Improving Customer Service Over the Phone "Your call is important to us," companies always say when you reach their recorded telephone line. But what kind of customer service do they really provide? Corporate trainers are working to improve service on the telephone. And call center operators describe what it's like on their end of the phone.

Improving Customer Service Over the Phone

Improving Customer Service Over the Phone

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"Your call is important to us," companies always say when you reach their recorded telephone line. But what kind of customer service do they really provide? Corporate trainers are working to improve service on the telephone. And call center operators describe what it's like on their end of the phone.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

If you ever have to call your bank, the cable company or any other good-sized business, you've probably heard a message like this one:

Unidentified Woman #1: All customer calls are recorded to insure quality service.

NORRIS: But a recent survey suggests only about half of all customers are satisfied with the quality of service they've received over the telephone.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Desiree Hanes(ph) spent more than a decade answering phones in a busy call center. Now she's a phone-pro, a traveling consultant who trains other operators. One of the first things Hanes does when she visits a new client is listened in on the way they handle phone calls - either in person or on tape.

(Soundbite of beeping)

Unidentified Woman #2: Good morning, customer service.

Unidentified Woman #3: Hi. I'm not sure why but I've just received notice that my credit card account has been closed and I'm being reported to collections.

HORSLEY: Hanes says these training tapes were copied verbatim from real customer calls with only the names of the companies removed.

Unidentified Woman #2: You didn't pay your January bill.

Unidentified Woman #3: You - yes, I did. I'm holding my cancelled check in my hand.

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, then you have to mail a copy of that to us.

Unidentified Woman #3: Can I fax it instead?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #3: So what's the fax number?

Unidentified Woman #2: Hold on a sec.

(Soundbite of clicking)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #3: I can't believe this.

Ms. HANES: This is a real dizzy(ph) of an example of poor service. She would have been better off to just stay home that day.

HORSLEY: Hanes says even when the message is unpleasant like a missing payment, the messenger doesn't have to be.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Unidentified Woman #4: Customer service, can I help you?

Mr. LARRY JOHNSON(ph) (Caller): Yeah, I need to know the balance in my checking account.

Unidentified Woman #4: Name and soc(ph)?

Mr. JOHNSON: It's Larry Johnson, 210-98-7557.

(Soundbite of typing)

Unidentified Woman #4: 356.72.

HORSLEY: When Hanes plays this tape for her call-center students, they often write the service as fairly good. After all, the customer got what he wanted. But Hanes insists that's not good enough.

Ms. HANES: She's got to give him the bank balance, that's what she's there for. But today's customers are looking for experiences. You know, she wasn't any better than a robot.

HORSLEY: And robots aren't what most people want. Three out of five people surveyed by the Accenture consulting firm complained there's a growing use of automated telephone attendants in the last five years, has not improved service. What's more? When customers need help from a company, they're still far more likely to go to the telephone than send an email, turn to a Web site or visit the business in person. Unfortunately when the phone rings, many companies drop the ball.

Ms. NANCY FRIEDMAN (President, Telephone Doctor): It is amazing how much money goes down the drain because of how people are answering their phones and how they're not grabbing the opportunity to capture the call as we like to say it.

HORSLEY: That's Nancy Friedman, who bills herself as the Telephone Doctor. She coaches telephone reps in how to put a smile in their voice and build rapport over the phone. Even more than courtesy, she says, operators who make an average of $10 to $16 an hour need more training so they can actually help callers with their needs.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: They don't want to get bounce from department to department. They don't want voice mail. They won't want an automated attendant. They want a human being to help them, and so what we're trying to instill to our people who we train is that one call does it all.

HORSLEY: Getting bounced around and having to repeat themselves was the second biggest complaint telephone customers cited in that Accenture survey. Number one, getting left too long on hold.

Unidentified Woman #5: Apparently, all our customer service representatives are busy. We expect to assist you within the next two to three minutes. Thank you for your patience.

(Soundbite of typing)

HORSLEY: Here at the call center for San Diego Gas and Electric, a tote board flashes updates on how many customers are waiting on hold and how long they've been there. The utility tries to field 80 percent of its calls within one minute.

Operators here handle about three million service calls every year.

Unidentified Woman #5: (Unintelligible) because up to 12 hours as long as you keep your door shut. So we do have someone out there working on that now. Thank you for calling.

HORSLEY: Most problems are easily dealt with by fixing a billing error or waving a fee. Setting up a payment plan can be more challenging and some calls are simply random. Like the woman who reached operator Shitara Thrower(ph).

Ms. SHITARA THROWER (Customer Representative, San Diego Gas and Electric): She came on the line. She was upset. And she was like there's a kangaroo in my yard and it kicked me. And I'm like okay, Ms. Such-and-so, help me understand how can I help you. What does the kangaroo have to do with your gas and electric bill?

HORSLEY: Thrower tries to take imaginary kangaroos in stride and not to take it personally when there is an angry caller on the line. After six years of working in the call center, she says, she's a lot more fussy when it's her turn to call a company on the phone.

Ms. THROWER: Let me tell you a critique times 10,000. I'm like oh they have me on hold too long. Oh they're not being friendly. I'd just - I'm looking for something.

HORSLEY: Thrower also keeps an ear out for exceptionally good telephone service. If Accenture's survey is any indication, there's lot of room for improvement.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

SIEGEL: According to some people, it won't be long before those call center workers will be edged out of their jobs by even smarter voice recognition systems. Here's a man who makes the software that makes machines sound like people.

Mr. PETER MAHONEY (Vice President, Worldwide Marketing for Nuance Communications): I'm Peter Mahoney. And I'm the vice president of Worldwide Marketing for Nuance Communications.

SIEGEL: Mahoney says the computers that reply to questions as if they were human are getting faster, better and smarter.

Mr. MAHONEY: Probably within a decade or so, I think you'd actually be able to have an intelligent conversation.

SIEGEL: So we may be within a decade of meeting professor Alan Turing's 1950 test of machine intelligence. Turing, the father of modern computer science, created this standard - a human judge converses with two parties - one a human, the other a machine - and the judge cannot tell the difference.

Well, that started us thinking, oh be it in our plotting human way, and what we were thinking was what can we ask the most sophisticated service rep robot that only a human could answer? We can say that a computer could master any fact, for example, who won the American League batting title in 1954? Your average human being with a mind for baseball stats would naturally say:

Unidentified Man: Bobby Avila.

SIEGEL: And so would your smart voice recognition software.

Unidentified Woman #6: Bobby Avila.

SIEGEL: Another question: What is a hod carrier?

Unidentified Man: A kind of manual laborer.

Unidentified Woman #6: A kind of manual laborer.

SIEGEL: Or who was Nevil Chamberlain?

Unidentified Man: A British prime minister.

Unidentified Woman #6: A British prime minister.

SIEGEL: Facts are easy. So what about judgments or ethical dilemmas or complex questions. If the odds are that I will not be audited by the IRS, should I claim for an expense even though I've lost the receipt and I cannot document it? And by the way what is a hod carrier?

Unidentified Man: No. And it's a kind of manual laborer.

Unidentified Woman #6: The odds are in your favor but the law isn't. And it's a kind of manual laborer.

SIEGEL: A litmus test for the human can't be a personal question because the computer is presumably free to lie as in: Are you over 21?

Unidentified Man: Yes.

SIEGEL: And party number two?

Unidentified Woman #6: You bet I am over 21.

SIEGEL: Yeah, right. Gigabytes probably. Well, maybe the question that would be the litmus test would be something like this: Listen, I've been on hold for 13 minutes and another customer service rep told me that you would pick up - I told him that I mailed the documentation you requested three weeks ago…

Unidentified Man: Would you…

SIEGEL: …he says…

Unidentified Man: …please hold while I transfer you to my supervisor?

SIEGEL: And party number two?

Unidentified Woman #6: I'm sorry.

SIEGEL: A-ha. The machine is unmasked by its willingness to apologize when the authentic human response would obviously be to kick my complaint upstairs.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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