Your Call is Important to Us: Why customer service must improve

When I started writing this, I was waiting, seething, for someone at Hewlett Packard to pick up the phone to answer a query I had. As I waited, I had to grit and bear, listening to the second most annoying hold music I’ve ever heard. HSBC wins for the worst hold music hands down – I even recorded it last time I was on hold for what felt like a century, so that I could share the pain with you.

In HSBC’s defence, I don’t usually have to wait very long with them, but when I do, I get a hell of a twitch. As for HP, there was no excuse for the lengthy wait times I experienced.

In fact, an HSBC staff member admitted on the call that day that he’d had many complaints about last summer’s choice: Amy Winehouse’s cover of Valerie. He confided that it wasn’t unusual for customers to be in a call queue for half-hour with nothing but a lo-fi version of Valerie as company – Enough to send anyone into mental meltdown. At the very least, it’ll cause your mild annoyance to snowball into a murderous mood by the time the poor call centre guy/gal picks up the phone.

Anyone who has had to call the Applecare phone line will have experienced the same frustration I did when my MacBook casing cracked:

I went through to an Indian (?) call centre where the quality of the phone line was so poor and crackly, I had to shout my MacBook’s serial number six times, with Andrew giggling increasingly with every “E for Echo, L for Lima!”

The amount of time spent repeating information to the call centre was a waste of my time and theirs, and a crackling poor quality phone line caused tempers to rise. Clearly, the relationship between customer and call centre needs to change.

What’s wrong with the current relationship?

  1. Businesses need to value existing customers
  2. Generally calls to call centres are made by EXISTING customers. Is it any surprise then that it takes five times longer (scientific finger-in-the-air statistic) for calls from already-acquired customers to be answered, versus nearly instant answer for the new-customers-only line? Businesses need to stop treating existing customers like crap based on the assumption that we’re tied in with them.

    The “Brand new customers only” approach doesn’t work anymore.

  3. New technology needs to be adopted more widely
  4. If Online Chat widgets were more commonplace on business sites, I’d often be just as satisfied to ask my questions that way. However, in my experience, the staff answering questions on online chat are often under-informed and working based on a very strict data sheet, most often leading to a conclusion that I’ll need to call the sales line to get an answer to my question.

    Some businesses have embraced services like Twitter as an informal customer service channel, and their success is usually proportional to the efforts they’ve put in; a consistent and regular response to questions, rather than the occasional outburst will no doubt have a positive impact. But reality is that not everyone’s on Twitter, so while I enjoy seeing businesses use it, I also want to see the more mainstream services like corporate websites and call centres acknowledge that new technology can help make customers happy, albeit at a cost.

  5. Staff need to be encouraged to have a friendlier approach
  6. Treating customers like liars, making them guilty until proven otherwise is a nasty way to start a relationship so while it’s fair to ask for a proof of purchase receipt in order to provide a refund or ask callers to provide identification details before answering questions, customer service needs to be friendly, approachable and proactive in wanting to solve the customer’s issue.

    No more robot-like scripts or refusing to escalate the call to managers who can take action, the entire team’s objectives should be to create happy customers, resolving problems and using common sense to solve them in a timely, cost-effective way.

While working on this post, I came across David Cushman’s customer service manifesto, and Heidi Miller’s post who flagged up BL Ochman’s bad customer service experience over a $34.32 accounting error.

How would you improve customer service online, on the phone or in person?

17 thoughts on “Your Call is Important to Us: Why customer service must improve

  1. Terence Eden

    I’ve just opted out of following the procedures that call centres make you go through.

    I either
    1) Ring the new customer line. The staff there answer quicker and (usually) have access to the same systems as their colleagues in customer service.
    2) For banks / credit cards, I ring the “Lost or Stolen” number. I get through after a few rings.
    3) For airlines etc I ring the First Class reservation line – even if I’m enquiring about my £50 bring-your-own-packed-lunch class flight.
    4) The words “please be aware that *I* am recording this call” can often help – even if you’re not recording.
    5) Don’t be afraid to say “Can I speak to your manager.” The number of times I’ve been told “My manager will say the same thing as me” is stunning – especially when the manager says something different.
    6) Pay call centre workers more. There’s nothing you or I can do about this other than purchasing more expensive goods. Think about it – you and I would probably make excellent call centre workers – for the 5% of customers like us. But would you be happy working for minimum wage?

  2. Lewis King

    Every time I phone up apple, I get sent to an UK call centre. I’m not sure if what I do helps? I phone up a store, and if I remember correctly, press 2 for applecare. I’m then sent on my way over to them, without it costing me anything. (Thanks Apple Store guy for that tip!)

    O2 are also very good with their call centres. They’re english and very helpful. No long queues, no hassle. But I have had my fair share of bad ones.

  3. Heidi Miller


    In particular, #3 is the sticking point, I believe. We all know that staff needs to be friendlier, but how? I believe that companies like Zappos have the answer: create a corporate culture in which one-call resolution and fantastic customer service is rewarded. When employees are told that being friendly is a good idea, some will; some will let their bad days get to them. When employees are hired for their attitudes and rewarded at every turn for their fantastic energy and drive, every single employee will be friendly over the phone, guaranteed.

    So it’s more than paying lip service to good customer service. Friendliness is about creating and promulgating a corporate culture that notices and generously rewards it.

  4. Rob Waters

    Here in North America, TomTom provide excellent customer service through their Call Centre located in Concord Massachusetts. You may have to wait a while during peak times (with a 40-second loop of horrible hold music), but once you get a person, they will stick with you until your issue is resolved – no matter how long it takes. Their philosophy is to do it right the first time so the customer doesn’t have to call back.

    Their customer service agents are personable and genuine in their desire to help.

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  7. Stuart Ian Burns

    Having worked in three call centres, here’s the problem I have with #3.

    In call centres your average staff member can take up to a hundred to a hundred and fifty calls *per day*. Each will be sent through abruptly into your ear straight after the one before, usually after a ping in their ear or in banks a voice telling them the kind of card the person is calling about. It’s a conveyor belt of calls, all different and if it’s a busy period, each customer testy having had to wait on the line for a good long while.

    In that situation, with that many customers coming through and because you’re trying to balance customer service with the business imperative it’s extraordinarily difficult not to sound tired and to be “friendly, approachable and proactive” all day. I was all of those things 90% of the time; I helped to advise other workers on how to improve their own approach.

    But sometimes you can feel like a fairground boxer going rounds upon rounds with total strangers trying their hardest to knock you over. If you start taking calls at 9:00 in the am and your first call is bad, one of those calls where nothing you said was right, where there was nothing you could do and you were screamed at (which happened a lot) it was very difficult to pull yourself together in time for the very next call with the next perfectly nice customer.

    That first call might play on your mind for the rest of the day impacting on all the service you’re offering, your mind forever thinking back and trying to decide if there was something you could have done to make the situation better, even if, much of the time, there wasn’t because the thing had escalated beyond anything you could have done even before you got there.

    Which isn’t necessarily a weakness. It means you care. You want to do your best for the customer. But working in a call centre can be a frustrating business because you can’t solve every problem even if the answer seems perfectly simply because the business isn’t designed that way. Oh the stories I could tell.

    In addition if an advisor refuses to escalate a call to a manager it’s often because they truly can’t. In some call centres its what the team coach does, it’s how they spend their day. In others they will not take escalations under any circumstances. It’s never consistent either. I worked in three call centres and they all had different procedures. Which was confusing for me.

    All of which said, I too have had to horrible customer service experiences and there are some truly rotten advisors out there and sometimes its not their fault. They’ve either had precious little training before being slung on the phones (which happens a lot if they’ve been brought in from an agency) or they’ve been worn down by a culture in which the caller *expects* that they’ll be rubbish and treat them that way and whatever the culture is like in the office where they’re not being treated like a human being.

    1. Vero

      Thanks for your comment Stuart, and for the insight into what it’s like to work in a call centre. Many of the call centre staff I’ve spoken to have been, like you, people who care and who WANT to be helpful. In fact, they probably make up the majority.

      Your comments back up the fact that it’s not call centre staff, but rather the management and whole “call centre” concept, that must be overhauled. When people like you want to be helpful but don’t have the resources to do it (either time, access to information or a way to keep in touch with the customer at a later time), it’s down to management to review the process.

      Callers become frustrated because they have to wait, are faced with helpless staff and are unable to resolve their issues in one phone call. Meanwhile staff are frustrated by their powerlessness. All in all, it’s a bad scene!

      As part of my work with clients, I like to look into how we can change relationships between staff and customers, as there’s often so much potential. Of course, it’s not always possible immediately, but if both internal and external people raise the issue, it’s been known to get things into motion for positive change. So be sure to let your managers know when you’re feeling that way and change things from the inside. 🙂

  8. Outsmarts

    Good customer service is the exception rather than the norm these days unfortunately. Thanks to the Internet we expect instantaneous results and when they don’t materialize we get frustrated. Companies need to recognize this and put processes in place to mitigate customer frustration.

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  10. Sojourner

    I worked 2 years in a Call Center (in mexico) providing support for a computer manufacturer.
    In my experience, policies, procedures and metrics are the key.
    I worked as a service rep and as a support agent and there was a difference in the general mood and in the way agents treat customers: It depends of the metrics you are required to achieve: Revenue per Call, Customer satisfaction, Average hold time, etc.If i’m not paid to help the customer but to sell , or if QA is not that important, you might guess what I’ll do.
    Most of agents don’t care about customer retention: the job is so tiring that maybe they won’t be there next year.
    OTOH, if CRM function is outsouced in India, Mexico and Argentina, I don think corporations really care about the customer.

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  15. Paul

    In the last couple of days I have called, and been called by, several HSBC banking staff who are not based in the UK (I know this for sure because I asked them). It was noticeable that they sounded slightly slow and ‘robotic’. A dreary monotone in a weird science fiction accent, like nothing I’ve ever heard before. All colour and human quality had gone. They are definitely real people, but I suspect HSBC might be using voice-changing software in their foreign call centres to try and reduce the strong local accents that make many foreign support staff difficult to understand.

    Either that or HSBC have opened a call centre in a new country where everyone speaks monotone English as though they were in a drug-induced trance.

    I don’t like discussing my private financial affairs with anonymous, low-paid people in Third World countries who I can’t understand easily, so I now politely refuse to talk to them at all. Usually the Telephone or Internet Banking helpline numbers go through to HSBC people in the UK, so I ring these regardless of what my enquiry is.

  16. Annmarie

    I have been speaking with HP technicians over the past two days, and at first was impressed that they were Americans – and encouraged that HP would help with our current employment crisis by coming back to an American labor force….but after dealing with 3 separate male technicians, I am now convinced that they are using voice changing software – robotic, unidentifiable, and the dead-give away, people speaking and laughing in indian in the background…

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