Masking process dysfunction: Support’s role as customer ombudsman

Last month I had the misfortune of having a credit card hijacked for fraudulent online purchases.  Citibank was wonderful, detecting the activity and stopping it immediately.  I had direct billing from several places going to that account, and I quickly set about switching those to a different card using online self-service.  All went well for my electric bill and NY Times subscription, but when I tried to change the direct billing for my home land line, Internet and satellite TV, which are combined into a single monthly bill, things went seriously wrong.  As luck would have it, that month’s direct billing was set to process the next day, so I felt a sense of urgency in getting it moved to a different payment source.

The telco would only take direct payment online by Visa, so I couldn’t use my Amex and wouldn’t have a new Visa number for a week.  I could have it directly billed to a bank account, but that would take 2 weeks (!) to setup.  So I called customer service.  I knew I was in trouble when the billing IVR asked me to “press 1 for land line, 2 for Internet, 3 for satellite TV” but had no option for converged billing.  I spoke with 6 people at 4 different 1-800 numbers before resolving the issue, and it took over 2 hours of my time.  One lady told me I could use Amex to make a payment by phone.  Wrong.  I tried making a payment using a debit card, but to do so I had to enter the 18-digit account number for my phone/internet/satellite bill.  And where do you get that?  Turns out the ONLY place to get your 18-digit account number is on your paper bill, which I don’t receive because I have paperless online billing.  My account number isn’t shown online “for security reasons.”  What a debacle.

All 6 people I spoke with had one thing in common:  the attitude that this wasn’t their problem.  And that, my friends, is the reason for this rant today.  I’m doing a webcast later today entitled, “Achieving Service Excellence Across the Organization: It Takes a Village (and Automated Workflow),” and my terrible customer service experience is a good example of why support organizations should care about this issue.

The customer service/tech support organization is the voice and face of the company. When support is contacted about an issue they can’t solve, they still have a responsibility to make sure the customer resolves their issue–even if it is outside of support’s control. Many companies seem to have created walls between different departments, and customers find themselves being thrown over the wall from department to department, trying to find anyone who cares enough to take responsibility.

What percent of issues require input or involvement from another department to resolve? The number differs by industry. According to the SSPA Benchmark Database, around 10% of incidents received by technical support are “non-technical inquiries,” and could be related to billing, inventory, or sales related issues outside the purview of support. The numbers are likely higher in other industries–take telco for example–AT&T Wireless says 75% of their calls are billing related.

Here are some hints at improving service for these issues that often ‘fall through the cracks:’

  • Take ownership.  Customer support should own the problem, even when it requires assistance from another department.  Think of yourself as an ombudsmen for the customer.  If their satisfaction declines, support is likely to get the blame, so take responsibility to shepherd customers through the process of getting any issue resolved.
  • Identify the scope of the problem.  Collect attribution to track cross-department incidents separately so you know how big of an issue this is.  Maybe a custom field or checkbox for these issues, allowing you to report separately on resolution time. 
  • Remove the walls between departments with workflow.  Use workflow to track where issues are, who owns them at any given time, what the next step will be, etc., to monitor progress.  Even if you can’t fix the problem, at least you can tell the customer where their issue is in the process and who is responsible for the next step in case escalation is required.  If the other department uses a different application to track issues, get your support reps access to that system.
  • Understand where the buck stops.  Identify employees in other departments who are required to resolve customer issues and verify their priorities.  I did an audit once for the support organization at a cable company and found billing issues were being routed to someone in the back office who was told by their manager to stop spending so much time on customer issues.  There was a backlog with weeks passing before simple questions were resolved.

We talk a lot about how support is receiving more visibility and influence for customers with Value-Added Support, but along with this power comes added responsibilities.  Support must step up to the plate as advocate for the customer when poor processes or policies get in the way of customer satisfaction.  Realistically, you aren’t going to overhaul your processes and resolve long-held departmental conflicts overnight…or in your lifetime.  But support should do everything in their power to mask this dysfunction from customers, because from the customer’s point of view, a failure by any single person or department impacts their satisfaction and loyalty with the whole.

How big of a problem is this?  Have you been stuck in a black hole as a customer?  Please add your comments or shoot me an email. And as always, thanks for reading!

Explore posts in the same categories: Best Practices, Consumer Support, Enterprise Support, Technology

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9 Comments on “Masking process dysfunction: Support’s role as customer ombudsman”

  1. ok, i will start…

    i won’t rant (much) about att wireless, but had a similar black-hole experience with them… the solution would have been simply (as i informed them – but they did not care or listen) to take three steps:

    1. empower employees to take action
    2. get rid of bad policies created to increase profits / reduce cost (they tend to upset customers and loses them)
    3. create workflows to solve issues – not loose customers and their problems (hint: customer centricity)

    i will make this entry short, you have done a great job with your entry, and will wrap it up by saying that training and empowerment will go miles and miles towards keeping customers happy, loyal — and solving problems.

  2. Haim Toeg Says:


    I think tying this experience to value added support is a bit of a stretch, but I do agree with your central premise. Many service employees are constrained in their ability to provide service and measured and compensated on absolutely the wrong metrics. Many times I get the feeling that all they want is to pass the problem to someone else only so they can frustrate the next person in line. The larger and more bureaucratic the company is the harder they can make it to resolve any problem while pretending to deliver excellent service and delight their customers.

    I think in the recommendations you make lies an implicit assumption that there is a single person whose central role is delivering a satisfying service experience to the company’s customers, and the faster they act the better off they are. Certainly this is true in many technology companies. However, if you’ll look into financial institutions or other consumer facing businesses you’ll find that each department (retail, business, credit cards, e-banking, corporate) has its own toll-free number, with different people, policies and restrictions on who they can talk with and who they can’t. Obviously, these policies dictate their pay and the expectations delivered by their management, therefore chalking a problem off as someone else’s will continue to be the easy way for a service agent to get out of a difficult situation or avoid a demanding customer.

  3. jragsdale Says:

    If you think the tie to VAS is a stretch you haven’t heard the whole pitch. VAS means putting support in charge of product consumption, and that means removing any and all obstacles to customer success. If support is in charge of consumption, then they have to have influence, if not control, in every customer facing process-and that includes the back office.

    I realize that the current dysfuntion in many companies, such as having dozens of customer phone numbers and a lack of cooperation or communication between departments (and zero visiblity of customer information across departments) is a result of many years of rapid growth and acquisitions. There are a million excuses for poor customer service. None of them are acceptable.

    Customer focused organizations are alligned in a way that makes sense for the customer–not for internal processes. In an industry like telco with 30% annual churn, companies that continue to treat customers like an inconvenience deserve those high churn numbers. And with the data we have on the increased demands of younger consumers, that churn percent will only grow higher.

    I’m not saying it is easy–it took Bell Canada 10 years to consolidate to a single customer master. But the level of service, and revenue generation, they were able to achieve as a result made the journey worthwhile.

  4. Benjamin Myhre Says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if companies implemented a phone version of the 3 click rule? Although not necessarily the best for all websites, it surely would be useful for any support process if a person could find the appropriate information within 3 steps (calling the number being 1).

    Possibly a self imposed accountability measure that requires a CSR to stay on the phone with the customer if they have talked to X people/machines.

  5. jragsdale Says:

    From your mouth to the Support God’s ears!

  6. You know a lot of people don’t really realize the benefits of operating a blog. Or even how much effort that goes into creating a blog website. In all honesty running a blog could be alot of fun as well as a good way to grow a brand or maybe business.

  7. With havin so much written content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright violation?
    My site has a lot of unique content I’ve either created myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my permission. Do you know any methods to help prevent content from being stolen? I’d certainly appreciate it.

    • jragsdale Says:

      The problem with writing about ‘best practices’ is that many people have had the same experiences and learned the same things. So when I see my advice popping up elsewhere, it is hard to prove they copied my content. Most people include a link to the source, or at least mention something like “industry experts say.” But if they are stealing your content, the best you can probably do is post a comment or question asking for attribution. Good luck!

  8. Caitlyn Says:

    Wow! This blog looks exactly like my old
    one! It’s on a entirely different topic but it has pretty much
    the same page layout and design. Excellent choice of colors!

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