Trust But Verify—Sometimes It Is All About Timing…

A long time ago, when I was consulting with contact center clients around the world, I ran into a situation where the concept of trust was central to a very simple—yet dramatic—customer service improvement that was not at all about technology.

The story was one of a high tech company whose products were very expensive (generally each customer spent more than a million dollars on hardware with this company). Their technical support operation was understandably complex and expensive, since most of the "agents" were highly experienced engineers. This company, like most technology companies, charged an annual fee for maintenance and support. Naturally, they wanted to ensure that customers who did not pay for maintenance were not able to get support without paying for it. So they front-ended every call into their support center with an entitlement check. This typically took about five minutes, since the entitlements database was unwieldy and poorly maintained (a separate issue!).

Basically, a low-cost agent had to ask who was calling, get some codes, find out the serial number of the relevant product (since many customers had complex maintenance fee situations, with entitlement often depending on the product). If the customer passed the entitlement check, they were "allowed" through the "gate" to talk to an engineer.

Take a moment to think about this from the customer's perspective. You are a senior engineer trying to get a million dollar system online, probably on a tight deadline. You are extremely knowledgeable. You need help, and you know exactly what kind of help you need. You know that, typically it will take several calls to get the problem fixed (after all, it is a complex piece of gear). You also know that each time you call, you will have to waste time talking to someone who knows nothing and whose only purpose is to verify that you are worthy of being connected. Sounds nice, doesn't it?

There is a really simple way to fix this, that saves a ton of money and generates revenue as well. My customer did it in less than a month. Here is the idea: Let everyone through, first off. Front end calls, if needed, with a triage person to figure out who the right engineer is to take the service call. Let the engineer handle the call, no questions asked. AFTER the call is done, check entitlements off line for all calls received. When you find someone who got "free support" (one call only!), you do two things. First, you have your person who used to act as a (depressed) gatekeeper instead act as a sales person. Have the person call the "offending" customer and thank them for calling you. Tell them you were to happy to take their first call, at no charge. But then tell them that future calls will be charged, and ask for credit card information so you can allow them to get the help they need without delays. And of course try to sell them a long-term maintenance contract.

If they buy a maintenance contract or give you credit card data, you follow up with the necessary paperwork and meanwhile continue letting them through (but you are capturing usage data for credit card billing). If they decline, then their name, company, phone number and product codes go onto a short list that can be checked automatically on the way in to the triage person. This company did that, and they were successful in generating revenue. But much more importantly, in the 90% of cases where the customer was authorized to begin with, the customer experience was much improved (and costs were reduced).

This is a good example of something that is technically simple (often not even evolutionary—the customer in question had all the tools they needed except a lightweight database app for checking against the hot list). What was required was a change in the mindset of the business leadership. It wasn't even hard—more of a "why didn't I think of that before?!" situation. The issue is that many of these needless, customer-denigrating steps arise from good motives and too little attention to quality of the customer experience.

And, perhaps, there was too little clear thinking about costs and benefits—sometimes all you need is a quick, back of the envelope calculation to show the return on an "investment" such as not doing something stupid any more.

But what this story is really all about is thinking in advance about how you will manage trust relations with your customers. Rather than default to a completely untrusting, arms-length and legalistic relationship with customers, plan to trust your clients—even if you also plan to verify afterward that your trust was well-placed. When it wasn't, use it to proactively engage with the customer—after all, why not assume the best of you customers until they make it absolutely clear they are not interested in working productively with you (these of course would be the tiny minority of customers who end up on the blocked list!).

If you don't think in advance about trusting your customers, consider how you are setting their expectations—are you ensuring that your customers know they will be treated like children or, even worse, cattle?

I trust you found this helpful -- but please verify it for me with comments!
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