on the house. Maybe, if we have availability, certain restrictions apply.

I recently attended an e-commerce industry conference where at more than one session I heard the phrase, “There is no customer loyalty, consumers only care about price.” If this cynical statement is true, then I wonder why we have marketing departments at all. Don’t believe it. All customers are not automatons who solely focus on what’s cheapest.

Brands are not dead. A brand is a promise. Brands compete on price, quality, and service. If a company wants my loyalty it is there to be won, like Alaska Air and REI. If a company wants to make it about points and rules, that’s something else, and yes, in that scenario why should there be customer loyalty?

You get what you give. Since you’re selling and I’m buying you get to go first. You want my loyalty, show me yours. You want my loyalty, enter into a brand-customer relationship with me. You want to make it about points, if you piss me off I’ll dump you at the next possible off-ramp.

Loyalty is hard to win. It should be, because it’s valuable. That’s why the great brands think in terms of lifetime value rather than rules. If I have to publicly embarrass you with a tweet to get your attention, you don’t care about me a hoot, especially when you just had me on the phone. Think about that the next time a company penalizes you for breaking its loyalty rules. Those are stupid rules. You don’t need the points that badly, and if you don’t prefer the brand, you sure don’t need its crappy rewards program.

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Image: Stefan Hatos – Monty Hall Productions

It’s All Getting Personal

It’s a bit weird, this Author thing. Let me try to explain.

For as long as I can remember, putting words on paper has been an integral part of my life. It started when I was a kid, with little plays and poems. Then in high school it became short stories and full-length plays. Then in college some more plays, some student films, and the occasional joke for a journeyman standup comic. When I was done with school, I wrote about a dozen screenplays, and then when the Writers Guild strike hit, I wrote an epic story for one of the very first movie-like computer games.

Shortly after that I moved to the business side of the computer software publishing model, only occasionally penning a bit of dialogue here and there for a certain Carmen Sandiego. My life became focused on technology, marketing, sales, finance, and team leadership. As I’ve said before, I really didn’t write much for a couple of decades, other than business plans and PowerPoint decks, which I was later told might have had saleable option rights for media exploitation given my need to always tell a story (if only I then had an agent!).

All through these periods of business creativity and innovation, I never had much trouble calling myself a writer, because I felt pretty good about my ability to form pithy sentences and get other people to take an interest in them. Even when I wasn’t writing per se, people would call me a writer, and I would show up at writerly events and schmooze with writers because I could keep up with the banter and liked most of it. I felt fine about this. It never felt stuffy, arrogant, pretentious, or the least bit weird.

Then I hung up the spreadsheet programs for a while and wrote my first novel, This Is Rage. Suddenly I was an Author—at least that’s what my publisher called me. I fell into silence at that descriptor. That was weird. In that same window, one of my most valued mentors introduced me at lunch as a Novelist. I looked at him in fear and more silence. “No, it’s just me, Ken, the writer.” It was and it wasn’t. That’s when things started to change.

You can go online and look up all the different uses of Writer vs Author vs Novelist vs. Schmuck Who Types and Prays for Good Reviews and Modest Royalties (that last one is harder to find in search, so I think I’ll tag it). Here’s the really hard part, especially for me: Once you decide you want to sell books and do public readings and speak at lunches and conventions, you have made the implicit decision to transform yourself from Writer to Author. What’s hard about that? You now find yourself being public about things you never thought were your job to expose. Take, for example, this blog post. It’s a little different from most of my others, huh? It’s getting personal.

PlatformIn the publishing world, they call this “building your platform.” It’s not a platform you stand on in Hyde Park and it’s not a platform you adopt as a political candidate. It’s the sum total of all your networking outreach, private and public. You gotta go light up Twitter (@CorporateIntel) with clever BRIEF memes your soon to be amassed Followers can follow. You gotta have an Author Page on Facebook that gently steers people toward buying your new book without being too crass about it. You gotta pump up your LinkedIn Profile so your business associates know what you’re doing but don’t think you’ve gone completely rogue. You gotta get busy on Google+ which means you have to figure out how Google+ works and learn to repost everything there to get it scraped into the index.

Why in tarnation do you need to do all this? Can’t you just write the dang book (that’s hard enough!) and toss it over the wall to your publishing team? Well, I suppose you can if your name is Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Malcolm Gladwell. The rest of us quickly learn our real name is more like P.T. Barnum. When you are deemed an Author, you are also deemed Promoter-in-Chief, because if you won’t get out there and rally people behind your work, why on earth would anyone else? The introverted tendencies of writing reverse themselves into Living Out Loud! If you don’t think you can do it, you can always go back to being a Writer. In this day and age, writing for an audience is putting yourself out there, and no matter how uncomfortable it is to type the word Author after your name as some bizarre form of professional title from The Bloomsbury Group, you really have no choice other than to accept obscurity without a fight.

Okay, two more points and then I’ll wind down. First, if you know me, you know I’m a lousy introvert, and second, if you know me, you know I ain’t going down without a fight. Publisher says build the platform, I’m building the platform. Please don’t leave me out here on the ledge in the clown suit alone. Like me or something.

Here’s how I am reconciling this weirdness, this discomfort, this near unholy demand to say please pay attention to me. I’m going back to my business roots. It’s all about mission statement. It’s all about brand promise. Writer, Author, or Schmuck, that’s my job.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the easiest to forget, and the ones most worth remembering. Two years ago I wrote a post on the importance of a mission statement in a business. What I emphasized was that it only mattered if it was more than words. At the top of this blog you see the words:

Ideas. Business. Stories.

That has been my brand promise to you, the underlying essence of this whole Author mishigos. You buy that, you buy me. I’m pretty sure the rest is arts and crafts.

Rolling deeper into my non-Author roots, as I was driving to a meeting last week, I heard a snippet of a radio interview with Dane Ban, the CEO of much-beloved Trader Joe’s. He was asked what advice he most often gives emerging entrepreneurs. He replied that a business has to be about a mission. Rather than leave it at that, which already resonated with me, he went on to quote the esteemed Peter Drucker in The Practice of Management:

“There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”

Simple. Relevant. Profound. Try to challenge it.  Very, very hard.

So as weird as it feels to me, as uncomfortable as it is being made for me, I am building that platform in advance of the launch of Endless Encores. Its subtitle is not coincidental: “People, Products, Profits—In That Order.” That also appears near the top of this blog in my mission statement. It all comes around. Like I said, it’s all getting personal.

Come along for the ride, will you, please? Don’t force me to come to my senses and claw my way back in. That might make me a writer again. How scary would that be?

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.