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The Gangster Economy

How some firms are using IT to turn customers against them


Strategist Gangster Economy clipping

Intimidation, aggression, arrogance, a lack of respect: Some companies’ approach to business in 2014

Chris Middleton explores the dark side of customer service, where banks, utilities and credit companies have seemingly declared war on the public. Why is this happening, and what should they do better?

ORGANISATIONS SHORT“I’ve tried to block the calls, but they come from at least a dozen different numbers. Recently, I’ve answered calls from UK mobile numbers but at the other end is an Indian call centre. It’s like a virus that keeps mutating. It’s a nightmare. Sometimes I’m left shaking with anger at the stupidity of it all.”

This is the voice of a customer who is being harassed and intimidated by his own bank. He was a day late paying his credit card bill – because the same bank’s online systems had failed, locking him out of his account when he needed to pay. This customer could have been any one of us.

At a time when the economy is fragile, consumer confidence is low and corporate reputations can be won or lost on social media, you would expect major companies to get closer to their customers, not hold them at arm’s length or strong-arm them into compliance.

But despite this, a range of organisations have seized the opportunities afforded to them by customer management technologies to become cold, distant and aggressive. Here’s a transcript of a genuine conversation between one customer and a call centre, which he recorded and sent to the Strategist after being harassed for weeks by the same company – another major credit provider.

A call comes from an unknown mobile number, apparently within the UK. The customer has stored and blocked the 10 or more previous numbers that his credit card company has used to harass him.
Call centre: “Is that Mister [mispronounces common English name]?”
Customer: [Corrects pronunciation] “Who is this please?”
Call centre: “I am calling on behalf of [redacted].”
Customer: “Where are you calling from? What country? Your number is a UK mobile.”
Call centre: “India.”
Customer: “Look, I told your company to stop calling me.”
Call centre: “But we want to talk to you.”
Customer: [Shouting] “Why won’t you listen to me? Why are you still calling me?”
Call centre: “We want to talk to you.”
Customer: “But I’ve told you I don’t want to talk to you. I am instructing you never to call this number again. Do you understand?”
Call centre: [Aggressive]: “The calls will continue.”
Customer: “Excuse me?”
Call centre: [Low voice] “The calls will continue.”
Customer: “Why?”
Call centre: “Because we are using an automated system.”

Many of us have had similar experiences. For evidence, pick any utility, credit card provider, insurer or bank and search online for that company, adding in “customer complaints” as a search term. Then try “call centres” and modify the search with “problems”.

Some customer reports from the frontline allege an approach to business that might seem closer to the streets of 1920s Brooklyn or Chicago than to 21st Century customer management – with call centres deployed as brute force, seemingly to intimidate people or bulldoze them into accepting services.

That’s the view of a range of UK consumers who are shocked by the ways in which some organisations treat their loyalty and custom. Strategist magazine has spoken to a variety of people about their customer contact experiences. We have anonymised all the parties concerned.

Credit card Customer A says: “My card has been a source of constant intimidation. The company’s Indian call centre harasses me with calls day and night, starting as early as 8.30am and finishing sometimes around 9pm. I don’t have enough money to close my account.”

Telecoms Customer B says: “Sometimes calls come within five minutes of each other. The next caller has no record of the previous conversation, nor of the countless times I’ve told them to stop calling me.”

Credit card Customer C says: “At one point I was receiving up to 20 calls a day, often until late in the evening. My number is registered with a telephone preference service, but still the calls keep coming.”

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Problems on tap

One telecoms customer says: “I was obliged to have a landline when I opened my broadband account. The only people who call me on it are the phone company, who think that it’s their own marketing hotline.

“I’ve asked them not to call me, but they’ve told me it’s not up to me – it’s their line as opposed to my number, but one end of it is in my home. I plugged in the phone the other day for the first time in six months. Two minutes later it rang. It was the phone company. It’s like turning on a tap.”

A customer of the same national telco said: “I closed my account because the company kept calling me at 8 o’clock at night on my home number with sales calls and special offers. I actually pleaded with them to stop. But they said that, because I was their customer, they had a right to call me even if I told them not to. So I said I’d close my account if they refused to stop. They said, OK, if that’s what I wanted to do. Incredible. They’d rather lose me as a customer than agree to stop hassling me.”

In extreme cases, this might be illegal under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, or Section 40 of the Administration of Justice Act 1970, or the Communications Act 2003 – all of which seek to protect consumers from aggressive or persistent tactics, such as these.

Banking Customer F supplied a recording of a common variation on this theme. Here’s a partial transcript:

A call comes from an unknown number to the customer’s mobile.
Call centre: “Is that Mr [redacted]?”
Customer: “Yes. Who is this?”
Call centre: “We need to ask you some security questions before we can continue.”
Customer: “Sorry, but who are you? Why are you calling me?”
Call centre: “I cannot tell you that, sir, because of data protection laws.”
Customer: “But who are you? What does your company do?”
Call centre: “Do you have an account with [redacted]?”
Customer: “Who are you? I want to know who you are before I answer any questions.”
Call centre: “I’m not at liberty to divulge that information, sir. You must first answer some security questions. Then I can tell you who we are and why we’re calling you.”

This is customer contact as an Orwellian or Kafka-esque nightmare. The question of whether a third-party customer management services provider is following its client’s instructions, or interpreting them narrowly to hit performance targets, is irrelevant. As far as the consumer is concerned, the calls come from their chosen brand. A company might publicly blame its supplier if customer complaints increase, but the damage will be to its own reputation.

The lesson from such failures must be that customer relations is not an arms race. Organisations that accumulate more and more weapons to reach the ears of people who, in many cases, are actively trying to stop them, should step back and consider what they are really in business for.

Ofcom, Trading Standards, the Office of Fair Trading, and social media platforms are weapons in the customer’s own, defensive, arsenal. But the strategic question remains: Why drive a tank onto the field of business simply because technology allows you to? Should customers be hiding in a bunker to escape the onslaught?

Ghost in the machine

In recent years Ofcom has acted to tackle so-called ‘ghost’ or ‘silent’ calls to UK residents – a problem associated with dialler applications that call more numbers than human agents can handle. More recently, robot calls (‘This is an important message: Do not hang up the phone.’) have proliferated. For mobile users, constant interruptions from 0845 numbers can be highly intrusive. 

Another common strategy is to force customers to call premium-rate phone lines to talk to customer-support agents and technical teams. This begs the question of what incentive some organisations have to deal with problems swiftly, when they can profit more by keeping customers on hold. During its catastrophic IT systems failure in 2012, RBS Group was criticised for setting up a premium-rate support line when customers were unable to access their accounts for several days.

Lessons for strategists

To return to the challenge of searching online for customer complaints. Why take it? The answer is that this is what customers are doing, and they will share their findings with others on Twitter, on Facebook groups, and on consumer advice portals.

Strategist magazine 'Gangster Economy' layout

How we covered the story in our print issue.

People will share their enthusiasm for good products, but an organisation’s support services are just as important, and the customer’s experience there may tell a different story. People are more likely to Tweet about a poor experience than they are about a well-handled call.

In effect, there is a hidden economy, an alternative stock exchange where a company’s market capitalisation is measured in goodwill or bad by the public, rather than by shareholders.

Good public service and shareholder value ought to go hand in hand, but the reality is sometimes different. In the case of some utilities, telecoms providers, insurance providers, airlines, banks and credit companies, their goodwill stock rides at historic lows.

The problem is that this network effect forms a background chatter about how a company treats its customers, because on the floor of the ‘goodwill exchange’ the traders are the customers, and their loyalty will switch to rival stocks.

Everyone wants to feel valued and no one wants to take second place to cost-cutting, which, to many customers, is all that an offshore customer contact centre represents. 

BT, MBNA, British Gas, Vodafone and many others have been criticised in recent years for poor call centre service – in some cases for long waiting times and a lack of audit trails of conversations, and in others for aggressive agents or alleged harassment by phone.

Call centre agents can only work with data from the client company’s systems, but they also need to be able to think on their feet and be tactful. That can be difficult if agents are given scripts to follow and have a set number of calls to answer, or to make.

The other side of the fence

The agent side of the equation should never be overlooked. ‘Rick’ is a call centre training expert of many years’ experience within blue-chip clients. He says that finding, training, motivating and retaining agents who have the right people skills is a huge challenge in a traditionally high-churn role.

“Generally, customers don’t enjoy any call centre experience,” he says. “That makes it difficult for the advisor, who may not be enjoying it either. So you have two people who don’t want to be in the conversation.

“Many companies think: ‘We don’t need people to be amazing. We need them to take lots of calls’, and I can tell you that some of them actively recruit people who display a lack of direction or independence, which means amazing customer service just can’t happen. A production-line mentality breeds production-line service.”

While call centre operators bear the brunt of customer complaints, one of the reasons for inadequate service is poorly integrated IT systems. Being transferred from department to department when calling a customer support line is a problem that most people are familiar with, but it’s really an indication that either the company or its supplier has poor links between billing and customer data.

If a company’s billing system has faults – as British Gas’ did between 2007 and 2009, for example – then its call centres become the focus for customer rage. Complaints to British Gas tripled as far back as 2007, before the credit crunch and serial financial crises hit, yet residual customer resentment remains – partly because of rising energy prices.

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Tired solutions

There is another problem, too: the ‘factory floor’ concept of voice-based call centres looks tired and inflexible in an age of social networking. Alternative models are emerging. Some cloud computing services providers have added voice functions to their hosted platforms. The advantage of this, they claim, is that contact centres can be integrated with a ‘dashboard’ of other tools for a company to use, including CRM, email and webchat.

Virtual call centres linking networks of home-based agents are another alternative to the factory-floor model. These may offer similar economies of scale and cost to offshore centres, while putting agents in more control of their own working lives and environments.

Reputation management is a further emerging technology market that some companies are dipping their toes into, but this suggests that they see it as another technology to invest in, a tactic, rather than as something that all sensible organisations should be doing anyway – simply by offering good service.

It is essentially social media management – the ability for organisations to pick up negative chatter and deal with problems as they emerge. But again, organisations should test the waters carefully.

Answering customer Tweets or Facebook postings might be seen as proactive, but equally it might be seen as an intrusion into customers’ personal space – akin to being pestered by unwanted calls, in fact. Many people complain about the increased corporate presence on their Facebook walls, for example.

Who takes the blame?

The challenge for companies that choose to outsource customer management to a third party is where the buck stops when it goes wrong. The only contact that some customers may have with an organisation may be through a third-party call centre.

Not only that, but the contact takes place around such sensitive areas as complaints and payment problems, including arrears or inability to pay. These are pain points where any mismatch between the organisation’s claimed values and the call centre’s service will undermine that company’s standing in its customer’s eyes. How they are dealt with goes to the core of what any venture is about.

It is here that customer loyalty can be secured or vindicated for the long term, but also undone in an instant – and not just by the specifics of a service, such as the accuracy of data or the integration of back-end systems, but also by the ‘feel’ of the experience.

This is why many organisations bring specialist suppliers onboard, of course: third-party providers have the scale, the expertise and the investment in new technologies to provide an enterprise-level service at competitive cost. This can help transform the ways in which many companies liaise with their customers, and help them develop new ones.

However, quality remains the outstanding challenge. Simply providing good service is the best advertisement for an organisation there is, and yet some companies give the impression that this takes second place to cost. After all, at the front end, there is simply a conversation between two people: the enterprise’s supplier, and the enterprise’s customer. It is in the enterprise’s interests that both hang up the phone satisfied. TS

The Strategist says: Be a good seller, not a goodfella
• Customers will tell friends and colleagues about good service. That’s worth more than any advertising campaign.
• Stop using martial arts terminology to describe business processes. (What use is Six Sigma if your customers hate talking to you?)
• Accept that no one loves voice-based call centres – most customers hate them.
• Good contact centres reinforce the values that made a customer buy. Poor centres undermine them.
• Remember that recession has changed all customers’ behaviour and made them hypercritical and insecure.
• Any decision to outsource customer contact work will have an impact on the organisation’s business culture.
• Third-party call centre agents may be the only people who talk to customers on the organisation’s behalf. So it isn’t just about cost.
• Ensure that any outsourced provider understands and can represent the organisation’s values.
• Question the reasons for outsourcing, and compare the answers with the organisation’s strategic goals.
• Look again at any sourcing decision that is based solely on cost reduction. (How much does an angry customer cost?)
• Local knowledge, cultural affinity and compliance issues are vital considerations when choosing an offshore provider.
• Scripted responses may prevent agents from thinking on their feet and actually helping the customer.
• It is a service provider’s responsibility to find, train, motivate and retain staff. Call centre work is typically ‘high churn’.
• Consider whether outsourced customer services could be used to complement rather than replace internal capacity.
• Ensure that your organisation has the right middle-management team in place to manage external providers.
• London School of Economics research shows that good middle managers on both sides are essential for successful outcomes.
• Simply throwing tasks ‘over the wall’ to a provider will fail.
Improved customer response levels, answering times and costs per call are essential statistics to gather. However…
• Accurate metrics are much harder to gather and analyse when centres deal with customer care. (How does the customer feel?)
• Remember: Your customers have access to global platforms too.

This is a bespoke, fully revised and expanded version of a feature by Chris Middleton that was first published in Professional Outsourcing magazine (edited by Chris Middleton).



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