Training Beyond Customer Service


Training Beyond Customer Service

It’s interesting the effect that pressure has.

I’ve been bouncing around some ideas related to customer service in my head for a few months, but it was not until I HAD to write them down in the form of a paper for a conference that I was pushed to form them into some coherent whole. Of course, that was easier said than done, especially when I realized that I was working with some compound insights. In other words, I had insights that I had been using for some time, that have themselves been assembled into compound insights. But I had never written the original insights down… so I had to go back and lay the groundwork, and this I found somewhat annoying, although necessary.

Make sense? 🙂

One idea I finally had to explain is how little customer service training in the Caribbean is directed towards generating a particular customer experience.

If anything, I would say that our front-line staff in the Caribbean is only trained to follow the “right” process, and little else (with notable exceptions). What does that mean, exactly?

It simply means that as a customer, over and over, it seems as if customer service representatives (CSR’s) are only expected by their managers to say and do the required actions that they have been told to say and do. CSR’s are quite satisfied when they have done so, and seem to have either an ignorance of, or indifference to the experience that I and other customers are having.

I recently noticed this phenomena with three companies in different settings, and for the sake of competitive fairness, I’ll use three companies that offer services in the same industry – Digicel, Cable and Wireless and TSTT (Trinidad’s monopoly telephone provider).

As mentioned in a prior post, I have been waiting for basic fixed line service from Cable and Wireless here in Jamaica from Aug 8th, and as of today, Sep 27th, I have not received service. When I call to complain/beg/cajole, which I do almost every other day now, I receive a uniform response – “We don’t know.” That is the fixed response that my wife and I have gotten to every question that we’ve asked. There has been not a single show of concern, regret or apology.

I can tell by the response that they are “following the party line.” We’ve also tried the tactic of asking for a supervisor, only to be told that “they are just going to tell you the same thing.”

Once, I did get through to a supervisor, who told us that he’d check into it and call us back. We’re still waiting almost 4 weeks later.

In Trinidad, TSTT, in which Cable and Wireless holds a minority stake, has an awful habit of taking down their network for days at a time. It’s an amazing piece of monopoly-driven behaviour that has generated significant ill-will among Trinidadians who, from all indications, are even more eager than we Jamaicans were to bring in cellular phone competition. This is due to start in early 2006, which is not a moment too soon for most Trinis.

The joke is that with a likely and immediate drop in revenue on the near horizon, TSTT’s customer service remains painful to experience. When TSTT introduced GSM service I was told by everyone who switched over ( i.e. lured by false promises) to hold on to my old TDMA service. Three years later, I was being told the same thing, except that at this point, my TDMA phone was falling apart. I was forced into an upgrade, and had to make three trips to TSTT to get a new chip and a new number (transfers of old numbers were “backordered’ and would take weeks to accomplish).

I happened to go on a day on which “the system was down” and when I returned later that day, I was told by 3 CSR’s that I recognized (they were casually strolling around Trincity mall) that the system was still down.

Undaunted, I went up to check for myself and was told that the system was back up. About fifteen minutes later, the 3 CSR’s casually strolled in and started taking customers from what was by now a considerable line of people. They may have been on a sanctioned break for all I know, but the truth is that they must have been idle for several hours before that break due to the system being down. They were oblivious to all around them…

And, to add insult to injury, the entire cell-phone system went down for two whole days starting the day after (this occurrence is inconceivable to us in Jamaica).

Digicel, for its part, came to Jamaica as a breath of fresh air and has been able to capture over 50% of the cellular phone market in just three short years. Their trademark has been a combination of better pricing, better service and wide availability (going to a Cable and Wireless office used to be seen as one of the worst evils imaginable).

Lately, however, Digicel customer service operators have clearly been “trained.”

Every conversation with a Digicel CSR goes something like this:

“Can I have your name please?”


“Mr. Francis, thank you for calling Mr. Francis, how can we help you today Mr. Francis?”

“My voicemail cannot be reached”

“Mr. Francis, I’m sorry to hear that Mr. Francis, and let me see what the problem is Mr. Francis.”

While I’m exaggerating to demonstrate the point, the effect of the CSR using my name over and over again in this unnatural way makes me think I’m dealing with some kind of machine, worse than any I encountered while living in the U.S.

But this is only annoying.

Clearly, Digicel, has also trained its CSR’s to keep the phone conversations short, and they might even be measured on the amount of calls they accept per CSR.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? Well, in each case that I’ve called, I’ve had to struggle to keep the CSR on the phone, and to prevent them from hanging up on me before I was finished asking my questions, and long before the issue was resolved.

Throw in a “Mr. Francis” here and a “Mr. Francis” there and the conversation is comical:

“I would suggest that you call back later Mr. Francis, and I’d like to thank you for calling Mr. Francis, and have a nice….”

“WAIT, I’m not finished yet!!!!”

“Yes, Mr. Francis?” (in an exasperated tone)

“How do I know that I’ll be able to fix this next time I call? What will be different then?”

“Well Mr. Francis, perhaps by then we will have a solution, but I’d like to thank you for calling Mr. Francis, and hope that it gets resolved next time Mr. Francis, and have a nice…”

“WAIT, Hold on, I’m not finished yet!!!!”

And so it goes, on and on — with me desperately trying to keep them on the phone, and them rushing to get off.

The thing that Cable and Wireless, Digicel and TSTT have not understood is that their employees were probably trained to be “good students” or what we in Jamaica would call “nice students.” In other words, they are very-well trained to follow orders and follow procedures. You cannot get through our Caribbean education system, with its do-or-die examinations at different levels, without being proficient at following sometimes mindless routines.

In fact, Caribbean slavery and indentureship were all about doing as little work as possible under duress, and just enough to avoid punishment. In Barbados, (where my observation is that this behaviour has reached an apogee,) I’ve heard this called “malicious compliance.”

The employee is trained to follow the rules, and does so, against what I believe are some of his/her natural instincts.

Thankfully, there is a new standard of customer service that is more appropriate for Caribbean customers – training in producing a particular customer experience (also called a “branded customer experience”).

This approach takes much more focused effort to both define the experience, and to train employees in producing it. The definition requires senior management involvement, and for the benefit of Caribbean employees be put into song, verse and script in order to get the definition across. The experience might be as simple as “Customers feel cared for in every interaction” or “Customers are able to get on with their day as soon as possible.”

One benefit of focusing on a particular experience, is that is puts the employee squarely in the world of the customer, so that instead of wondering whether or not their boss will be mad at them, they focus their energy on how to produce the desired customer experience.

Clearly, the CSR’s that I encountered from Digicel, C&W and TSTT did not care about my experience, as they would probably say that that was just not a part of their job. Their job was to follow the instructions they had been given (as good students would) and to do as they were told.

The fact is, providing a particular customer experience takes more than following the rules, and in many cases the rules that work in places like North America do not work here in the Caribbean (and even have the opposite effect). Instead, it takes a different level of awareness of what’s occurring in the customer’s world, combined with some ingenuity to determine how to provide it given the business constraints that the company must operate within.

The good news is that the Caribbean has no shortage of people who are tuned into the experience of others, and an over-abundance of ingenuity… if only these could be combined in some unique ways we could go well beyond dealing with people who are just “following the process” and come to know our companies by the quality experiences that they offer.