Book Review: The Napkin, the Melon & the Monkey

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Promoted as “a customer service fable,” The Napkin, the Melon & the Monkey is ambitiously subtitled: How to Be Happy and Successful at Work and in Life by Simply Changing Your Mind. Let me confirm that I believe it lives up to its grandiose intention.

The inside back cover notes that author “Barbara Burke is an internationally known consultant, speaker, and author who specializes in the ‘people side’ of customer service management.” The Napkin, the Melon & the Monkey is all about customer service, in this case, specifically customer service in a call center. However, its lessons can be readily applied to all customer service situations, as well as to life in general.

Reminiscent of the classic The One Minute Manager, this fable follows the vocational pursuits of Olivia, a harried customer service representative – that is, a call center agent – working for the local utility. Starting her position with much excitement and expectation, it isn’t long before the crush of complaint calls and barbs from angry customers brings her to her breaking point.

It is then when wise Isabel, an insightful veteran of the team, comes to Olivia’s rescue. With one simple piece of advice, Isabel changes Olivia’s job outlook and career trajectory. This, however, is not the only interaction between mentor and mentee, but the first of many such exchanges. Along the way, Olivia records twenty-two “aha!” moments, which have broad applications for call center work, customer service efforts, and life itself.

In case you’re wondering how a napkin, a melon, and a monkey fit into this, let me assure you that they do, serving as apt metaphors for three key points and reoccurring themes in the book. But don’t take my word for it – read The Napkin, the Melon & the Monkey yourself… and then share it with your coworkers. It just might make all the difference.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is a published author and commercial freelance writer who provides content marketing services.

Does Anyone Really Like Speech Recognition?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I’m a huge fan of technology — and the allure of speech recognition (also called IVR or interactive voice response) carries with it great appeal. Yet when it comes to real-life implementations, I find it decidedly lacking and frustration-filled.

In the past I’ve been reticent to state my disinclination — knowing that I’m part of the problem: my words often lack clarity. Clearly, I don’t make a speech recognition engine’s job easy.

Some errors are easily explainable given my imprecise speaking tendencies, such as asking for Candy Lane and ending up with Cam DeLain. However, other occurrences are nonsensical, making for a great comedy skit, albeit poor customer service. For example:

“Good morning, Acme Call Center; your call is important to us. Please say the department or name of the person you are calling.”

“Sally Pavasaris” I dutifully respond.

“Did you say “Ned Flanders?”

“NO,” I exclaim! Nothing happens. “Sal-ee-Pa-va-sar-is,” I decidedly project using my best possible diction.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Please say the department or name of the person you are calling.”

“Agent!” I implore. “Operator!” I beg. I begin pressing zero with repeated vigor. When I’m finally connected to a person, my demeanor is less than stellar. I know why, but the agent is clueless, likely muttering about rude customers after she transfers my call.

To further complicate matters, what if I don’t know the person’s full name? What if I can’t pronounce their last name? Speech recognition is ill equipped for such situations.

Another common issue that I have is a quandary on how to proceed when the software and I talk at the same time. A common dilemma is:

“Please say your account number…”

“Seven,” I begin.

“…followed by the pound sign,” the voice continues.

At this point I have a critical decision to make, the ramifications of which could have frustrating consequences. Do I assume that “seven” was recognized, allowing me to confidently proceed in giving my account number? Or should I play it safe and repeat the first digit? If I guess wrongly even more time will be wasted attempting fruitless communication with a machine. Either way, I’ll inevitably hear: “I’m sorry; that number is invalid; please try again.”

Sometimes I try to suppress my impatient tendencies (why am I patient with people and impatient with machines?) and wait to make sure the voice is done talking. Sometimes I pause too long, at which point I’m rewarded with the unappreciated prompt, “Please respond now.”

To avoid causing the voice further frustration, I quickly comply. This usually results in the situation I was attempting to avoid in the first place — the machine and I simultaneously speaking. At this point things usually spiral further out of control. The software still doesn’t know my account number, I still don’t know when to speak and when to listen, and I’m sensing that the likelihood of talking with a real person — versus talking to a machine trying to act like a person — is even more unlikely then when I started the call.

It is true that a careful speech recognition implementation can serve to speed up call processing and improve caller satisfaction. Sadly, that goal is not often realized. Instead, grandiose efforts are attempted, with little to show for it — aside from frustrated customers and unnecessarily maligned telephone agents and customer service personnel. Is that the intended result of technology?

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is a published author and commercial freelance writer who provides content marketing services.

Your Call Center on Autopilot

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I remember calling Visa with a query about my statement. The knowledgeable rep professionally answered my question. After an effective and otherwise satisfying call, he concluded by saying, “Thank you for calling American Express.”

I was taken aback, but opted to say nothing. Either he was oblivious to what he uttered or mortified that he had stated the wrong company. In either case, his mouth was on autopilot and his mind was disengaged. Seeking to avoid causing him embarrassment, I politely responded, “You’re welcome,” and ended the call.

In contemplating this, I wondered if he recently changed jobs, moving from American Express to Visa. More likely was that he worked for a credit card outsource call center, which handled calls for both Visa and American Express. (An alternate explanation is that he was merely bored, seeing how people responded to his miscommunication — stranger things have happened.)

Call center work involves a great deal of repetition, which often occurs in quick succession. It is no wonder that agents easily switch on their autopilot and mindlessly cruise through their day. Even the best of agents can occasionally succumb to this phenomenon, with uncaring reps subsisting in that mode. As such, we can expect a certain percentage of call center communication to subconsciously uttered. Is it any wonder that mistakes occur?

Matters are made worse when a metrics-motivated manager pushes agents to answer quicker, conclude calls faster, and process more transactions per hour. The result can be agents who are mentally on the next call before the current one is finished.

I’ve seen another amusing autopilot occurrence happen at the conclusion of a call. It’s when agents inquire, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” Often this is an appropriate query, ensuring that all the caller’s reasons for contact have been fully addressed. Sometimes, however, it is nonsensical or even infuriating.

One such unwarranted situation is when terminating a service. I call to cancel my account. I tell the agent that I am not happy with their product, that it didn’t meet my expectations, and that nothing can be done to mitigate the situation. I am trying to be polite, but I know that I am terse. After an apology and some subsequent typing, the agent announces that my account has been cancelled — then cheerfully asks, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

What else might there be? I don’t think I’ll open an account — I just closed one. I certainly won’t place an order; I’m not happy with the service and I am no longer a customer. There are no pending issues. So what might else might they help me with? Nothing — so why ask?

Another scenario occurs when calling with a question. After vainly trying to help, the rep apologizes for their failure, and then asks, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” I want to scream, “You couldn’t help me with my first question, so how could there be anything else?”

The only thing that is accomplished by asking that question in the wrong situation is to waste my time and theirs. At this point some call center managers may be countering, “Our agents aren’t on autopilot; it’s our policy to say that on every call.”

To which I ask, “Why?”

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is a published author and commercial freelance writer who provides content marketing services.

Channel Inconsistency

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

When there is inconsistency between different channel promotions — Website, call center, and physical store — everyone suffers: staff, prospects, and customers. The result is prospects and customers venting to staff, with front line employees — as as store clerks and call center agents –getting the brunt of this understandable, but avoidable, customer angst.

This point was underscored to me during recent efforts to upgrade my family’s cell phones. My daughter served as the guinea pig, replacing her phone first. As is increasingly common, she did her research online and then went to their store to complete the purchase. The $139.99 phone she selected had an instant $99.99 rebate and a $40 mail-in rebate; her net cost was zero. Everything proceeded as expected and the phone was procured. We thought nothing of the fact that the Website promotion matched the in-store price.

Giving her stamp of approval for the phone, a few weeks later we moved forward to replace three more. Confidently we returned to the store, but to our dismay the price for that phone had changed. There was no longer a mail-in rebate and the net cost would be $29.99 per phone.

Discouraged, we retreated home and returned to their Website. Online pricing had changed, too, but differently. The cyberspace deal offered a $139 instant rebate, resulting in a net cost of 99¢. That was acceptable, so I proceed to place the order, but was stymied by a popup that told me I couldn’t upgrade online; it referred me to a toll free number. I called. Incredibly, their price was $50. When I mentioned the online offer, the agent quickly matched it.

A few days later, I called to order the fifth and final phone. Foolishly, I had not noted the 800 number given in the popup window online. Instead of repeating a futile pretense of ordering online just to obtain it, I called the number listed on my bill.

This time I was provided with still another pricing situation. My net cost would be $40 to obtain the same phone. I enlightened the agent on the deal offered two days prior. She was confused, musing about the different options at her disposal to provide a more attractive price. She knew she could reduce my cost to $29.95, perhaps even $20 — with manager approval — but not 99¢.

I mentioned the Website deal and asked her to match it. She told me she wasn’t allowed to do that. “But the person I talked to on Monday matched it,” I implored. Again she was confused. After additional queries, she was able to clarify the situation. She was in customer service while the prior person I talked to was in sales. Sales could match Website offers; customer service could not. Unbelievably she had a sales quota of two phones per day. Although she remained professional, I could sense frustration in her voice and words. Giving me the number for sales, she was diminishing her chances to meet her quota. I called sales and bought the phone for 99¢.

Incredibly, the store had one price, the website another, customer service had a third, and sales quoted a fourth. Customer service had pricing latitude, but sales had more. Is that anyway to run a business? Is subjecting front line staff to nonsensical pricing and frustrating policies any way to treat employees? Is it any way to treat customers?

What is desperately needed is channel consistency.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is a published author and commercial freelance writer who provides content marketing services.

A Shocking Experience

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

When I call a contact center, I pay special attention to what happens. I can’t help it. Over the years I have evaluated and critiqued enough calls that it has become habit, even though I no longer need to do so. Fortunately, this tendency provides anecdotal fodder for articles and the occasional righteous rant.

One recent call was, indeed, shocking, not for any deficiency or appalling behavior, but because it was so good. Sadly, I have become so conditioned to sub-par and ineffective phone support, that I am surprised when professionalism and efficacy actually occur — how disheartening. This whole realization was quite shocking to me. I have spent most of my adult life passionately working in and diligently promoting an industry from which I have begrudgingly acquiesced to accept mediocrity.

Here’s my saga. A few weeks ago, I received a subscription invoice for a magazine I had never heard of nor received. This is not unexpected; it seems to happen often. I politely wrote “please cancel” on the invoice and returned it in their pre-paid envelope, hoping to be done with the whole affair.

A few days later, the magazine arrived. I looked at it and realized that it might be worth reading; I enjoyed it and wished I hadn’t cancelled it. (In retrospect, it is likely that, on a whim or burst of spontaneity, I did request it, but I have no recollection of doing so.)

I pondered what to do. I wasn’t fair that the publisher had sent me the magazine in good faith but wasn’t going to be paid for it. I also wanted to ensure that I received future issues without interruption. Frankly, I wondered if I had the fortitude to contact the publisher in order to attempt to resolve it.

Notice that I said “attempt to resolve it.” Overall recent experience had so numbed my expectations that I was doubtful of a successful outcome. How many phone calls would I need to make? How many times would I be transferred to the wrong person or department? Would I be cut off or hung up on? Would I be told to call another number and then another, only to be referred back to the first? Would I be able to understand and effectively communicate with the agent? Would they comprehend the situation and know what to do? Could I end up making matters worse?

These questions permeated my mind, and they were all based on frustrating and fruitless experience. I gathered my resolve, actually blocking out time to focus on this formidable task.

Thankfully, things got off to a good start when I quickly located a clearly labeled “subscription number” number in the magazine. It was a toll-free call, which was another bonus. Even so, I took a deep breath before I dialed the number.

I began counting rings (an old habit). One ring, two… and it was answered! The agent was both pleasant and professional; she seemed happy to talk to me. She was easily understandable, speaking the same dialect of English as me. I explained my dilemma and she immediately grasped it. No transfer, no pondering, no delays. “I can take care of it,” she said confidently.” And she did.

Pleasantly and effectively resolving an issue on the first call isn’t hard to do, but in my experience it is shockingly rare.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is a published author and commercial freelance writer who provides content marketing services.

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