Wednesday, 2 February 2011

People like you

I don’t belong to a gym. Being paid to spend time stuck indoors running on a treadmill, getting nowhere sounds pretty grim. Paying for the privilege would be somewhere beyond my personal definition of a joke.

Still, that’s just how I feel. If it works for you, live and let live, different strokes for different folks, de gustibus non disputandum est, whatever. Somebody I know well belonged to a gym and tried to cancel her membership recently. Being busy, and having a lot of other things on her mind, she left it until the last possible day to cancel but, nevertheless, informed the gym that she wanted to leave within the notice period they required. The process went something like this:

  1. Write letter to gym.
  2. Go to gym on last day of notice period and hand letter to staff on way out.
  3. Person at the desk tells you that he can’t accept membership cancellations at branch (or rather he can, but the process involves sending a fax to Head Office which can’t be actioned for three days, by which time it will be too late to process your cancellation). You are given a telephone number for the correct department at Head Office and told to ring them yourself.
  4. Get home, ring number. Hear a recorded message saying the number is temporarily unavailable.
  5. Ring your branch of the gym back to explain that you can’t the contact the Head Office department you supposedly need to contact to cancel your membership and ask for help. Person at branch promises to look into it and ring you back.
  6. Person at branch calls back a couple of hours later and starts by reiterating the importance of contacting Head Office to obtain a cancellation number. You point out that you’ve been trying, but the number has been unavailable. He suggests you try again. You ask what time the telephone lines - when available - close. He checks this and tells you that the lines closed an hour ago. He suggests you ring them first thing in the morning.
  7. You call Head Office first thing in the morning. Cancellation person says that you should have rung yesterday. You point out that you couldn’t get through. He tells you that it’s your own fault for having left it so late to try to cancel and confides that he gets ‘people like you’ on the line every month, complaining that they can’t cancel at the last minute. No, he can’t possibly give you a cancellation number. It’s not his fault that you weren’t able to contact him the day before, or that you chose to leave it until that day to try to cancel your membership.
  8. Make another trip to your gym branch and demand to see the branch manager. Repeat whole story to manager, who concedes that he is authorised to contact Head Office and ask them to process your membership cancellation. He subsequently does this and calls you back to confirm that your membership will be cancelled, from the date you’d originally asked it to be.

There are not two, but at least three, elements here - the customer, the staff and the organisation itself. When you come across a jobsworth employee like Mr 'I get people like you every month' it's easy to conclude that all the fault lies with the training or attitude of employees. Easy, but wrong.

More blame lies with the nameless (but probably better-paid) individual who knowingly made the process for cancelling membership as difficult and clunky as possible. Branch staff need to send a fax to Head Office, who can only process faxed requests in three days, even though they can allegedly process telephoned requests from customers on the same day (assuming that the number is available)? Branch staff aren't allowed to take instructions from a customer and telephone or e-mail these through to the correct department to process? I think somebody could have come up with a smarter system - if they'd really wanted to:
The call centre I worked in handled contracts for a various range of businesses that sold everything from car insurance to broadband packages yet rather than placing an emphasis on teaching us how to provide excellent service to the customers we were instead given a short crash course in what it was we were going to be selling, thrown onto the callfloor with a fairly poor understanding of the product concerned and then encouraged by management to get rid of the caller in as short a time as possible (usually somewhere around the three or four minute mark). 
Your friend in the north, there, giving the lie to all that marketing speak about organisations being "customer focused". Yes, organisations will provide some sort of service for the people they deal with, in an attempt to keep their custom, meet targets or even because those in charge genuinely care, but the customer or caller never has been king.

I've been there myself, having worked for a large insurance company. Callers might bounce around from department to department, coming on to my phone in a state of apoplexy because nobody could deal with their problem. As a conscientious employee, I'd try to fully answer queries that should have come my way or redirect people I couldn't help to the right place. But there were plenty of disincentives to discourage staff from doing the right thing. Actually helping people, as opposed to just getting them off the phone, takes time and we had other things to get on with. An unsympathetic manager might not support an employee who spent "too much" time helping or re-routing callers, rather then efficiently terminating their calls. We were on "performance related" pay, so it was hard to ignore such considerations.

There's an old Dilbert cartoon that sums up the reality. The corporation that Dilbert works for does a survey to find out what customers want. The response is 'better products for free', so the corporation decides to carry on doing what it was doing already and call it a strategy. Somewhere in between what the customer wants and what an organisation is able or prepared to do for them, lies the more-or-less satisfactory reality. The customer isn't, to use the feudal analogy, king - on a bad day, the customer is serf, down there with the customer service operatives struggling to provide a service despite being given a rigid script, no autonomy and having to work through - sometimes deliberately - inefficient processes over which they have no control, designed by people who don't have to face the resulting rage day in and day out.