Operations Management

The Secret to Improve the Handling of Customer Requests

Peter Massey 6 min read Download as PDF
The Secret to Improve the Handling of Customer Requests

If you discuss cost savings and problems, it sucks the life out of every debate. Instead, start focusing on how to improve the handling of customer requests. Your front line staff are holding the key. Learn why. And how to start a real change.

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Legends and reputations are seldom made from saving more cost than the next person. Businesses are not grown by saving costs better than the next business.

True, sometimes a bit of austerity is required when profligate or flabby organisations get out of hand, or customers feel the mickey has been taken. But starving the body corporate, beyond a lean covering of muscle, will not lead to fitness. Yet boards often start the conversation with their contact centre director through the lens of costs and managing problems. And like a politician on sullen ground, you are stuck answering questions on the topic you desperately want to avoid.

[Read] - The secret to call center budgeting

Reframe the discussion from costs to opportunities

So the question which poses itself is in fact ‘How do you bring light into the room, add energy to the boardroom and to the assembled company?’ Even the most positive of leaders, can only add energy to the cost saving debate for so long. So start by stopping. What? Stop answering the questions and move the topic on. Watch and learn from your favourite and least favourite politicians. Be genuine, but answer every question with your frame of reference.

Imagine the scene at your weekly operational meeting. The CEO asks his usual openers and questions.

“Did we answer the phones last week?”

Where did we screw up this week?

Have we got enough people for this season?

How are you going to deal with that problem we talked about?

And you open your mouth and the well researched and defended answers start to come forward as usual. Answers, answers. Did you defend your corner well this week?


You open your mouth and ….

It was a bad week for customers, but a great week for the contact centre. Silence.

What can you possibly mean?

Well everyone turned up, the tech all worked and every factor we could control in the contact centre worked. But all those many customers who called in about the ad, they hated the special offer we ran in the Daily Rag because the terms were not explained and when they found out, they felt conned. All the customers loved your idea of donating returns to charity, so we were inundated with questions which we hadn’t been briefed on.  But if you like I can show you how each of your positive ideas performed and what revenues and brand experience they generated? Would you like me to show you?

Now you are talking. To your agenda and in their language. You have magically shouted Harry Potter's famous spell “expelliarmus” without knowing it. But how do you get that information, how do you stop to restart?

Two starting points: the reasons why customers contact us and what our customers are saying. Analysis and intelligence.

Analysis: Why are customers contacting you?

Let’s start with why customers contact you. Everyone does some analysis of this – yes? Well……. But is it consistent, thorough, through the lens of the customer, about their need and how the need came about and who caused it and what customers had to do. Is it a never ending analysis of both unstructured and structured data i.e. the story of what happens to the customer and the associated effect on revenues and experiences. And what the company is spending which it need not spend. And what the cost of not acting is? And who could act – not you – them – your peer group at the board table.

Intelligence: What are the customers' problems?

There’s a simple truth that the customers and the front line staff know what’s happening. And 80% of the time why and what to do about it. All you have to do is listen to them. But doing that with all those moving parts requires rhythm and rigour in how you collect the stories and the data. How it links to why they call. It’s not random.

There’s a further simple truth. Regardless of how you find out, or how many surveys and mechanisms you listen through, the customer only has so many problems. And your front line staff know the most about it, more than a survey will say – however expensive the survey. So use their intelligence. Ask them to switch on their radar and use it well. The job is not only to answer the calls and tweets and chats. But to understand and capture and resolve and publish what they know and learn.

So let’s look at the “how”.

First I want you to imagine the smartest politician you can … alright I give up … the smartest business person you know. Why are they smart?

I’ll suggest 4 reasons:

  • they ask smart questions which frame, challenge and cause good conversations
  • they tell good, memorable stories
  • they have evidence for their arguments
  • they evidently listen carefully before making decisions, but they do make decisions

So when considering how we should use analytics and intelligence, let’s bear your smart person icon in mind.

Determine the recurring "stories" why customers are calling

So now, this week, please consider the following “exam questions”:

What would our customers rather be doing when they contact us?

  • Is the answer: “Anything else but contacting us”
  • Is that answer true all the time? If not, then when?

To help address the exam questions, to show your working out if you will, see if you can believe in the following 3 ideas for a moment:

  • 20 to 25 customer stories will tell us all we need to know
  • our frontline staff know all these stories; and more than this, they know why they happen
  • our 25 stories cast “data shadows" … they leave shadow, a trail of data that can be read

So are you with me, so far?

Here goes with an example …

Each reason for contact is a story of why Barbara isn’t out shopping or playing football. Of why Freddie has had to take his eye off the baby and ring you.

For example: I don’t understand my bill (1)” might be the name of this story as told by our front line staff in the contact centre and the store.

The story is that people do not understand debits and credits and even when they do, the way they are used on our statements, makes them think it’s the other way around. So they call to check if and what they owe, when in fact there is nothing to pay or do. It’s nearly always resolved first time, but it annoys loyal customers who forget and phone regularly – they are made to feel repeatedly dumb.

We do nothing about it because the format of the statement is locked into our crumbling systems. It drives our staff nuts, and they want to know why we at least don’t include an explanatory leaflet saying you’ve nothing to pay, or to do and why.

What about the “data shadow” of this story? This is our most frequent call type with 23,000 customers calling per week. The call isn’t very long at 2 mins 20 seconds on average. About 20% of them make negative comments and 10% say they’re fed up because they’ve got better things to do. 10% of the customers who contact us leave during the next 3 months (revenue lost every week is £60,000 per month or £35m per annum). 80% do nothing but ring again next time. It is costing just over £50,000 per week or £2.5m this financial year if we do nothing about it.

You can imagine another 20 stories like this, each with a data shadow, covering the things that happen most often. And after a few tellings, the stories can be known by all – front line and board room, middle management and analysts alike.

So let’s say the next few stories are:

  • “I want to change my address”
  • “I don’t understand my statement – it’s actually wrong”
  • “I want to change my fees/tariff"
  • "I don’t understand my statement – it’s correct but the billing cycle means it's out of sync with expectations”

And so on … You can imagine the stories and the data shadows.

So if everybody knows the stories that the front line and the customers know, what do we do with that?

Find solutions for each recurring customer problem to improve service and cut costs

We need a couple of ways to frame the decisions we might make and the actions we should take with this knowledge.

You should create dashboards that bringing together the data with which to see the strategy for each contact type, the size of the prize and who can reach the prize. And to decide what are the costs to do nothing, what it’s worth to do something and who can solve the problem as most problems do not have their root cause in the contact centre. They cause different conversations about contact. Assuming people know the stories behind them. And you have cast the data shadow.

So is the question where to start? When to start?


You probably already have a lot of the customer stories and some of the data. How to refine and pull together what you have into these dashboards and how to get people to talk about it?” That is the question.

Then you’d reach the next exam question, the one which most mature businesses grapple with – how to create a productive flow. From what customers and frontline staff know to the impact of actions taken.

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