There was a full-blooded attack on poor customer service experience yesterday evening on the BBC’s One Show Watchdog concession. The gist of the episode was that many organisations seem to be remarkably unwilling to allow customers to use email as a channel with which to communicate, and this results in people having to spend interminable hours stuck on call queuing systems or Webchat. You can see for yourself here: (from 16’20”).

The customer desire of not wanting to use real-time channels (because you can’t do much else when you’re stuck waiting on a phone) but to have asynchronous channels answered in a reasonable time frame seems perfectly reasonable. The One Show’s analysis that it’s merely service providers wanting to keep their costs down doesn’t sound like it’s too far from the mark either, but there is probably something slightly more complicated going on that steps us into the realm of “wicked” problems.

Let’s imagine that you have a customer service team of 10 people. You have phone calls and emails both coming in to you. You are measured on metrics including how long it takes customer service team members to answer the phone, the telephone drop-out rate (who hangs up before their call is answered), the response time from email receipt to it being answered, and general customer happiness. These aren’t necessarily the right measures, and of course they don’t define what success looks like either. But that’s the sort of metric-focus that CS teams are often given without clarity necessarily of “Why?”.

At average rates of calls and emails, you allocate 6 people to the phones and 4 people to email. Phones are more likely to see bursts in activity, and when they do peak, you shift people over the phone as they are multi-talented. At exceptionally busy times you might have all 10 answering the phones, especially because you have targets in the realm of days for answering the emails. Unfortunately, because you have stopped answering the emails entirely, call volumes continue to increase because alongside everything else you now have people phoning up to ask why you haven’t answered their email. Hilarity ensues – or appearances on prime-time national television consumer rights programmes.

Email should be easier to deal with because of the same reason why some customers choose to use it – it’s asynchronous. But because resource allocation is always in competition with real-time channels, the asynchronous channel always gets second priority and backlogs build up as a result.

It’s a familiar scenario to anyone who works in an IT support role and is also being expected to play a part in a project. It never ends well because the day-to-day operational support always gets in the way of the project work. Separate project and operations teams therefore are created.

The only time I’ve seen a solution to the customer contact challenge is back in my time at the BBC. Emails were dealt with by a specific team in Belfast who were not able to be reallocated to phone duty because they didn’t have access to the phones. From a management perspective this is counter-intuitive because surely multi-skilled teams are better because they are more flexible? Well, maybe they’re not…

One thought on “The trouble with being email

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