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The 4 things that drive customers mad

How conversation data can reveal what makes your customers want to leave.

A seminal piece of research, which began in the 1970s, got us thinking here at Blue Sky. Back then, Dr John Gottman began studying the behaviour of married couples and, after many years, discovered consistent sequences that differentiated happy marriages from unhappy ones. He concluded that certain behaviours – Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling, or the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ – statistically speaking spelt the end of a marriage. If the 4 ‘horsemen’ were present, Gottman was able to predict, with a 93.6% success rate, that the couples would divorce (on average, 5.6 years after the wedding). Could there be ‘Four Horsemen of the Customer Service Apocalypse’, consistent sequences in call handler behaviour that predict customer ‘divorce’ (or at least extreme dissatisfaction)?

To find out, we turned to our conversation analytics database archive. Over the past three years, we’ve conducted in-company research involving over 9,000 customer service agents from 63 blue chip organisations, either within the Fortune 500/FTSE 100 or large government departments. What we discovered when we examined the data was sobering, to say the least.

1. Contempt

Our first insight correlated exactly with Gottman’s research. According to Gottman, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. And it turns out to be just as true for customer service. In its simplest form, contempt means believing the customer is an idiot. And while they may not use those words, that’s the underlying mindset and it has a very powerful impact.

Take this example of Giovanna (not her real name) a middle-aged Italian woman who has called the customer services team in a large telecoms company after failing to access her online account. And, while it did seem that she had mixed up her security questions and swapped her date of birth for her mother’s maiden name, but she was clearly expecting a simple clarification or perhaps a password reset. Instead, she got contempt:

Call handler: I’m telling you that is not your mother’s maiden name
Customer: Of course it is, don’t tell me I haven’t got my mother’s name correct
Call handler: (somewhat sneering): Well, it isn’t what you told us last time
Customer: How could it be anything else? I know my name!
Call handler: (in a condescending and argumentative tone) Well, it isn’t right and it’s you that gave the wrong answer, not me.

When behaving this way, the call handler makes no attempt to see the situation from the customer’s perspective. It’s incredibly damaging to the brand. From our analysis in the FTSE100, contempt for the customer crops up in up to 20% of all very dissatisfied conversations (ie, a customer satisfaction score – or C-Sat – of 1). For one FTSE100 operation with eight million customer calls per year, this means that they are looking at upwards of 24,000 customers being turned against their organisation by this kind of conversation.

We also found that every single time contempt is present, the customer will give you the lowest satisfaction rating available (C-Sat 1). And a customer that dissatisfied will be looking for ways to divorce you too; and you can pretty much guarantee it won’t take an average of 5.6 years.

But, while one of the most destructive, contempt isn’t the most frequently observed behaviour when you analyse C-Sat 1 (very dissatisfied) customer calls.

2. Intransigence

Our second customer service ‘horseman’ also has a direct link to one of Gottman’s behaviours – the practise of Stonewalling. We found that there is one phrase that seems to be hard-wired into the DNA of lowest performing call handlers. These are the people who score in the lowest 10% when measured around customer experience (C-Sat or NPS); it doesn’t matter if they work in a bank or a global retailer, or where they are based; our analysis shows that they use one toxic phrase: “The only thing I can do is…”. And it drives customers insane.

For example, this conversation happened to a £100,000-per-year existing priority customer of a bank, trying to switch all his direct debits to his new current account:

Customer: I’ve just signed up to your current account and I’ve been looking online for the switch form so you can move over all of my direct debits and I can’t seem to find where to do this
Bank customer services: Aaah, well you see, direct debits are controlled by the companies and there is no way I can set it up, the only thing we can do is your standing orders…
Customer: But I thought you did all of this for me? I haven’t got time to contact 14 or so different companies to do this
Bank customer services: We only offer the seven-day switch when opening the account Customer: Are you saying I am too late for this then, I only signed up last week?
Bank customer services: Well, you see, as you have already set your account up and you are not a new customer, the only thing I can say is that you talk to our switching team…

So why are these seven words so toxic to a customer relationship? It’s because they exemplify the behaviour of intransigence: an insistence on sticking to the process, rather than thinking about the customer’s unique needs. Intransigence is created through an imperfect mixture of a negative mindset (ie, I must follow the process); a poor level of empowerment from the line manager (lack of permission to do the right thing for the customer) and an inability (or lack of desire) to understand the customer’s desired outcome. And empathy alone isn’t sufficient here. On all of the ‘very dissatisfied’ calls we analysed, not once was there an attempt to step outside the prescribed process to figure out a way to solve the customer issue.

3. Vagueness

This third one reveals a very specific insight about the way sales and service conversations work. When we began our detailed call analytics, we were looking at about 20 behaviours and, inadvertently, we lumped together ‘next steps’ and ‘timescales’ as a single element to be measured at the end of the call. Most call handlers scored pretty well on this, and even the poorest call centre workers managed to confirm next steps. The problem is when you look at these two as discrete behaviours there is a significant difference. Clarifying the specific timescales on the next steps was utterly absent when a customer was very dissatisfied. Being vague causes huge frustration in customer conversations and from what we have observed, most bottom performing call handlers fall into this trap. (Incidentally, we now measure 70 separate behaviours to avoid making similar mistakes.)

Here's an example from a customer services agent in a FTSE100 Insurance company:

Customer: I was meant to be getting a call back by a manager. Is it still logged that I will get a call back?
Advisor: Yes, you should do. I can see that they have not done anything about that. You should receive a call back from the manager
Customer: So, you are open until 9, I’ll get a call before 9?
Advisor: Yes, you should do...

We know that the call handlers are probably doing their best. They may not trust the people further down the line in the process to do their job within the specified time, so their non-committal language is a way to forestall further complaints. Unfortunately, it just leads to a very unsatisfying call and a very dissatisfied customer.

4. Over-sharing

This last one seems, at first , to contradict the importance of avoiding vagueness. But the other extreme – overwhelming the customer with unnecessary detail – can be similarly frustrating.

This example is from when somebody called a water company to understand their bill (the excerpt has been edited for length and is taken from a 16-minute-long, very confusing call):

Customer: I keep getting conflicting bills, estimated bills, erm that are way over the top. I had this problem before. I was paying £28 per month, and it should really be £17 pounds per month…
Advisor: OK, bear with me. Erm… I can certainly have a look at that bill for you. Erm… so we read the meter on 2nd March and the reading was 1185.
(From here, there are loads of numbers thrown out by the advisor over a 14 minute call)
So the £383 bill…erm…is because there is a balance of £202.61 that is already outstanding. The plan he put you on is for £14.75 which is still active.
The plan he put you on is for £383.72.
And that’s fortnightly instalments of £14.75.
I’m just going by this one fortnightly at £10.
Plus you had an outstanding balance of £194.65.
OK, so now you have carried forward from this payment plan, £129.38 [and so on and so on, until…]

The whole balance going forward is £373.72. If we didn’t have that there, your actual real bill would be £198 for the year, plus you had an outstanding balance of £194.65. OK?

Clear as mud, right? If you lead an operation with a billing function, you may wish to check that your call handler’s fondness for numbers isn’t being pushed onto the customer. This is something academics call ‘the curse of knowledge’ and it’s a huge customer turn-off.

By contrast, in the same organisation, there was one stand-out call handler who intuitively chunked up all the numbers to make it simple for the customers. In a similar situation to the above, he simply explained that “If we got rid all of the debt you would be paying £15 per month but because of the debt you need to pay £30 per month for the next year”. This behaviour has become known as ‘ABC accounting’ - and when implemented across all 60 people in the billing team, the frequency of C-Sat 1 (ie, the lowest customer satisfaction score) dropped by 29.6% and billing complaints dropped by 14.2%. And over-sharing doesn’t just happen in the billing department, customers are also often bamboozled by techie speak.

So why are the four horsemen still riding high?

When you look at the induction content today for large companies, it hasn’t evolved much further than the ‘smile when you dial’ mantra from the late 1970s. But does smiling when you are dialling drive up customer satisfaction?

We combined analysis from 1,080 calls across seven different sectors in 17 FTSE100 companies. The result? The politeness of call handlers makes no significant difference in whether customers are very satisfied or very dissatisfied with calls. The frequency of apologising makes little difference either.

So what can contact centres do differently?

The simple answer is that we need to update the way we train our service staff, and be very clear about which behaviours must be avoided at all costs. While many contact centres have a ‘call quality’ team that listens to calls, they are almost exclusively focused on monitoring procedural adherence and legal compliance. Team leaders pass on what they themselves learned in their own inductions, so perpetuate damaging behaviours. How much more effective would it be, if organisations analysed their calls to identify what their top performers do differently, and then fed this back into training?

Don’t show contempt. Don’t be intransigent. Don’t be vague about timescales. And don’t over-share. These four rules won’t necessarily transform your organisation overnight. As Dr Gottman would have been the first to tell you, relationships are more complex than that. But if you ignore them, you don’t have a ‘hope in hell’ of avoiding your very own customer apocalypse.

Four Horsemen of the Customer Service Apocalypse’ was first published by Blue Sky, part of Capita People Solutions.

Photo of Andy Moorhouse

Andy Moorhouse

Director of Insight, Blue Sky, part of Capita

Andy is a self-confessed analytical geek. Working with companies such as Tesco, Virgin, BT, Lex Autolease, Dunelm, Wickes and many other FTSE 100 companies, Andy has pioneered a science based ‘conversation analysis’ approach to identify specifically what their top performers do differently. This has led to some tremendous uplifts in sales and customer service performance including one sales organisation hitting 150% of target.

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