Is Your Customer Service Department a “Factory of Sadness”?


Guest post by Matt Dixon

Consumers today prefer to do things on their own – and, most importantly, according to their own timeframe. This especially holds true when it comes to customer service. In fact, CEB data shows that 81 percent of customers today will use self-service channels first before reaching out to a company to speak to a customer service rep live. Just think, when was the last time you actually chose to stand in line at the airline check-in or at the bank, when you could’ve done it all on your own phone or at a kiosk– in half the time?

However, self-service is proving to be a double-edge sword for both companies and customers alike. Investments in self-service technologies have helped companies siphon off low-complexity issues (e.g., changing your address, checking your billing statement, checking into a flight, etc.), but the issues that remain are those that a kiosk or computer can’t always solve—they’re inherently more complex. This means, live customer service reps are left dealing with the more challenging issues that customers can’t solve on their own.

Meanwhile, investments in training and developing frontline talent to help them manage this new complex environment are nowhere near where they should be. My team and I recently wrote about this extensively in Harvard Business Review if you want to learn more. The bottom line is, most customer service companies are dealing with a frontline that is woefully unprepared to handle these complex issues. Frontline service talent development has been chronically underinvested in for some time. Many companies hire, onboard, develop and manage service reps the same way they did 30 years ago. It’s one of the main reasons why we continue to see stories of service failures (and the resulting customer outrage that ensues) all over social media.

Customer satisfaction has been in a freefall for four years running. And, to make matters worse, putting unprepared staff on the phone with angry customers is not only expensive, but leads to higher staff turnover. After all, who wants to get yelled at by frustrated customers all day long?

Having spent nearly a decade studying this trend, we’ve found there are four key things that companies can do to help escape this “factory of sadness” service model:

1. Rethink your approach to hiring:

Our research shows that, despite conventional wisdom, the best performing service reps in dealing with today’s complex issues are those that are outspoken, opinionated and seek to take control of the customer interaction. We call this profile the “Controller” – as they are comfortable taking charge of the conversation, and guiding the customer to solve their issue quickly and efficiently. Controllers outperform other types of service reps by a wide margin–as a group, they average in the 60th percentile of performance, a full decile above the next closest group. Ironically, this is the exact profile that many service leaders these days steer clear of – with only two percent noting they would prefer to hire Controllers over other rep types. Instead, managers tell us they prefer to hire “Empathizers” – reps who tend to be apologetic and sincerely feel the customer’s pain. However, our research shows that Empathizers perform well below the 50th percentile when we look at the sort of service experience customers want.

2. Rethink your approach to talent development:

In addition to hiring more Controllers to the frontline, companies need to adjust their talent development strategies to better equip non-Controllers with the techniques and skills to replicate a more Controller-like service interaction. This means learning how to stop asking customers what they want to do and start telling them what they need to do, with the end game being to guide them to the fastest and easiest resolution possible. And, just as important, companies need to bring learning outside of the classroom. While traditional training is fine for rote knowledge and skills (e.g., understanding a new product or learning how to use a new system), it falls well short when it comes to teaching more nuanced skills and developing competencies over time.  Instead, companies need to equip their managers to deliver high-quality coaching that is customized to the learner and embeds learning into daily work. 

3. Rethink your performance management process: 

Companies should also consider new approaches to performance management. Most companies still hue to a checklist-oriented quality assurance (QA) process. The problem with this approach is that it hamstrings reps and removes any opportunity for reps to customize the service experience to the customer. What’s more, Controller reps – your best performers – absolutely despise this sort of rigid performance management process. We see leading companies instead putting in place more flexible QA process, one based not on checklist items (e.g., whether the rep said the customer’s name three times and thanked them for being loyal), but on the rep’s ability to demonstrate the competencies critical to delivering a great service experience. These companies don’t tell reps exactly what to say or do with a customer, but describe in broad terms the sort of competencies they feel are critical to a successful interaction.

4. Rethink the contact center environment: 

This is, by far, the biggest challenge facing service organizations looking to build a more Controller-focused frontline. We’ve found that the type of environment that motivates and engages Controllers is the exact opposite of what is actually found in most service organizations. Where most companies ask their reps to keep to themselves and just focus on the task at hand, Controllers are looking for organizations that allow them to exercise their judgment, collaborate with their peers and where they can be actively involved in identifying areas for improvement (both for themselves as well as the overall organization).

Getting all of these things right is hard work for a company – especially those large organizations that are encumbered by legacy processes and policies. But, it can be done. If you’re interested in how to start dismantling your company’s “factory of sadness,” check out some of our findings and resources on contact center talent management.

About Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon Photo

Matt Dixon is Group Leader of the Financial Services and Customer Contact Practices of CEB (NYSE: CEB) in Arlington, VA.  He is a sought-after speaker and advisor to corporate leadership teams around the world.

In addition to his management responsibilities at CEB, Matt is a noted business writer.  His first book, The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation (Penguin, November 2011), was a #1 Amazon as well as Wall Street Journal bestseller, selling more than half a million copies worldwide. He’s been published numerous times in the Harvard Business Review­­ with articles such as “Kick-Ass Customer Service” (January-February 2017), “Dismantling the Sales Machine” (November 2013), “The End of Solution Sales” (July-August 2012) and “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers” (July-August 2010).  His two most recent books are The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, (Penguin, September 2013) and The Challenger Customer: Selling to the Hidden Influencer Who Can Multiply Your Results (Penguin, September 2015).

Matt holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh as well as a B.A. in International Studies from Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.


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