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.

Bombay Calling

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

I recently stumbled onto a TV program entitled Bombay Calling. It was about an offshore call center, providing a compelling exposé of an India-based outsourcing call center and the people who worked there. In a gripping documentary style, it showed both the good and the bad in offshore call centers. Just as proponents of offshoring would find plenty to celebrate, opponents would likewise be encouraged. I was both mesmerized and saddened by what I saw.

Although I have been privileged to visit many call centers in the United States, I have not had the opportunity to tour an offshore operation. Through the eye of the camera, I was fascinated to witness a call center in a culture for which I was not too familiar, functioning in a manner that was very familiar. I was pleasantly surprised to see many of the same call center conventions repeated in this overseas operation (with only a few adaptations to accommodate culture). I was greatly encouraged with the bright-eyed, enthusiastic workforce, their can-do spirit, and an optimistic outlook. How wonderful it would be to have a call center — regardless of location — filled with reps like these; but, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The show begins by introducing us to Kaz Lalani. Not only does he outsource calls to Bombay, India, but he also operates call centers in other countries. Kaz boasts that his Indian reps have a strong work ethic. They try hard and really care — unlike agents in Britain, he states (which is where this outbound campaign is targeted). His experience with British agents was not positive. He says they don’t want to work and are always watching the clock, leaving the moment their scheduled shift is over. Not so with their Indian counterparts, who work hard and eagerly stay late when needed.

There is an air of joyous excitement and capable confidence among the agents. The call center is filled with hard-working, fun-loving staff who enjoy their co-workers, their jobs, and the work they do. Staff interviews reveal why. “It’s a great job, for good pay,” states one agent, “even for an undergrad.” Another boasts that he makes more than his girlfriend — even though she has a graduate degree. A third employee dropped out of engineering school for the express purpose of pursuing a call center career.

As astounding as all this seems, the average starting pay for a call center agent in Bombay was reported to be more that four times the average Indian income. This is why young people to leave rural areas for call center work in Bombay. This does cause some angst, both for parents — who lament a loss of tradition — and their children — who must adapt to city life without the nearby help of family. Nevertheless, there is a general acquiescence to the situation. Several of the agents send money back home, pay bills for their parents, or do things to increase the standard of living for their family; all of which is made possible by their call center jobs.

With even more call centers opening in Bombay, these agents are acutely aware of the great demand for their English-speaking skills. They perceive this ability as their unrestricted ticket to opportunity and success. A paradoxical aside is that the show’s producers occasionally resorted to subtitles for some of their English-speaking interviewees — a necessary decision, which, by my reckoning, was not made often enough.

Eight months later, the call center is hurriedly expanding. They are calling Australia (first shift) and the U.K. (second shift). Some reps have been promoted to training, supervisory, and QA positions. However, the dark-side of their sharp rise in income is beginning to show. One rep proudly admits that he has become materialistic; another longs for more time to spend with his wife and child; a third wants to leave the call center, but can’t — he has become accustomed to his new standard of living. Many of the reps are now complaining about the stress of the job — and they turn to partying and alcohol — every night — to dull the pain.

With the rapid expansion, not all of the new hires are ideal and some do not work out; sales numbers plummet. Some reps aren’t concerned — they’ll just go to another center; others are worried, but at a loss what to do. One once confident rep has lost his swagger — he has gone two days without a sale — and has a shell-shocked glaze.

This call center is no longer producing like it used to — or like the others ones in the network. An ultimatum is given. Some agents are sent to retraining, others are terminated. The call center is now a somber and dreary place. A pall hangs over the cubicles; the optimism is gone. Eventually the operation is scaled back to 25 agents — some of the agents we met survive the cuts, others do not. Kaz turns his concentration to other call centers.

In Bombay, call center work is truly changing the lives of it’s agents — for better and for worse.

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