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Customer service boils down to a simple give and take: customers have questions or problems and companies provide answers. It’s pretty straightforward. But all too often, customers are left befuddled, scratching their heads and wondering: “What did they mean? Were they listening? What do I do now?”

Transparency and authenticity are the buzzwords of business. So why can’t customer service be more clear?

Let’s look at the word “answer”. Merriam Webster gives it two very different meanings:

  1. Something spoken or written in reply to a question. 
  2. A correct response.

Companies and their call centers often conflate the two meanings and assume that because they replied, they provided an answer.  But while all answers act as replies, not all replies provide an answer.  A real answer is accurate, complete, understandable and addresses the customer’s unique situation.  When customers ask for solutions, but get vague replies and obfuscations, brand loyalty and advocacy plummet. While yammering happens in stores, it is particularly prevalent in call centers.

There are a number of contributing factors:

First, follow the money: sadly, blather is profitable. Typically, revenues rise as call centers chat, talk and email more, regardless of the information conveyed and quality of the answer. And unstrategic call centers view web self-service as a revenue-eliminator, instead of seeing self service for what it is: a way to increase customer satisfaction.

Furthermore, good answers require an investment in resources and a level of spending that is beyond the scope of a typical call center.  Between putting out fires and filling seats (no easy task) call centers are stretched thin—at least relative to the budgets clients require.

Plus, sometimes companies are in a hurry to provide the bells and whistles of excellent customer service, the kind of service that personalizes, customizes and brands. While we always advocate doing more with customer service, this should never be at the expense of the basics. As Dixon, Freeman and Toman in the Harvard Business Review note, “what customers really want (but rarely get) is just a satisfactory solution to their service issue.” In other words, make sure your answers pass muster before aspiring to excellence.

How do you guarantee correct answers? For this, you may very well need an answer engine technology and you’ll also need what we call a Total Answer Management strategy. As Tom Wentworth and others have pointed out, technology is great but it won’t cure your customer experience by itself.  Here’s what a strategy of Total Answer Management means:

Total: Take inventory and prepare a report that details every question (including small variations) that customers have.  Make sure you study enough interactions—it should be at least one week’s worth of conversations.

Answer: Nail the responses to each and every customer question and thoroughly vet those answers for substance and style. Chefs show their cooks everything: how they want the egg poached, how the dish should be garnished and plated, etc. Likewise, if you can’t show your associates a perfect answer, don’t expect them to come up with it on their own. Without clear examples, customers will get different answers depending time of day and who they reach. That’s what Gallup found in their study of the quality of customer service in the Harvard Business Review: “the customer experience still depends almost entirely on the particular rep who takes the call.”

Management: Determine which questions are best answered by which customer service channel.  While some questions can be answered by an FAQ, others require the kind of interaction that only a phone call provides.  Management is about directing customers and measuring answer gaps. It’s also about continually monitoring to determine when answers need to be upgraded or added to—all while gauging how well call centers deliver on their promises.

How well do you answer customer questions?  We’d love to hear about your answer solutions and call center strategies.

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