Tag Archives: call centers

Customer Service on the Phone: Netflix

An interesting piece about the move, by Netflix, to phone-only customer service.
Victory for voices over keystrokes | CNET News.com

Much of it sounds very obvious. Customers tend to prefer phone support instead of email. Customer service representatives who take more time on the phone with customers are more likely to make people happy. Many customers dislike offshoring. Customer service can make or break some corporations. Customers often have outlandish requests. Hourly salaries in call centres will vary greatly from one place to the other, even within the same area.

In other words, Netflix has done what many people think a company should do. We’ll see how it all pans out in the end.

The main reason this piece caught my attention is that I have been doing surveys (over the phone) about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives over the phone. Not only am I working in a call centre myself (and can certainly relate with the job satisfaction which comes from empathy). But several of the surveys I do are precisely about the points made in this News.com piece. The majority of the surveys I do are about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives (CSRs) at incoming call centres for a big corporation. So I hear a lot about CSRs and what they do well. Or not so well. One answer I’ve been hearing on occasion was “I’d appreciate it if I could talk to people who are a bit less courteous but who know more about the services the company is providing.” After interactions with several CSRs and tech support people, I can relate with this experience on a personal level.

The general pattern is that people do prefer it if they can speak directly (over the phone) with a human being who speaks their native language very fluently and are able to spend as much time as it takes with them on the phone. Most people seem to believe that it is important to be able to speak to someone instead of dealing with the issue in an “impersonal” manner.

Sounds obvious. And it probably is obvious to many executives, when they talk about customer service. So email support, outsourcing, offshoring, time limits on customer service, and low wages given to customer service representatives are all perceived by customers as cost-cutting measures.

But there’s something else.

We need the “chunky spaghetti sauce” of customer service. Yes, this is also very obvious. But it seems that some people draw awkward conclusions from it. It’s not really about niche marketing. It’s not exactly about customer choice or even freedom. It’s about diversity.

As an anthropologist, I cherish human diversity. Think of the need for biological diversity on the level of species but through the cultural, linguistic, and biological dimensions of one subspecies (Homo sapiens sapiens).
Yes, we’re all the same. Yes, we’re all different. But looking at human diversity for a while, you begin to notice patterns. Some of these patterns can be described as “profiles.” Other patterns are more subtle, harder to describe. But really not that difficult to understand.

The relationships between age and technology use, for instance. The common idea is that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be “into technology.” “It’s a generation thing, you know. Kids these days, they’re into HyPods and MikeSpaces, and Nit’n’do-wee. I’m too old to know anything about these things.”

Yeah, right.

All the while, some children are struggling with different pieces of technology forced unto them and some retirees are sending each other elaborate PowerPoint files to younger people who are too busy to look at them.

To go back to customer service on the phone. Some people are quite vocal about their preference for interactions with “real human beings” who speak their native language and are able to understand them. Other people would actually prefer it if they could just fire off a message somewhere and not have to spend any time on the phone. On several occasions having to do with customer service, I do prefer email exchanges over phone interactions. But I realize that I’m probably in the minority.

Many people in fact deal with different situations in different ways.

One paragraph I personally find quite surprising in the News.com piece is about the decision to not only strengthen the phone-based support but to, in effect, abolish email support:

Netflix’s decision to eliminate the e-mail feature was made after a great deal of research, Osier said. He looked at two other companies with reputations for superb phone-based customer service, Southwest Airlines and American Express, and saw that customers preferred human interaction over e-mail messages.

Sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to me. (It’d be fun to read the research report!) I’m pretty sure that most business schools advise future executives against knee-jerk reactions.

One thing which surprises me about the Netflix move is that, contrary to Southwest Airlines and American Express, the Netflix business is primarily based on online communication and postal services. My hunch is that a significant number of Netflix users are people who enjoy the convenience of one-click movie rentals without any need to interact with a person. Not that Netflix users dislike other human beings but they may prefer dealing with other human beings on other levels. If my hunch is accurate to any degree, chances are that these same people also enjoy it when they can solve an issue with their account through a single email or, better yet, a single click. For instance, someone might like the option of simply clicking a button on the Netflix website to put their rental queue on hold. And it might be quite useful to receive an email confirmation of a “Damaged Disc Report” (SRC: DISCPROBLEM) instead of having to rely on a confirmation number given on the phone by a friendly CSR in Oregon or, say, Moncton.

Yes, I’m referring to the specific instances of my interactions with Netflix. While I’d certainly appreciate the opportunity to speak with friendly French-speaking CSRs when I have problems with plane tickets or credit cards, I like the fact that I can deal with Netflix online (and through free postal mail). Call me crazy all you want. I’m one of those Netflix customers who find it convenient to deal with the company through those means. After all, Netflix is unlikely to have such an influence on my life that I would enjoy spending as much as ten minutes on the phone with friendly Oregonians.

As an ethnographer, I have not, in fact, observed Netflix to any significant extent. I’m just a random customer and, as it so happens, my wife is the one who is getting rentals from them. What little I know about the Netflix business model is limited to discussions about it on tech-related podcasts. And I do understand that Blockbuster is their direct target.

Yet it seems to me that one of the main reasons Netflix has/had been succeeding is that they went into relatively uncharted territory and tapped into a specific market (mixed analogies are fun). Even now, Netflix has advantages over “traditional” DVD rental companies including Blockbuster the same way that Amazon has advantages over Barnes and Noble. It seems to me that Amazon is not actively trying to become the next Barnes and Noble. AFAIK, Amazon is not even trying to become the next Wal-Mart (although it has partnered with Target).

Why should Netflix try to beat Blockbusters?

What does this all mean for corporate America?


Voice and Empathy

Full disclosure. I do surveys. On the phone. For a marketing research firm.

No, no! Not a telemarketing firm! A research firm which uses survey results to improve the quality of the service offered by a client. Huge difference.

No, you most likely have not hung up on me. Very few people have done so and the readership of this blog is not such that it would be even remotely likely that you, dear reader, could be one of those few respondents who did hang up on me.

Why do I do it? Well, yes, it’s a job. A summer job, to be precise. But I could be doing (and have been doing) any number of other jobs. Yet, as an ethnographer, I felt compelled to give surveys a try. And I’m glad I did.

I actually did phone surveys as a summer job in 2005. Did it for the very reason that, while teaching ethnographic topics, I had been comparing ethnography with surveys even though I had never done surveys myself. Doing surveys on the phone seemed like a great way to learn more about those methods while getting an income at the same time. It worked like a charm.

Seems like I’m not the only one to think along those lines as I know at least two other anthropologists who are working at phone survey centres.

How do I like it? It’s really not so bad. The call centre where I work has a relatively nice atmosphere. More specifically, the supervisor and monitor provide exactly the type of supervision we need. Lots of positive feedback. Negative feedback is always given in a thoughtful manner. Both are very understanding and trusting with people who are serious at what they do. And there’s actually a notion of teamwork instead of competition.

I also learn a lot about myself. Not completely new things. Validation of what I thought of myself.

One is voice. My voice happens to be a valuable tool. Oh, I did notice this before. When I was in high school, some people kept telling me that I should become a news anchor or radio announcer because of my voice. The fact that I still had more of a European accent probably counted but it also had to do with actual voice quality. People thought I had a radio voice.

As shallow as it sounds, I do like my speaking voice. Not that it’s “the best voice ever” or that people stop me to tell me about my voice. But I do like the way I sound, overall. My voice used to be more pleasing than it is now. My GERD has had some detrimental effects on my voice. Especially my singing voice. But my voice is still pleasing enough that I receive positive feedback about it, on occasion.

The thing about my voice isn’t that it’s so good. But it’s a versatile voice and I do use it as a tool. It seems that I can adapt it to different situations, which is very useful.

Given my interests in acoustic anthropology, it should be no surprise that I think about voice fairly frequently. After all, I’m an audio guy. Like Steven Feld in Music Grooves, I wonder about the voice work of those women working for erotic phone lines. It would, in fact, be fascinating to do an ethnographic study of those workers, with a focus on voice work.

As anyone can guess, voice can also be quite important in teaching. I’m as much of an auditory learner as one can be. So, while teaching, I tend to use my voice for effect instead of other tools. It seems to work rather well with some people but I need to enhance my other teaching methods.

The other main thing doing phone surveys has taught me about myself is how empathetic I can get. Again, I knew this beforehand. I’m the kind of person who has a hard time watching a comedy about someone getting in all sorts of bad situations (“cringe” movies and such). I literally feel for them. When I watched The Sixth Sense, I felt the bullet enter my body.

Oh, sure. We’re all like that. But I get the feeling that my empathy levels are a bit extreme, at times.

Hannah Arendt would probably have said some negative things about this “personality trait” of mine. But I’ve learned to accept it.

What does this have to do with doing surveys on the phone? Quite a bit, actually. There are projects on which I can be very productive, mostly because of empathy. People hear that I care. Because I do care. A few other projects, I’m almost unable to do because of empathy. I need to get the feeling that those surveys can actually help improve the service people get. And I loathe being annoying to people.

On almost every survey I do at my current workplace, I can be very empathetic and it works very well. But I just worked on a project which was clearly annoying to respondents and it made me shrivel. The effect was quite intense. I had to take a long walk on my way back from work because I had realised something important about myself.

Hence this blog entry.