Why The Phone Is Still King For Customer Support

The phone is not dead.

Let me tell you why. Actually, allow me to gush. I recently had a customer service experience over the phone that proved why the phone is still king.

Melanie, a Verizon Wireless technical support rep, took a minor frustration and turned it into a great experience. 

She did it primarily over the phone. Yes, she used text and email too. It was a very omnichannel experience. But, the phone was the primary channel.

No other channel would have worked so well.

Read on to learn what Melanie did, why other channels would have failed, and how Verizon Wireless empowered Melanie to make it happen.

Friendly and capable phone reps are hard to beat.

Friendly and capable phone reps are hard to beat.

The Story

My day had just gotten crushed. 

A check engine light forced an unexpected trip to the mechanic. Then, my smartphone died while I was trying to set up an appointment to get the car fixed.

The phone lost it's network connection, giving me a "No Sim Card" warning. Like an estimated 57 percent of customers, I first went online to find some self-help. There were a few knowledge base articles, but none of them fixed my phone.

Time to call.

I dialed Verizon Wireless's customer service line. Pressed the number for technical support. Entered my phone number. Entered the last four digits of my social security number for verification purposes.

And then... I was instantly connected to Melanie. 

Customers like me who are angry about other things (remember my wonky car?) are typically hard to serve. But, Melanie was a saint.

She was warm and friendly. Reassuring without being patronizing. She also clearly knew her stuff as she walked me through several diagnostic steps.

We had to wait a brief moment during the diagnostic process while my phone reset itself. Melanie took the opportunity to helpfully review my plan. She looked at my actual usage and pointed out a new plan that would save me $30 per month. 

Wait, helpful tech support and I just saved $360 per year?!

It got even better. Melanie asked if it would be okay if she called back in 30 to 45 minutes to just check in and make sure everything was OK. 

Dogmatic first contact resolution adherents are cringing right now, because Melanie's follow-up call would technically be a second contact. But, to a customer, it was awesome.

She called a short while later just as promised. She happened to catch me while I was in the waiting area at the mechanic. "How is your car?" she asked, leading with empathy.

Melanie then asked a couple of questions to make sure that my phone was still working fine.


Why Other Channels Would Fail

No other channel could do what Melanie did. 

I tried chat before calling support because I thought chat might be faster. I was still waiting for a chat agent when Melanie answered the phone. 

Even if I had gotten through, a chat agent wouldn't be able to empathize in quite the same was as a live phone agent. And, there would be the inevitable delay as we went back and forth to run diagnostics. Once you're connected, phone is faster.

Other written channels like email, text, and social would also have failed. The starting point for those written channels would likely be to send me to the knowledge base article that I had already visited.

There would then have been a significant delay going back and forth. I doubt we would have fixed my phone so fast. I also doubt there would have been time to save me $360.

In-person would have accomplished the same result. The only problem with that is I would have to drive down to the Verizon store. That would take extra time and my car was headed to the mechanic anyway.

No, the phone was the fastest and most satisfying channel by far.


How Verizon Supported Melanie

There are many people who don't like the phone as a service channel.

Perhaps one reason is that many contact centers don't support this channel the right way. A 2015 ICMI study found that 86 percent of contact centers don't empower their agents.

So, saying the phone doesn't work is like watching a lightbulb burn out and declaring that all lightbulbs are dead.

Verizon does a lot of things right over the phone. They seem to hire a lot of people like Melanie. I've consistently spoken to helpful, friendly people who quickly solved my problem whenever I've had to call.

Verizon must also do some things to make sure those customer service stars don't get demotivated. After all, demotivation is a much bigger problem in contact centers than motivation.

So, here are a few things I noticed.

First, Melanie had the tools she needed to help me. She didn't have to ask me for my account information because it was already on her screen when she answered my call.

She had diagnostic tools to help her remotely figure out what was going on with my phone.

She had a database of different phone designs so she could access the specs on my particular model and tell me exactly where to find things.

And, she had the ability to schedule a follow-up call to make sure everything was working properly.

Second, Melanie was given time. She clearly wasn't trying to end the call as quickly as possible to ensure she met a draconian average handle time standard. She focused on moving things forward swiftly because we were both anxious to solve the problem, but she didn't cut any corners at my expense.

Finally, Melanie clearly had a lot of training. She was well-versed on her product, knew the right questions to ask, and knew how to ask them.

Don't get me wrong. I like other channels. And, there are a lot of companies that do phone so poorly that you feel compelled to use a different channel.

But, so long as companies like Verizon Wireless can do phone right, that will be my preferred channel for situations like this. 

How about you?

The hidden dark side of good service

I recently traveled overseas and had to get a loaner phone from Verizon since my iPhone wouldn't work in the UK or Ireland. If Verizon had sent me a net promoter-style customer satisfaction survey about their Global Traveler Program (they didn't), I'd probably give it a 7. You can get an overview of Net Promoter scoring on the Net Promoter System website, but a 7 is a relatively neutral score.

It may be tempting to classify my service experience as good, but not great. However, my slightly positive overall perception of Verizon's Global Traveler Program is really a rough average of elements that were truly fantastic as well as some frustrating service failures that greatly diminished my enthusiasm. In other words, Verizon was one step away from either turning me into an enthusiastic promoter or an angry detractor.

What is Good Service?

Customer service is a function of each individual customer's expectations and experience. Outstanding service happens when experience exceeds expectations while poor service is the result of experience falling short of expectations.


What happens most often? Good service. This is when the experience meets expectations. There's nothing wrong with good service per se, but it isn't memorable. We only tend to notice, and remember, service that's outside the norm.

A Collection of Experiences

My perception of Verizon's Global Traveler Program was really a collection of experiences. There were at least seven distinct moments of truth that shaped my overall impression. 


My overall impression of Verizon's Global Traveler Program wasn't just impacted by the average of each moment of truth, but by their sequence.

Starting Perception. This signifies where a customer's perceptions are at the start of the experience. Good, or neutral, impressions are relatively easy to sway but strong perceptions are not. That's because a phenomenon called confirmation bias causes customers to selectively filter out information that doesn't match their existing beliefs. If they're a raving fan, they'll look for evidence that Verizon is awesome. If they hate Verizon, they'll look for any little nitpick to justify their feelings.

Primacy. My first two experiences with the Global Traveler Program were outstanding. Since my starting position was neutral, I was easily moved into a 9 or 10 position on a 10-point scale. It's also important to note that first impressions are much more memorable than what happens next.

Mid-point. The two frustrating experiences were sandwiched between neutral or positive experiences. This, combined with an outstanding first impression, likely prevented my perception from being in the 4 or 5 range.

Recency. My last moment of truth was good since it was relatively easy to return the phone. Customers tend to remember their first impression and their last impression, so a good beginning and end can help overcome a few negative experiences in between.

What can we learn?

I see a few take-aways here:

  1. Good service can hide distinct opportunities to be either great or terrible.
  2. Companies should fall all over themselves to make a great first and last impression.
  3. It's a good idea to collect data to help you spot the strong and weak points in your service delivery system.

What other lessons can companies learn from this experience?

Jeff Toister is the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It. The book is scheduled to be released on November 1. You can learn more about the book at www.servicefailurebook.com or pre-order a copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Powell's Books.