Support without empowered staff is futile

It matters not how knowledgeable your support crew is, if they’re unable to action the solutions your customers need.

I have recently been Tweeting back and forth with a large internet provider, which turned out to be an infuriating exercise in futility. This particular internet provider is very good at community management — in other words, they try to contain any infuriated customers, and they reply surprisingly quickly. However, as far as I can tell, the army of twitter-enabled drones don’t even have access to the regular customer support tools — and they certainly don’t have the power to actually help.

Without empowerment, you may as well not bother.

So, if at any given time, you are thinking ‘containment’, then stop. You are not going to get anywhere, and whilst some customers may be appeased by a tweet in return, others (myself included) are going to be furious. Allow me to illustrate:

“There, there” — a typical reply from Virgin Media

So, in this case, a customer tweeted to find out whether the internet was down for anyone else, and this is what the customer support representative replied with. Of course, they do deserve credit for actively monitoring what people are saying about the brand, and yes, it’s great that they are saying they are there to help, but they failed, for one second, to place themselves in the recipient’s shoes.

“Not ideal”? Followed by a sad emoticon? No fucking kidding it’s not ideal. and the “Tell me everything’s all better now” is something you say to a 5-year-old.

But okay, despite the slightly wonky tone on that tweet, they made another mistake: Offering to help, when the Twitter support reps, in my experience, don’t have access to any of the tools they need to offer actual help.

Okay, but I’m not a major utility company, why is this relevant to me?

If you are an one-man-band, you are per definition empowered: You per definition have the full decision-making power to decide how you can help your customers. This is the best possible situation: you have 100% of the information required to respond to any customer enquiries, and you have 100% control over how your budget is spent. If you wanted to, you could decide it was worth while to get on a plane to go visit the customer in person, to help them with their web browser. Would you? Probably not, but that isn’t the point, you could.

The challenge starts when you add more staff members to the team — and especially if you are adding people who are dedicated to customer support. If they don’t have the decision-making power required to actually help customers with their problems, then you have two problems: Either, the customer support rep is going to be bothering you several times per day to get ‘sign-off’ on solutions — or you end up in a situation like the above, where your customers are being ‘helped’ by people who cannot help.

Fully empowering employees may be scary to some people/organisations, because you are giving away a lot of power to another person, but there are many tried-and-tested ways of keeping staff empowered without too much risk: Set a budget, for example, or set up a tight feedback loop, where you go through a stack of support requests and their resolutions retrospectively.

Scffld is a blog where Haje Jan Kamps covers the great, the terrible, and a sprinkling of best practices of customer service. There’s a bit more background here.

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