Why Customer Service is Always Running Late

This wasn't a bucket list item, but it was close.

My favorite winery in Napa was hosting an exclusive winemaker dinner, with another party the following day. My wife, Sally, and I love this winery and it sounded like an amazing weekend.

I signed up for the interest list to get notified when tickets went on sale.

Five weeks went by with no news. I emailed my contact at the winery for an update. She replied a day later, "Tickets go on sale Tuesday." It was Friday.

Tuesday came and went with no notice. I emailed again the following Friday but received no response. On Monday, I called and left a voice mail but still no response.

A day later, my winery contact emailed me. The tickets are finally on sale. It was a week later than she'd promised and too late for us. We'd already made plans with some family members who were visiting from out of town.

Why are customer service professionals constantly running late? Here's a look at the reasons why, plus some potential solutions.

Group of businesswomen running late.

Our Overly Optimistic View of Time

A few months ago, I wrote this post about why employees are often late. A problem occurs when employees are overly optimistic about how long it takes to get things done. 

One of the studies I cited was a 1994 series of experiments conducted by Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. They wanted to see how accurately people could forecast the time it takes to complete a task.

A group of 37 psychology students were asked to estimate when they would complete their honors thesis. The average estimate was way off.

Days to complete thesis.png

Only 11 of the 37 students finished their thesis by the time they predicted. That means 70 percent of the group was overly optimistic.

The researchers anticipated this optimism problem, so they asked participants to make a second prediction after their first one had been recorded. Participants were asked to imagine everything went as poorly as it possibly could. How long did they think it would take them to complete their thesis given that scenario.

The worst case scenario predictions were still off.

Days to complete thesis - worst case.png

Buehler, Griffin, and Ross ran a second experiment where they asked another group of psychology students to think about a school project that was due within the next two weeks. The subjects were asked to predict when they would get it done. As before, the subjects were overly optimistic, with only 43.6 percent finishing by the predicted time.

There was an additional twist. Subjects were asked to think aloud as they estimated the project completion time, and the experimenters recorded and categorized what people thought about. The results were startling:

  • 71% of the subjects' thinking focused on how they would complete the project.

  • Only 3% of thoughts were spent on anticipating problems.

  • Just 1% of thinking considered problems encountered on previous projects.

That last one amazed me. Participants continuously failed to learn from their experience when making plans to complete a task. It also explains why some employees and companies are consistently late.

How to Meet More Deadlines

There are a few things you can do to meet more deadlines and keep your customers happy.

First, whenever planning a task, start with the deadline and work backwards to create your plan. Buehler, Griffin, and Ross found that having a clear deadline can be very helpful—in one experiment, 80.6 percent of school projects were finished on time when the students had a deadline. 

Try to negotiate the latest mutually agreed-upon deadline to give yourself some extra time. So if you think you can get something done by Thursday, ask if Friday is okay. (More on that technique here.)

Next, think about potential obstacles. Here are some common ones I consider:

  • Travel: My available time is limited when I'm on a plane or with another client.

  • Workload: I consider other projects I'm working on at the same time.

  • Personal: My personal life factors into my availability as well, such as an upcoming vacation.

As you think about each potential obstacle, think about how similar situations have gone in the past. For example, if I'm traveling, I know from experience that I'll likely be too tired to do much on the return flight from a long trip. So I don't count on having that time to work.

Finally, lay out a project plan and track the important milestones as you go. My goal is always to get work done early, because you never know what will come up.

In case you're wondering, I told a few people I was working on this post. My promised delivery date was next week. And now I'm early.


Could Distraction Be Costing Your Company Dearly?

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The bank's customer service rep was distracted.

He was responding to emails in between phone calls. The problem was he'd get halfway into an email and then the next call would come in. It took a second for him to shift his focus to the caller. 

At the end of the call, he'd hurry back to the email. He'd skim the email as best as he could and then hurriedly type his response in hopes of finishing it before the next call came in.

One particular email was from a customer inquiring about his loan balance. The rep looked it up and saw the balance was $15,000. In his haste, he left off a zero. 

His email informed the customer that the loan balance was just $1,500. 

Boss presenting to a group of distracted employees.

Distracted By Design

Customer service reps everywhere are chronically distracted.

They’re balancing multiple priorities. They often work in noisy office environments. The typical contact center rep must juggle five to seven different software programs on two or more computer monitors just to serve a customer. And they’re barraged by messages on email, chat, and even their personal devices in between.

To top it off, many contact center reps work like the bank employee in the story above. They are asked to respond to email or another written channel in between handling phone calls in an effort to eke out every last drop of productivity.

It's thought to be efficient, but it isn't. Customer service reps working in this setup are often less productive and are prone to costly mistakes. For example, the bank ultimately had to honor the erroneous loan balance and write off the $13,500 error.

Here's a demonstration that can help you experience what's happening to distracted employees. The image below contains a number of circles and squares. Try to count the number of each shape as quickly as possible.

image of circles and squares.

Let's try this again with a twist. 

Count the total number of circles and squares by alternating between counting each shape. In other words, count one circle and then count one square. Then count the next circle, count the next square, and so on.

Ready? Count.

Image of circles and squares.

How did it go?

Most people take longer to count the shapes and are more prone to making errors. Which is exactly what happens when you ask employees to switch back and forth between tasks all day.

The High Cost of Distraction

Distraction can cost a company far more than the few dollars saved by cramming in some extra work in between calls.

Another customer service leader told me about the cost of distraction at his company the same time I heard about the $13,500 bank error. This one was even worse.

A telecom customer had emailed to ask if he had won a promotional contest. He had not won, so the customer service rep started typing an email to politely tell the customer he didn't win.

But the customer service rep was answering emails in between calls. And the rep was distracted. So the rep's actual email read, "You did win."

There was a kerfuffle. The company tried to claim it was an honest mistake. The customer sued, and the company eventually agreed to a six figure settlement.

You might be tempted to maximize productivity by having your agents juggle multiple assignments all day. Before you do, think about the potential costs:

  • Expensive errors caused by distraction.

  • Decreased productivity caused by constantly shifting attention.

  • Decreased service quality caused by a lack of customer focus.

Take Action With This Experiment

In my book, Getting Service Right, I constantly search for counterintuitive solutions to vexing employee performance challenges. In Chapter Seven, the book explores reasons why employees often fail to pay attention.

Here's one example:

I once worked with a medical device manufacturer that had its customer service reps answer emails in between phone calls. The stakes were pretty high—the company's products were used in life-saving medical procedures.

We ran a simple experiment. Instead of having reps handle phones and email, we divided the reps into two teams. One team handled phones, the other handled email.

The number of reps on each team could easily be changed throughout the day. If phone volume was high, more reps could join the phone queue. When phone volume decreased, a few reps could be re-assigned to email.

This extra focus quickly had a big impact. Both phone and email quality increased because reps were able to give the customer in front of them their full attention.

But counterintuitively, productivity increased in both channels!

You can test this yourself by running the same experiment for a week. Involve your agents—let them know what you're testing. You can even run a test group and keep another group working the old way so you can compare the results.


9 Ways Your Employees Waste Time at Work

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Employees waste a lot of time at work. 

A 2014 Salary.com survey discovered that 57 percent of employees admitted to wasting at least one hour per day. These employees spend paid work time goofing off online, using social media, or shooting the breeze with colleagues. 

There's another hidden time waster. Many employees waste time through inefficiency. The result is we spend the day frantically working without accomplishing very much to show for it.

Here are nine common ways employees waste time without knowing it.

clock.jpg

Common Productivity Killers

This is by no means a complete list, so please share other time wasters you've seen. You can leave a comment on this post or drop me a line.

 

Meeting Invites

You exchange emails with a colleague and agree to set a meeting for a specific date and time. "Ok," comes the reply. "I'll send you a meeting invite."

This approach doubles the amount of communication required to organize the meeting. There's the email exchange to schedule the meeting and then the meeting invite that comes after it.

A meeting invite is great if you are coordinating multiple schedules or are actually using it to invite someone to a meeting. Skip it if you already agreed to meet with just one person.

 

Meetings

We get a lot of meeting invites because we get asked to a lot of meetings.

A 2015 report from Workfront revealed that meetings are a huge time waster reported by employees in large companies, with 57 percent saying unproductive meetings were the biggest drain on their time.

Meetings should have a clear purpose, a set agenda, and a carefully curated invite list. Otherwise, skip it.

 

Formal Training

A lot of formal training classes are wasted.

Participants arrive without a clear idea of what the training is about, how it will impact their job performance, or what they need to do to implement what they learn.

Even worse, existing work procedures, old habits, and even the boss can counter what was learned in training, making it difficult to develop new habits.

You can dramatically improve training by using the 70-20-10 rule to create more consistent learning experiences. This works by aligning what's taught in training with feedback from the manager and the employee's actual work.

 

Useless Email

I once cobbled together a few email studies, ran the numbers, and discovered that the average U.S. worker wasted 24 percent of their day on useless email.

The problem comes from misuse. 

Many emails are incomplete and poorly written. People are in a hurry so they skim and scan messages, missing important information. That generates a ton of back and forth.

The email provider Front analyzed email boxes and learned the average email conversation takes 4.5 messages.

The counterintuitive solution is to slow down and give email more attention. It may take slightly longer to read and respond to each message, but you'll receive far fewer emails overall.

 

Checking Email Constantly

People tend to check their email constantly throughout the day.

This feels productive because you are really, really busy. It isn't. What's really happening is you are constantly starting and stopping tasks and not giving email your full attention. That leads to the useless email problem discussed above.

Timothy Ferriss has some pretty extreme takes on email management in his bestselling book, The 4-Hour Workweek. I've adapted some of them to check email just a few times a day and it's made an amazing impact on my productivity.

 

Multitasking

Constantly checking email is just one way we try to multitask throughout the day.

Customer service professionals in particular are guilty of running multiple software programs simultaneously for both personal and business. Many of us keep our cell phone perched on our desk, which constantly invites personal distractions.

Multitasking inevitably leads to more errors and less productivity even though it makes us feel busy. You can experience this yourself by taking a Stroop Test.

You can reduce multitasking by reducing distractions, such as pop-up messaging notifications. You will also make some progress through a conscious effort to focus on one task at a time, though many people find this initially difficult as multitasking can be addictive.

 

Software

There's a software solution for just about everything.

The problem is many of these software programs don't talk to each other. It's not uncommon for a contact center employee to have to use five to seven different programs just to do their jobs. 

All that switching back and forth between software programs creates a lot of multitasking. It also causes a lot of repetitive work, where employees have to enter the same information in multiple places to keep all the records up to date.

The best fix here has nothing to do with the employee. Smart companies are making their employees' jobs simpler by providing a unified desktop that puts multiple software programs in one interface.

 

Messaging

Email isn't the only form of communication that sucks up a lot of time.

Many workplaces have an instant messaging or internal chat app that allows employees to interrupt each other from across the room or even across the country. If we're honest, most of the times we "ping" a coworker we're really asking for something that's not urgent.

My controversial suggestion is to shut it down. Most workplaces don't have a real business case for instant messaging that overrides the negative impact of constant distractions. And if you really need someone's attention, there's other ways to do it.

 

Inboxes

I can still remember reading David Allen's time management book, Getting Things Done, way back in 2001. It truly was a game-changer for me.

One piece of advice that really stuck was limiting the number of inboxes we have. An inbox is any place you have to look for new information, messages, or assignments.

Examples include our email inbox, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, text, voicemail, physical mailbox, and a physical inbox. Most of us have more than ten. (Try doing your own count, it may be scary!)

You can automatically save time by eliminating or combining your inboxes. For instance, you can use the same software program to manage multiple email addresses so all of your emails go to one place.

 

Take Action

We're addicted to these time wasters for a variety of reasons. 

Take meetings for example. Have you ever tried to pushback on an unnecessary meeting that had no clear purpose and no agenda? People act like you are being some kind of jerk.

I suggest two things.

First, if you're the boss, you need to set an example. It's pretty hard to take your employees to task for wasting time if you are constantly sending half-baked emails and scheduling useless meetings.

Second, focus on incremental progress if you want to make a change or help your employees become more productive. Pick just one small thing to try and work on it for a few weeks. Make it a habit and then reflect on how it has helped you before taking on something new.

Over time, you'll be amazed at how much more productive your team can become.


Is the front line customer service employee a commodity?

A client recently posed an interesting question: Should frontline customer service employees be viewed as commodities where one employee is relatively the same as the other? My client is the Human Resources Director, so unsurprisingly she thought the answer is no. However, her company’s Chief Financial Officer firmly believed the answer is yes.

Who do you think is right? 

The argument for "No"

My client believes there is a meaningful difference in each individual’s ability to be trained, deliver exceptional service, and ultimately generate profits. If you want to attract and retain better talent, you need to invest more in your employees in terms of wages, benefits, and training. There is certainly plenty of empirical evidence to back up this claim (see my recent post, “Three reasons to give customer service employees a raise”).

The challenge, of course, is proving this to a skeptical CFO or even the company’s CEO in a time when the company is focused on reducing costs. Any increase in wages, benefits, or training expense will immediately be seen on the company’s profit and loss statement, but the resulting impact won’t be readily apparent. Even if revenue or customer satisfaction begins to rise, it will be hard to prove that this wasn’t really caused by an improving market, a clever advertising campaign, or a new product line.

The problem my client has in making her case is a lack of hard data to show that she’s right.

The argument for "Yes"

The CFO’s primary concern is controlling costs and maintaining cash flow at a time when profit margins are shrinking. To him, adding costs immediately makes that problem even worse. It’s foolish to spend the money if he can’t prove that investing more in employees will provide a positive return on investment. He is also drawing from his own belief that frontline customer service employees’ performance is more a reflection of the system (products, processes, and management) than their individual strengths.

The CFO’s challenge, however, is the same as the Human Resources Director’s: a lack of hard data. Sure, he can see labor expense on the profit and loss statement, but looking at those numbers in aggregate can obscure what’s really going on. An outstanding employee might generate twice as much revenue as a co-worker, but then leave the company for a higher paying job with better benefits. The replacement employee may cost more to train while producing less revenue, but that story won't be told on the company's financial statements.

Who is right?

My view is both could be right. Great employees will flourish in almost every environment, but those employees are also hard to find. Mediocre employees can become great given the right products, processes, and management, but you need to invest time and money in those things to ensure your employees have the right support.

The best way for the HR Director and CFO to settle their debate is through testing and evaluation. For example, rather than giving all employees a raise, they can pick a test group of new hires to start at a higher salary. This minimizes risk and expense, but it also allows them to compare the test group’s performance to the rest of the new hires who join the company around the same time.

Where do you come out? Are frontline customer service employees truly unique and special? Or, are the vast majority of them really interchangeable?