Renewable Service in Disposable Industries

“Please state your date of birth.”

A few feet in front of me, an elderly woman looked up at a young cashier. Stunned and flustered, the elegant matron asked “Why do you need to know my date of birth?” The cashier deadpanned, “Halo 3 is rated M for Mature: I can’t sell it to you without entering a birthday in the system.” The grandmother sighed, looked down, and spoke her birthdate. She is 71 years old.

From retail to finance, Customer Service policies have devolved into absurdity. Earlier this week, I wrote about how my bank seems to have built “planned inconveniences” into their customer retention strategy. These two experiences demonstrate just how deeply the “Disposable Leadership” paradigm has polluted the service world.

I’ve recently begun to write about ways we can drive Renewable Leadership in a Disposable World. In this post, I want to suggest some ways in which a brand’s Customer Service practices reveal the sustainability level of the underlying business. Because my customer service experience is primarily with contact centers, the examples will come from that arena.

Disposable Service

The disposable organization is optimized for quarterly profits, not long-term growth. For this reason, in the disposable enterprise:

  1. Average Handle Time (AHT) is more respected than Customer Satisfaction (CSAT)
  2. Time to Resolution (TTR) matters more than Net Promoter Score (NPS)
  3. The cheapest possible labor is sought: Aptitude is a distant second to wage requirements

Because the goal is to control costs, not to build loyalty, the disposable customer service organization:

  • Hides their 800 number and makes their Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system impenetrable
  • Requires the customer to repeat all their authentication tokens with each transfer
  • Makes the caller regret they bothered, incenting them to never annoy the Contact Center again

Renewable Service

The renewable organization is optimized for long-term growth and the health of all entities involved, including shareholders, employees and customers. For this reason, in the renewable enterprise:

  1. The customer service strategy is proactive and preventative, not “break-fix”
  2. The customer service group exists to protect (or restore) positive emotions toward the brand
  3. They leadership wants to “spray the new car smell” back on the Customer Experience

Because the over-arching goal is to build customer loyalty, the renewable contact center:

  • Listens TO customers rather than reading AT them
  • Keeps any and all authentication information and case records up on the screen during transfers
  • Gives the Customer Service Representative leeway to restore happiness without escalations

Making the Shift

A renewable contact center rewards CSRs for delighting the customer, respects the customer’s time and drives retention. I know many of you work in customer service, and have ideas on how to drive renewable thinking into the industries that sorely need it. I welcome you to share other disposable practices you’ve observed, other renewable practices you admire, or ways to transition from the former to the latter.

13 Responses to “Renewable Service in Disposable Industries”

  1. Goodness, me…that poor woman. This is a sad example of customer service in reverse — where the customer must adjust to “serve” the process. And there is a lot more where that came from: customers stuck with products they don’t want, burdened with products that don’t work, denied discounts, forced to give information that has nothing to do with the issue at hand, inundated with complex and confusing paperwork — because that’s what the system requires…or that’s the way the cash registers are programmed…or that’s all I’m authorized to do…or that’s when the agreement says it can or can’t happen.

    Those in the back office also face similar instances of this inflexibility. Layers of paperwork, along with complex, rigid, and confusing naming conventions all have an indirect impact on the ability to serve customers quickly and effectively.

    Thanks again for driving home the critical need to make the path clear to hear and truly serve customers!

  2. Melissa Kovacevic December 13, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    Tristan, what a fabulous post! You’ve ID’d so many unfortunately common bad service practices I love the “planned inconvenience” term These rigid & poorly designed policies are often “enforced” by employees with poor skills, minimal coaching by overworked or equally disinterested supervisors and an upper management claiming Customer Experience is priority but who reward numbers instead of quality service and customer satisfaction.

    • Thanks so much, Melissa!

      I know that your work helps many contact centers to move beyond the disposable and into renewable strategies that will ensure their long-term success. I’m always delighted to see professionals like you making an impact on behalf of the customers.

      When leaders set their minds to reward what matters, team behavior will align accordingly.


  3. Great post, you may be leading a revolution. I’m curious how the new “social paradigm” fits into this puzzle. Is it possible for a customer service organization to meet “cost center” and “contact center” goals and still delight the customer? How can we use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to meet halfway? What about other channels like “knowledge centered support” driven from online channels? In other words, as we lead to the revolution, can we find ways to meet in the middle using new technologies and paradigms to meet all goals?

    Also, I think in our efforts to cut costs we’ve removed empowerment, the essence of this point: “Gives the Customer Service Representative leeway to restore happiness without escalations”. This about empowerment, have you heard the story of the JetBlue rep that ended up spending 160k to move disgruntled, displaced passengers to a flight on a competing airline?. This is an extreme example (and certainly may be too far for most organizations) none the less, it shows the “power” of “empowerment”. The employee delighted the customers (and though difficult to measure, perhaps in the long run made more money for the brand than he spent). Contrast this with the recent incident of the flight attendant on JetBlue that went off the deep end (including an expensive trip down an emergency slide and into a jail cell)… What changed? Why did that employee feel trapped instead of empowered? How do we get to balance? In order to convince leaders that this is the way, don’t we need to balance the message of service and empowerment with fiscal responsibility and demonstrate the value to the brand in the marketplace?… You have one part of the equation here… can this community develop the other two parts? (framework + empowerment + fiscal control = brand affinity in the marketplace?… I’m proposing the equation, fill it with holes)… 🙂

    • Thanks again for your excellent comments, Ryan!

      I believe that social media platforms are simply additional customer service channels that either make sense for a brand or not, depending on customer usage patterns. For brands whose customers use twitter, it makes a ton of sense to add a twitter channel to the support portfolio. TSIA stats are showing that text-based channels are taking share from phone in greater percentages each year. Of course, email is largest followed by chat, Web-based KB self-service and then social. But I expect the order to be social, chat, self-serv and email within a few years.

      I absolutely believe that a service business can delight the customer cost effectively, provided they take a wholistic approach. Unlike telephone or email support, a social support interaction (on Twitter or FaceBook) is public-facing and, thus, creates a marketing impression. The visible value of watching a customer move from detractor to promoter is probably worth the cost of staffing to facilitate the transaction. Brands that understand the relationship between marketing and social tech support will probably gain share in their respective industries.

      Your JetBlue stories are compelling. I can’t help but wonder what happened after the expensive but positive service incident that prompted the fussy flight attendant not to bother?

      I think balance comes when leadership understands renewable retention: I wrote the big picture piece for this line of thinking on another site, the LeadChange blog: (

      Basically, when the C-suite views beyond the current quarter, at the overall long-term health of their brand, they may be inclined to rework their operational structures. Techcomm may combine or align with support. Neither will be a cost-center. Both will be part of the over-arching goal to create and keep happy and vocal brand advocates.

      • One of the reasons I bring up the social channel is b/c I am increasingly reading about CS teams that seem more empowered in these channels, and I don’t understand why they would be and the phone CSRs would not be (maybe the phone CSRs are outsourced?). An example I read just today:

        I wonder how to quantify this, realizing the bulk of the CS traffic won’t come from Twitter not withstanding, extending this “extraordinary” empowerment ACROSS the entire CS team, at the end of 1 year, or 3 years can one quantify the effect and brand affinity against the actual cost? NPS is only part of the picture, I don’t think anyone is EVEN TRYING to put these numbers together despite the compelling evidence that current technology trends have afford us… This to me seems CRIMINAL both to their customer and their board. Anyway, my 2 cents, lead the charge brother but I am not convinced I can even get the C-Suite to care unless I can quantify the brand affinity against the cost of the contact center and demonstrate, unequivocally that CS, especially in our modern times, is not just a differentiator but is in fact a profit center and should be treated as such (i.e. as a sales organization is for example)… Commissions for saving a customer anyone? (/end rant)

      • WordPress won’t let me reply to your reply at 4:46 PM. How odd. I’ll post it here:

        I would guess that the social CSR is more empowered because of the incredible visibility of the transaction. Brands can’t afford to risk staffing social channels with low-level employees. I’m seeing the social channel staffed with high-skilled technical professionals. A 1/1 phone call can go poorly with little risk to the brand value. But a poorly executed social support transaction can become a national story in minutes.

        I don’t think I’ll have to convince anyone to care: One embarassingly visible brand-thrashing incident will get that done. I’m hoping to prompt the good-hearted to be proactive, to spare them the fallout of being publically exposed.

        I don’t know if we can quantify ROI yet, but I have lots of statistics on retention and attrition costs. We do believe that, like Major League Baseball, technical support needs a “Save” stat. Sales may be Babe Ruth, but Support is Goose Gossage.

  4. My take is that not all organizations saddled with a grossly inconvenient voice mail or customer service process purposely set out to do it that way, Often these were probably designed by programmers with no experience in the area, with only sketchy requirements, and only cursory review.

    A more thorough review, some usability testing, or even a couple of people with customer service experience, common sense, and a flow chart could have eliminated a lot of the bottlenecks and roadblocks to good customer service in such systems. However the rush implementation, and the short-term net profit mindset of many in middle management makes them unlikely to authorize even a modest expenditure to improve things.

    • Thanks so much for your input, Margaret!

      I think you’re right that not all of the trouble was intentional. When facing issues of this nature, I usually try to drill down to the root cause. It’s unlikely that “planned inconvenience” is done at the customer-facing levels.

      Excellent points! I look forward to talking with you more on these matters in days ahead. You clearly understand the intricacies of the profession!


  5. This is very interesting. I love it. It makes me think of two instances:

    1) I go to a local coffee shop a lot (I’m the Mayor on Foursquare). One of the baristas told me one day that they did something earlier and have a free drink to give away and they decided to give it to me. I wasn’t exactly sure what happened, but nonetheless, I was getting a free coffee.

    It made me think. What if baristas/people at the register were *empowered* to give away 1 free drink a week? It could be to that loyal regular, or some random stranger. It’s a shift in marketing dollars from blasting a message out via mailers to implanting a story for someone to tell their friends. I think we both know which one is more powerful.

    2) I was exploring the area where I work for lunch one day and decided to try out a new place. The waitress took longer than normal to take my order and left me sitting outside for a while. I was in a relaxed mood and didn’t mind too much. But she minded. I was going to pay and didn’t have my business credit card with me and I was wondering if she would be able to use the credit card number from a photo I took (on my phone). It was my card, I was partly just testing the waters to see what could and could not be done. Well, she wouldn’t let me pay, and took the bill from me, and said to pay next time. I came back to pay a week later and she said she comped it because of the bad service.

    Reverse. What she did she did because she recognized the poor service. But WHAT IF restaurants gave free food to first timers? Or a discount? By her saying “pay us later” she built trust in me… real fast. As a business, trust is built from consistency in food and positive experiences. But, her “pay it later” mindset with the correct card built up trust in me real fast. They assumed I’d come back. And if I was, I’d probably eat again.

    Although both instances were minor, they made me more aware. What if the front lines were empowered with several different ways to WOW a customer? Both of the above instances, I believe, were accidents and not fueled by intentionality… but what if they were? What a fascinating discussion.

    • Such a great suggestion, Matt.

      Wise brands do empower front line staff to surprise and delight customers, using their own best judgement.

      Nordstrom’s are well known for allowing their staff to make customer-centric choices, in real time, without management approval

      I’ve read that Ritz-Carlton allows their workers an “empowerment fund” to resolve customer issues. Shep Hyken covers this here, actually:

      He writes:

      “Every Ritz-Carlton employee is empowered to spend up to $2,000 per guest, per day to resolve issues, nurture the customer relationship, and ensure that guests value their experience at the highest level.”

      Wow, indeed!


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