Sunday, February 26, 2006

Telling off.

Quantity of calls is inversely related to quality of design.

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Your Call Should Be Important to Us, but It's Not.

By WILLIAM C. TAYLOR

PAUL M. ENGLISH never imagined that a pet peeve would become such a cause célèbre. For more than four years, Mr. English, a veteran technologist and serial entrepreneur, has maintained a blog on which he shares everything from his favorite chocolate cake recipe to the best management advice he's received.

But last summer, fed up with too many aggravating run-ins with awful customer service, Mr. English posted a blog entry that reverberated around the world: a "cheat sheet" that explained how to break through automated interactive voice-response systems at a handful of companies and speak to a human being. He named the companies and published their codes for reaching an operator — codes that they did not share with the public.

The reaction was overwhelming. Visitors to the blog began contributing their own code-breaking secrets and spreading the word. The consumer affairs specialist for The Boston Globe wrote about Mr. English, who is now the chief technical officer of Kayak.com, a travel search engine he helped to found, and gave his online cheat sheet mainstream attention. That led to appearances on MSNBC, NPR and the BBC, an article in People magazine — and more than one million visitors to the blog in January alone.

So, this month, Mr. English transformed his righteous indignation into a full-blown crusade. He started Get Human, which he calls a grass-roots movement to "change the face of customer service." The accompanying Web site, www.gethuman.com, sets out principles for the right ways for companies to interact with customers, encourages visitors to rate their experiences (the site is to issue a monthly best-and-worst list), and publishes many more secret codes unearthed by members of the movement. As of last week, the ever-expanding cheat sheet offered cut-through-the-automation tips for nearly 400 companies.

"I'm not anticomputer," Mr. English explained over lunch near his office in suburban Boston. "I've been a programmer for more than 20 years. I'm not anticapitalist. I'm on my fifth start-up. But I am anti-arrogance. Why do the executives who run these call centers think they can decide when I deserve to speak to a human being and when I don't?"

The Get Human cheat sheet makes for entertaining — and mystifying — reading. Want to reach an operator at a certain major bank? Just press 0#0#0#0#0#0#. Want to reach an agent at a big dental insurance company? Press 00000, wait through a message, select language, 4, 0. Want to reach a human at a leading consumer electronics retailer? Press 111## and wait through three prompts asking for your home phone number.

It would be funny if it weren't so depressing — and such bad business. Countless chief executives pledge to improve their company's products and services by listening to the "voice of the customer." Memo to the corner office: Answer the phone! How can companies listen to their customers if those customers have such a hard time reaching a human being when they call?

The obvious defense is that it's prohibitively expensive to offer the personal touch to millions of curious, confused, angry (or even enthusiastic) callers. The trouble is, companies tend to be better at cutting costs than at identifying missed opportunities.

Richard Shapiro is president of the Center for Client Retention in Springfield, N.J., a business that dials out to customers who have dialed in to toll-free call centers and asks them to evaluate their experiences. He argues that customers who interact with human beings are more likely than other callers to volunteer useful information, try out a new product and come away with a strong sense of loyalty — positive outcomes that are eliminated by excessive automation.

"You create more value through a dialogue with a live agent," Mr. Shapiro said. "A call is an opportunity to build a relationship, to encourage customers to stay with the brand. There can be a real return on this investment."

It's a point that too many cost-conscious companies seem willing to overlook. In an era of fierce competition, when customers have more choices than ever, the toughest business challenge isn't to keep expenses down. It's to keep loyalty high. Anything that a company does to make its products and services a little more engaging, a little less ordinary, can pay big dividends. Anything like, say, answering the phone.

Commerce Bancorp, the service-crazed retail bank based in Cherry Hill, N.J., has generated big returns by injecting a playful spirit into a notoriously bland business. Its 375 branches, including 47 in New York City, organize street fairs and celebrations to promote an entertaining mood. The locations also feature colorful change-counting machines and upbeat employees, who every Friday are decked out in red, often to hilarious effect. The company calls its strategy "retailtainment" — and it applies as much to its call center as it does to its branches in Chinatown or on Broadway.

"Traditional banking is low cost, low service, low growth," said Dennis M. DiFlorio, president for retail banking and operations at Commerce. "It's like the electric company; everybody needs one and they're all terrible. We've built a brand on service, convenience and fun. Our call center is not a necessary evil. It's an integral part of the brand. Every call is an opportunity to reinforce to the customer that they made a good decision by banking with us."

Forget automation or outsourcing to India. At the Commerce call center in Mount Laurel, N.J., 630 employees abide by a strict code of neatness — "no sweat pants, no slippers, no junk on the desks," Mr. DiFlorio cracked — and they, too, wear red on Friday, even though customers can't see them.

Incoming calls are routed easily and directly to agents, who are encouraged not just to inform but also to maintain the same friendly and informal spirit of the branches. "We try to create as much buzz as we can in our call center," Mr. DiFlorio said, "so we can create smiles on the customers who call."

To be sure, few companies can summon the everyday exuberance of Commerce Bank. But there is another cost-effective strategy for enhancing the human element: make the company so easy to do business with that fewer customers call with problems, which frees resources to meet the needs of those who do call.

"The reason people are dialing the 1-800 number is that they're having a bad experience in some other channel," said Mark Hurst, founder and president of Creative Good, a consulting firm that advises companies on how to improve the customer experience. He is amazed, he said, at how difficult it remains on most Web sites for customers to do little things like revise an order or track a shipment. "If e-commerce were much, much simpler," he said, "a huge percentage of these calls would never be made."

JIM KELLY, chief customer service officer at ING Direct, the online bank with 3.5 million customers and deposits of nearly $40 billion, takes the case for simplicity a step further. ING Direct keeps its entire product line simple. It offers a small number of easy-to-understand products such as savings accounts, certificates of deposit and no-frills mortgages. The savings programs entail no annual fees or account minimums.

As a result, the average ING Direct customer calls the bank only 1.6 times a year. The calls that do come in are answered by full-time employees who don't rely on scripted answers and don't work under strict time limits.

"The key word for us is simplicity," Mr. Kelly said. "If you eliminate service charges and hidden fees, you eliminate most of the problems and complaints. Then the only reason for people to call is to do business. And those are calls you're eager to take."

That sort of thinking is music to Paul English's ears — although most days, his ears are ringing with outrage from aspiring consumer activists eager to join Get Human. "There's a little 'rage against the machine' to this, but there's a business message as well," Mr. English said. "I want companies to wake up and ask themselves, 'How did we ever let it get this bad?' "

William C. Taylor is a co-founder and founding editor of Fast Company magazine. He lives in Wellesley, Mass.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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