Why I took a class about compassion

and what I learned

Part 9: Employees can try to be compassionate to customers, but if the work processes don’t support it, they won’t be.

A local bank that I work with struggles with this. They are trying to balance security with general customer use. Yes, large multi-national banks have figured this out and handle this very well, but smaller banks struggle mainly from infrastructure issues and talent gaps. At one point, if you called this bank on their 800 number, they would ask a laundry list of intrusive questions that the agent needed answered in order to validate your identity. That step was required before helping you with anything. However, the process was inconsistent across all channels. I could call my local branch that has staff who know who I am, and they could give me the same information in seconds without the hassle. When they heard about my experience with their 800 number, they were upset about the experience as well and reported it on their side.

During a call on their 800 number after my complaint, the agent on the phone admitted that the questions they asked were excessive and that they received the same feedback from other customers. The agent implied that they felt that way as well (the call was recorded, so the agent couldn’t be 100% honest without consequences, I’m sure.). They did change their call script to validate customer identity over time, but it was a painful process. It took them a while to balance bank security and fraud protection with best practices for a good customer experience.  

Why customer service is a hard job

Additionally, during this time, they would gaslight the customers to believe that functionality that wasn’t working wasn’t actually broken. I made some calls to the bank about a bank transfer issue. During the first call, the agent admitted to me that the system was indeed down and that I should try completing the transaction again later in the day. During a second call hours later, I talked to an agent with a script who told me that I needed to have more realistic expectations about transaction time processing. During the third call the next day I tried to make the transaction again and it was successful, but the cancelled transactions from the past two days appeared. I wasn’t crazy. The system wasn’t working. I forced that agent to admit to the problems.

But my local bank isn’t the only place that uses these practices. Years ago, a large financial institution put me on this credit program that I never requested and claimed that it was a benefit of my card. The program wasn’t transparent. I ended up being in incredible debt because of the way it worked. When I called them to complain and get out of the program, any agent I spoke to at that company blamed me for not being able to manage my money. During one call, the agent told me that I didn’t know how the program worked and that leaving it would put my account in jeopardy. Luckily, I didn’t believe them and continued calling, hoping to reach a different agent who may be able to help me. It wasn’t until one agent saw what was happening and turned it off for me. That took over five years of calls and mental gymnastics. Now that it has been removed, I have made amazing headway in paying off the debt. Imagine that.

However, that’s not the only challenges that I have had with them. On multiple past occasions I have caught their agents using scripts that were inappropriate, inaccurate, or bullying in tone. Yes, I would report such agents after the calls. But those incidents would never have happened if they had a true culture of compassion. I can understand a customer call being challenging or even contentious a handful of times over a number of years if the customer is truly to blame for a situation. But when a situation being discussed is not the customer’s fault, this is a flawed system. It has been only in the past 2-3 years where they have instituted a substantial tone shift in the customer’s favor.

During that call with that agent who turned off that crazy credit program, she told me that they were completely overhauling their call structures and she was part of the new approach to improve their customer service. Although she was an absolutely lovely person and immensely helpful, I had a hard time trusting her because the experience was a 180-degree change for them. I felt bad to keep her on the phone for so long the night I called. She told me that this was part of the new program to build trust with customers. I haven’t called since, but I agree with this approach. The best way to build customer trust and confidence is by just chatting with them. As a manager, you can’t hope your employees feel compassion towards your customers if you don’t give them time to listen to customers and understand who they are as people.

And if you don’t help customers feel like valued humans, your organization has lost its competitive edge.

If agents use scripts that promote gaslighting and lies rather than scripts that support exchanges to help customers achieve their goals and complete tasks, then your organization doesn’t have a compassionate culture or brand. You have a brand hyper-focused on maintaining its reputation. That’s okay, but it doesn’t support a good customer relationship, and in many ways, destroys it. If a system is broken, tell the customer that it is broken. Most likely, the customer won’t be happy about that, but they will be relieved that they aren’t crazy. Gaslighting a customer creates a challenging customer relationship and yes, customers treated this way may switch to work with a competitor as soon as they are able. Customers aren’t stupid. They know when they are being lied to. Same with employees.

 

Another example that everyone references to describe a challenging customer experience is Comcast and their infamous customer call with someone who wanted to close their account. The agent wouldn’t accept “no” as an answer. Again, I believe that this is yet another case of the company scripting how to stop customers from leaving and potentially incentivizing the agent to do whatever it takes to save the account, creating a situation so the end justifies the means. In this case, the agent is using a type of approach that wears the customers out on a call so they ultimately stay and Comcast can benefit financially. We don’t like to think about this, but some companies do have an element of punishment for agents who “allow” customers to close their accounts. In some companies there are quotas for how many accounts can be closed with incentives to “save” them. Although such practices are attractive to companies and managers who want to impact the bottom line, it’s harmful to customers and employees. Employees are coerced with these “motivators” to act as they normally wouldn’t, intimidating and bullying customers to achieve their own goals. They see how “saving” a customer can benefit them. On the flip side, customers flee in disgust that a company just can’t let them leave. No one should be put in such a situation.

Note that this is a designed experience that can construct cognitive dissonance for employees. Employees know the truth - that you need to let customers leave if they desire to leave. But when your process won’t allow that to happen for various reasons, you are encouraging your team to act opposite of how they know they should behave. Inadvertently, you have constructed the start of behavior where the ends justify the means. And this won't stay localized to this situation or use case. Such an approach is destructive to company culture on many levels. A manager may try anything to achieve additional revenue, even risking ethics to do it because business is often about the end justifying the means. Such a mindset is not congruent with compassion and can be detrimental to an organization’s culture.

 

Are there any good experiences out there? Yes. A few years ago, I was uploading my book, Revenue or Relationship: Win Both onto Amazon, and I got the same error in their upload process over 8 times. I got so frustrated that I called customer service. They told me that yes, in fact, the feature was broken, I should stop using the system, and that I should try again the next day. The next day the system worked. I respected their ability to tell the truth so I didn’t waste my time trying to make something that is truly broken, work. To them, honesty and transparency got them the better end result – trust, connection, engagement, loyalty, and revenue.

I think the customer service agent job is so difficult not because it addresses customer needs, but because companies often script a call flow to achieve what’s in the company’s best interest – not how the company can benefit the customers. And that’s where compassion is removed from the process. Compassion needs to be included in the script, in the customer experience, and in the employee experience. The first step towards bringing compassion into a company is ensuring that all calls allow the customer to achieve their goal with your company – no matter what it is. This action enables and empowers employees to remove customer suffering easily and simply. They help people do what they want to do. Customers call because they have a problem and are suffering. Your customer service team wants to help them. Compassion is about relieving suffering. Be the team that helps them do that.

Forcing employees to do what they know in their heart is the wrong approach for the customer so the organization can achieve profit is the start of compassion breaking down. Such perspectives and actions cause suffering for the employee. They may feel guilty supporting the organization because they know that they have been doing the wrong thing. Sadly, in these cases they don’t feel that they have an option to change. It is compassionate to remove their suffering and empower them to do what they believe is right to do – help the customer. Find a way for them and your organization to do the right thing, improve their jobs, remove suffering, and watch your organization’s success rise.

 

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