Tag Archives: customer service representatives

Praises for AT&T

Wow!

I’m impressed.

No, I’m not a shill for AT&T. And I’m not even an AT&T customer yet.

So, what am I impressed by?

Customer service.

Quality of customer service.

Customer service representatives who do their job well.

Instead of just assuming that it should happen all the time and complain when it doesn’t, I get really impressed when it happens. Call me weird or naïve. Really, I don’t mind. I’m funny that way.

So…

My wife and I are moving to Austin, TX in a couple of weeks. She’s currently in NoHo, Massachusetts while I’m in Montreal, Qc. Because she doesn’t currently have her “social” for the U.S., I was to order phone and broadband services. We basically don’t need anything else, besides electricity.

Shopped around a bit. Asked some people over there about alternatives. People who are currently with AT&T said they had no problem with it. Someone with MCI is thinking of switching back to AT&T. Some people gave me more specific advice on plans, including measured service.

For one thing, AT&T’s phone plans are very affordable. Hard to beat, even. Measured service is exactly what we need as we’ll be making very few calls. It’s mostly a way to get incoming calls and have a landline for emergencies. I might end up with a cellphone at some point, but not right away.

Broadband isn’t too different. As someone said, broadband is pretty much a commodity so, unless there’s a very specific issue, any provider would do. I’ve been using DSL with Bell for a while and it’s quite decent. AT&T’s DSL plans are, again, very affordable and quite flexible. Better yet, the plans have no term commitment.

So I was pretty much set. I wanted to get a measured line as our primary residential phone line and the “Pro DSL” package (3Mbps).

Started the ordering process online. Entered our new home’s address. Wasn’t in the database. Spelled out the street number instead of using a digit and the address was found. But with the wrong zip code. Not slightly wrong, as from a neighbourhood close by. Completely wrong. Hundreds of miles away. But the city name was right. Didn’t want to risk it so I decided to complete the order with some assistance.

While doing all of this, a floating box appeared on the page to allow me to chat with a CSR. Normally, such a box might be quite annoying. But, in this case, it was exactly what I needed.

So I chatted with a CSR named Rachel. Got straightforward answers to all questions I had. One advantage of doing this kind of thing through chat is that it’s easy to copy and paste. Plus, you don’t get issues with trying to perceive tone or anything. It works.

I still needed to call customer service if I wanted to check the address from the database. Seemed perfectly reasonable. I could have proceeded with an online order but I really wanted to make sure everything was set right.

So I called the toll-free number, using Skype. (My headset is quite comfortable.)

Contrary to the experience most people have on most occasions, the voice-activated system was actually quite good. Very conversational and natural. Did a good job at recognizing everything which would be in a restricted list (numbers, place names, yes/no answers…). The recognition of a free-form answer was trickier but the NLP itself was quite efficient. It’s just that it’s difficult to pinpoint an issue like the one I was having with a few words. What’s more interesting, though, is that the system “failed gracefully.” Not only did it allow me to try another way to phrase my issue but it provided different examples every time. The nice little added touch was that, the first time it failed to understand my query, it asked “Did I get that right?” and when I answered “no” it actually said “My mistake.” Sounds really silly, but little things like that do help.

I got my query right the third time (by broadening it) and, after confirmation that this was what I wanted, I was directed to a CSR. Waiting time was less than a minute.

At this point, I just wanted to get information about the database entry for our address. My expectations were fairly low. But the CSR did exactly what he needed to do. (Didn’t catch his name. Given his accent, I would be very surprised if he weren’t from the U.S.) While I was just calling to make sure the address was right, I ended up ordering the services directly through the CSR. I may have missed on a deal but I really think it was worth it. The CSR was that good.

What did this CSR do so right? Simple things.

  • He adopted exactly the right tone with me, neither patronizing nor “salesmanish.”
  • He adopted the appropriate “colloquial yet respectful” form of speech.
  • He solved the database issue very efficiently.
  • He understood exactly what I wanted. Right away, he understood that the phone line I wanted was the most basic one.
  • He never tried to upsell me on anything. In fact, he reassured me that I might not need a protection plan for the lines in our new place.
  • He was frank about what the complimentary calling card would be. (I’m still getting it and I’m sure I’ll use it in an emergency, despite the ridiculously high rates charged.)
  • He explained everything he was doing.
  • He never put me on hold.
  • He explained every detail of each plan I was ordering.
  • He answered questions I didn’t even realize I wanted to ask.
  • He did everything his job required him to do.

I fully realize that many an administrator would look at this list and think that this CSR should get reprimanded or even fired. Especially since he was frank with me and never tried to upsell me on anything. But what many an administrator doesn’t seem to understand is that this quality of customer service goes a long way to bring in faithful customers.

I think that one key here is “basic psychology” and the importance of context. This CSR was able to adapt to my “style” right away. His strategy might not have worked with somebody else. But I’m actually convinced that he would have adapted his strategy according to my reactions. The exact opposite of “cookie cutter solutions.” Customized, personalized, tailored service. As if we were doing business in a small store.

Naysayers will say that my experience was positive because I was actually ordering a service. It will surely go downhill from there. That’s quite possible but, if it does, we will just switch our services to some other company. Not having a term commitment is very valuable, in this case. Besides, I will likely not have to do business with them directly very frequently, unless the services stop working. And the prices are low enough that our stakes in the matter are also quite low.

One reason I’m thinking so much about this is that I have done phone surveys about CSRs in the past. In fact, the surveys were about a phone company. When I completed the order and ended my call to customer service, I was thinking about my answers to survey questions (if I ever get asked). What is sad about surveys is that it’s impossible to give anyone any insight as to what, to me, constitutes excellent customer service. Sure, the ethnographer in me has to say this. But I think it goes beyond the differences in research methodology.

I just wish more people were to understand needs of different people.


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?