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Worldly Wise


Make Sure Speediness Is for the Customers’ Benefit

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

Speed is important, but not in every complaint-handling situation. Speed suggests to those you are helping that they matter to you, that their time is important, and that you are not going to waste any of it. Speed could also suggest that you would like to be rid of them so you can get on to something else—that they are wasting your time. Because speed can be interpreted differently, customer service providers and complaint-handlers, even the payroll-minded ones, must use speed as a tool, not as a rigid rule. 

Speed seems to be one of the most important variables in determining whether complaining customers will be satisfied or dissatisfied with solutions to their problems. However, research conducted in the last 10 years or so suggests that speed is limiting if that is all that is measured. If the service provider’s speed in resolving an issue is provided at the cost of poor personal interaction, then speed alone may have no impact on customer retention after a problem has occurred. Service providers can be too fast in solving problems. 

Let us consider an example. My company, All Out Performance, experienced a problem with an international delivery service. A package we sent to Mexico, at the fastest possible speed, ended up sitting undelivered in the local Mexico City office for three days. Our Mexican client, who needed the package in a hurry, was forced to go to the local office and retrieve the package himself! And this happened only after numerous calls to the local office with promises that the package would be delivered "within the next two hours." Our client heard that message no fewer than eight times over a three-day period. 

After our client finally picked up the package, our product manager called the local U.S. office of this delivery company and explained that we had experienced a problem with a recent package delivery. Before being able to explain one word of what happened, the very efficient customer service representative said, "There will no be charge, of course. I’ll remove the charge from your bill. Thanks very much for calling us.”

The telephone call took less than one minute to resolve the payment problem. But was the problem resolved? Unfortunately, in this situation, speed eliminated the possibility of the local office finding out what had occurred so that it could prevent this problem from happening in the future. But, more importantly, from a satisfaction point of view, our product manager had no chance to explain her frustration. She wanted to tell her story to the company that had caused considerable distress emailing and texting back and forth to Mexico to find out what happened to the time-sensitive package. 

One of the challenges of customer service is that almost every rule or guideline suggested by experts can be poorly applied. Perhaps this giant delivery company, which happens to be an excellent one, was attempting to generate statistics that show how quickly they resolve customer complaints. If this is the case, then service representatives will be motivated to get off the phone before true customer satisfaction has necessarily been attained. 

The tyranny of statistics, while well-intentioned, can actually end up creating other problems. The purpose of speed is to create satisfaction. However, speed can result in not listening to the customer, particularly when frustration has been experienced. If a company's statistics are focused on speed, rather than on satisfying customers or fixing service issues, then problems such as the one described above are easily created. This poses a serious customer service conundrum: Are there any operational rules that can be accurately applied in every situation? The answer is probably no. 

Let us consider a different approach to resolving issues. World-renowned Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles is known for its excellent service. This is true of both its administrative offices, including its billing procedures, and its patient care. I learned of this excellent care firsthand when a family member used its services. Because of my interest in customer service, I talked with several of its staff in the hospital and at the clinics, and on the telephone with administrative staff. I asked what made everything operate so smoothly. I was told that Cedars-Sinai spends a considerable amount of time teaching anyone who works there about the “Cedars-Sinai Way,” a lengthy and robust approach to customer service. 

When I asked what messages were taught in the medical center’s orientation class for new employees, I was told that they make sure they are “complete” with their customers. This means they never leave a customer without making sure that everything has been handled. Obviously, being “complete” takes a little more time. The service provider, clinician, or administrator has to look at and listen to the customer to determine if there is anything left unsaid or if anything is left unfinished. 

What does this mean to your global payroll operation? First, you need to look at every statistic you collect to determine whether you are satisfying your customers. You need to ask if the collection of a certain statistic itself could encourage behaviors that might have the reverse effect of what was intended. Second, it would be a good idea to explore the notion of “being complete” with a customer before saying goodbye. Once your team learns what this means in the payroll service business, they will know how to think through all the potential issues a customer they are helping might face. They will, furthermore, become customer-focused rather than transaction-focused.

If it works at a world-renowned medical center, chances are it might have a positive impact in your business where life-and-death issues are not at play. Professional services, after all, are professional services, whether providing payroll advice and services or medical advice and administrative services. Looking at your service from the standpoint of whether it is complete can only make your professional service operation more sophisticated about the true complexities entailed in providing the best customer service.

JanelleBarlowJanelle Barlow, Ph.D., is a businesswoman, author, media spokesperson, keynote speaker, and seminar leader with more than 30 years of experience in the global marketplace. She is President and Owner of TMI US and TACK-USA, both partners with a multi-national global training and consulting firm.