Perfecting the Art of Problem Resolution

By Lior Arussy

The search for the perfect customer service process is a never ending pursuit of companies. Executives are searching for the perfect process that will eliminate all problems, misunderstandings and by extension, customer complaints. Technologies and methods are being heavily deployed in the name of the perfect process and Six Sigma is steadily finding its place into customer service organizations. With the help of experts, customer service professionals are attempting to create the perfect service model that will eliminate disgruntled customers.

I must commend the intentions behind these efforts, but I have serious reservations about their potential for success. While I am convinced that each organization has process inefficiencies that can be improved and optimized, the notion that one perfect process will eliminate all upset customers and complaints is a fallacy. A similar misguided belief is that all customers are alike and their inquiries predictable, which would enable organizations to treat customers in a delightful manner and solve their inquiries on the first call. Reality, however, is much different.

Unlike production processes, where Six Sigma and other efficiency models work well, customer service is fundamentally different. In production processes there is a high degree of predictability regarding the expected input and output, and as such, optimizing processes makes sense to lower error rates. In customer services, we deal with the volatile emotions of humans, not the cold logic of machines. Our ability to predict inputs (such as the type of calls to come next, the customer’s expected mood and the type of issues to be raised) is significantly lower than those of manufacturing processes. I am in full agreement that any process that does not require human involvement is a great candidate for optimization. When customers are involved, the reality is radically different. When speaking with Six Sigma back belt experts I often ask how they deal with exceptions to which, I receive a variety of answers. The closest to a universal answer is generally “we reject them”.  

It is incumbent on customer service professionals not to adopt this philosophy in dealing with disgruntled customers.  We simply cannot declare that each irate customer is “a reject” (however tempting that may be).  Over the course of my career, I have found that of the many efficiency efforts that have taken place, only a small minority has positively impacted the customer service organization. The current crop of efficiency initiatives is not much better.

In the pursuit of perfection, companies often neglect to plan for potential problems. Problems and errors cannot be eliminated. They are part of the game. As human involvement grows, the error margin will inevitably increase. The challenge is not trying to perfect that which cannot be perfected, but to design for ideal problem handling. Organizations need to learn how not to treat these problems as exceptions to the rule, but rather embrace these exceptions and create special processes to deal with them and still delight the customers. An ideal problem resolution process will delight customers to such an extent that they will look forward to sharing their problems with the organization in the future.

Designing an ideal problem resolution process should include the following steps:

  • Assume that the customer complaint might actually be valid. We often identify an unspoken belief among customer service professionals that customer disappointments and frustrations are unwarranted. We need to accept that even our great companies make mistakes that will inconvenience our customers. We need to understand those areas where mistakes or exceptions may occur and educate our service staff to recognize them and act accordingly.

  • Exceptions are part of the business. Customers who experience them are still good customers and should be treated with respect and not as outcasts who abuse our products and services.

  • Take responsibility.  This demonstrates to customers that you take full ownership of the problem. The common apologetic response does not resonate with customers or compensate for taking full responsibility of the problem. Taking ownership is paramount for the customer to see that his issue is not being treated as an exception to the rule but as a core part of the rule itself.

  • Have a sense of urgency. Your problem resolution process should emphasize speed to problem resolution. A clear sense of urgency often demonstrates to customers that their issues matter to you. This also demonstrates a true sense of responsibility.

  • Compensate, don’t just apologize.  Customers expect more than mere apologies and expect you to take additional responsibility for their problems. Compensation for wrongdoing needs to be proportionate to the value of the product and the damage caused to customers. Expensive compensation is unnecessary, but a monetary demonstration of problem ownership will go a long way with the customer.

  • Inform relevant personnel. Ensure that all relevant individuals in the organization are informed about the consequences of their actions and suggest remedies to prevent negative incidents from happening again.

  • Follow up.  Make sure that the customer is satisfied with the service and remedy. An ideal follow up will demonstrate that the company is interested in the customer’s issue, not getting him off the phone as soon as possible. Companies should also inform customers about any remedies taken to prevent their issues from reoccurring. Beyond resolving the original problem, this action will demonstrate to customers that their problems will lead to better future performance.

  • Recognize the next time a customer does business with you. Make sure that employees who serve customers for a second time demonstrate extra sensitivity and knowledge of past history.

The manner in which an organization handles customer problems and complaints is indicative of the type of relationship that they want to have with their customers. Customer loyalty and the willingness to provide repeat business is determined by the manner in which organizations behave during contentious moments. By acting evasively and not providing clear problem resolution, an organization demonstrates a lack of commitment towards the customer relationship. On the other hand, a company that takes ownership of the problem and provides a decisive and clear response demonstrates a long-term commitment to the customer. Customer commitment to buy the company’s products and come back for more while evangelizing to others is directly linked to the quality of problem resolution process. Research shows that disgruntled customers who were treated well ultimately became more loyal to the company then customers who did not experience problems. The reason is that once these relationships were tested, the companies proved themselves willing, caring and loyal to their customers.

Customers will forgive companies’ mistakes as long as the companies demonstrate responsibility, ownership and commitment. Ensuring a delightful problem resolution process is a major testing point for every company and determines the future of their customer relationships. So stop over processing your rule and start creating delightful exceptions to that rule. Passing this customer relationship test is worth the effort. Start by accepting that problems happen and that exceptions are an integral part of the business. Now design excellence in problem resolution!

Read other articles and learn more about Lior Arussy.

For permission to reprint or reuse this article, please contact Lior at [email protected].

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