“Aloof” Wasn’t What You Meant

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  • The operational difference between an organization with happy customers and an organization with disgruntled customers is easy to define. The latter understands customers only at their highest level. They reach out to see how customers interact only with the options they already have in place. These organizations set in place processes and business rules that keep their employees from wasting time or offering the wrong service. Subsequently, employees only feel confident about these line items. Any other situation gets met with the phrase, “That’s not part of my job description.”

    Sound familiar? Check out this example from an after-hours customer service chat session. The customer, a father who works full time and like many parents, must conduct his business after his toddler is in bed, is trying to find where to enter a code on his bank website to verify a connection he set up between his account and his joint account with his wife at another bank:

    Trevor: Hello, my name is Trevor. Thank you for being a valued Bank of America customer. I hope that you are having a great day.
    Nick: thank you
    Trevor: Hi, how are you doing today?
    Nick: fine
    Trevor: You are most welcome.
    Nick: i keep getting emails about verifying an external pay from account
    Nick: i can see the deposit in my external pay from account, but see no way on the BOA site to verify it
    Nick: please advise
    Trevor: I understand you are concerned about the e-mails you are receiving.
    Nick: nope, not at all, the emails seem legit, i checked them out
    Nick: i just want to verify this account
    Trevor: Please note that the e-mail you received is from Bank of America for verification.
    Nick: yes i realize that
    Nick: but there is no instruction and the bankofamerica.com site is a labyrinth
    Nick: anyway, i cannot figure out how to verify this accont
    Nick: please help me verify this account
    Trevor: However, if you feel that the e-mail you received is suspicious, I request you to send the e-mail to abuse@bankofamerica.com.
    Nick: i am not suspiciuis
    Trevor: If the e-mail is not legitimate, we will work with the authorities to prosecute the creators of this e-mail.
    Nick: it IS NOT MY CONCERN
    Nick: i cannot be more explicit
    Trevor: I am sorry for the miscommunication.
    Trevor: Okay!
    Nick: please inform me how a pay from account is verified once i have received the verification deposit
    Trevor: Please note, I request you to click on the following link and see the demo where you need to enter the Verification code.
    Trevor: Please click on the following link and watch the demo, how it works:
    Trevor: http://infocenter.bankofamerica.com/uploads/20090731-53434501-1008673/MakeaTransfer.pdf
    Nick: excellent
    Trevor: Thank you for your co-operation and understanding.
    Nick: it’s not what i’m trying to do
    Nick: bank of america deposited 18 cents into my account
    Nick: and i need to use that number somewhere to verify the external account
    Nick: i just cannot discern where I would do this on the bank of america site
    Trevor: I understand that.
    Nick: i am trying to set up electronic payment
    Trevor: However, I request you to contact my colleagues at 1.800.622.8731. They are available Monday through Friday between 7.00 a.m. and 10.00 p.m. Pacific Time, or Saturday and Sunday between 8.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. Pacific Time.
    Trevor: I assure you that they are able to assist you in this regard.
    Trevor: Is there anything else I can assist you with?
    Nick: never mind. this is more frustrating than the site

    In this example, Trevor is probably at a desktop running several chats at once. His software has pre-defined phrases that he can click into the chat window quickly, so he can appear to be responsive while also looking at other chats. His first three entries are all pre-defined phrases. The entry where he begins “I understand that you are concerned about” is also pre-defined, and then he selects “emails you are receiving” from another pre-defined list. He has only read one of Nick’s entries, the one begining, “I keep getting emails.” Trevor’s eyes see that phrase and he connects it to the “emails you are receiving” phrase in his choice list. He is only equipped to deal with emails that are phishing for account into. He does not realize it was the wrong topic until Nick types in CAPITAL LETTERS, and then he clicks the “I am sorry for the miscommunication” phrase. So he sends Nick a link to a demo. (Oddly, his “Okay!” and his “I request you to click” phrases–which also appear in other parts of the chat dialog which I didn’t include above–read as angry and commanding in our culture. Let’s let cultural mis-alignment slide for now.) It does seem like Trevor understands that Nick needs to enter a Verification Code, but sadly the Verification Code he thinks of is for transfering funds not establishing a conduit to an external account. Nick follows the link and reports that “Make a Transfer” is not what he’s trying to do. Trevor signals that he is watching the chat by clicking the “I understand that” phrase. He sees Nick’s key phrase “set up electronic payment” and knows that is not a service he is able to provide. So he hits the button that directs Nick off to the daytime customer service number, followed by two more pre-defined pleasantries. Trevor thinks he has helped the customer and will get good marks from his supervisor. Nick is about to kick the computer in frustration because he doesn’t have time in his schedule for the next couple of days to call Bank of America during the daytime, and he’s scared that his electronic mortgage payment won’t go in on time.

    What went wrong? Bank of America had done its homework and had policies in place for when customers call complaining about suspicious email. Trevor followed his process perfectly. He did pick up on the idea of entering a Verification code, but he didn’t have the right answer for Nick. If Trevor had been trained to spend time understanding the situation Nick was in more deeply, he would have understood the fear Nick had of a mortgage payment not going through and blemishing his brand new record as a home owner. Knowing this emotional state, Trevor could have put a higher priority on finding an answer for Nick about Verification codes for external accounts. He could have searched an internal Bank of America database for “verify external account” or something similar. He could have asked his co-workers or his supervisor. He could have even logged in to the Bank of America site as a customer himself and helped Nick search page by page for the right form to enter the Verification code. Instead, he stayed within the boundaries defined for him inside the chat application, limiting his answers to pre-defined phrases he could click. The company inadvertently shuttered his humanity and made him behave no better than a poorly-programmed machine. (Or, as I suspected at first, Trevor is really a keyword-recognition ‘bot.)

    What made that happen? Someone at the company was responsible for setting up the pre-defined phrases in the chat application. There was probably a fair amount of research that went into the possibilities, based on customer call center logs. The person in charge probably tore their hair out trying to make sure they covered all the branches that might occur. But call center logs only showed this person the places customers were tripping over existing glitches or obsfucating terminology. There was nothing about emotional states like fear of pending changes in a credit score based on not being able to perform a transaction. There was no way in the branching structure to show employees how to prioritize or how to keep trying to define what the problem is and find the right answer. Despite the fact the person who set up the system studied actual call data, they were still detached from the real life of the customers who called.

    Detachment is the critical failing of many organizations. Having open-ended conversations with customers (and people who might be potential customers) is difficult and scary. It’s much easier to analyze data and run numbers. It sounds more scientific and reliable. Talking to strangers takes social skills. Deriving meaning from a set of transcripts is tricky. It’s hard to see where real decisions can be made based on this squishy, qualitative way of “grokking” things. But honestly, at this point it’s the best tool out there for getting beyond the branching, pre-defined phrases that prevent company representatives from creating a happy customer. Is the efficiency savings really that much higher than the cost of letting horror stories circulate and prevent new customers from signing up? Can organizations afford to remain separated this way from the people they serve?

    I have been working with a symphony recently, trying to learn what cultural-arts attendees want from an evening out. It has been a learning experience for me to work with an arts organization mainly because the human emotional element–the passion to achieve something–is very much present and embraced. In most other organizations I work with, humanity is given a back seat to effectiveness and calculations, if it is acknowledged at all. I have learned that a music director is not as aloof, let’s say, as his business counterparts. A music director understands where the owners/contributors want the symphony to go for the season, he knows what attracts ticket-buyers, and he also knows the skills and challenges of each and every musician working with him. He doesn’t choose what to perform based on statistics from iTunes or based on popularity on the world classical circuit. A good music director talks to audience members to understand not only reactions to performances but what a symphony-goer is trying to fulfill in an evening at the music hall. Moreover, it’s not about figuring everything out in advance, planning and training people, and just putting it on autopilot the night of the performance. A symphony conductor is constantly watching and listening–the musicians and the audience–and making minute adjustments as he goes so that the oboe player has time to catch a breath after her extra-passionate solo, or so that the guy coughing during the pause between movements has a chance to clear his throat in order to comfortably enjoy the next emotional passage. I have a lot of admiration for a director who knows the passions that make his audience, his contributors, his co-workers, and his board members tick. I wish businesses weren’t adverse to knowing this kind of information. (Positive examples do exist! Zappos has received quite a bit of press about their warm-hearted practices.)

    Aloof means remote, separate, detached, and uninvolved. Antonyms for aloof are concerned, friendly, and sociable. Notice anything that looks like current technology trends?