Call centres and the death of customer service

Recently I was forced to break one of my principles and ring a call centre, because the Department for Home Affairs do not respond to correspondence or accept visitors. Initially call centres were a good idea, offering flexibility for customers to solve queries outside of office hours. Then organisations realised the cost savings and began closing local offices, to the detriment of customers with hearing difficulties, different first languages or a preference for face-to-face contact. Experienced staff were replaced by those with no knowledge and no plans to stay. To assist them organisations provided manuals to answer frequently asked customer questions.

As the internet developed organisations put the manuals online. That was a good idea, to save time for customers. Then they cut the number of call centre staff. If you don’t have internet access or your question isn’t answered by the manuals, as mine wasn’t, you have to ring and wait for someone to read the manual to you. When you point out that it doesn’t answer your question, they are unable to help. Most organisations risk losing customers to rivals with better guidance or local offices. Government departments are safe because the people who need them cannot take their business elsewhere.

MP are ultimately responsible for this fiasco. They should order the Department for Home Affairs, and others, to provide contact choices to the people who fund it. Unfortunately like the call centres, their knowledge and procedures are out of touch with the modern world.

The £100 million giveaway

If your business lost £100 million to customer fraud you would take some action, such as investing in better security or identifying and prosecuting the offenders. Last week it was revealed that this is the estimated cost of fare evasion on Transport for London (TFL) services, a rise of £14 million from the last estimate three years ago. Their response was a vague remark about investing in technology and working with partners.

TFL employs 450 revenue protection inspectors, or ticket collectors as they were once known. On a salary of less than £50,000 an extra two thousand could be hired with the £100 million. Or the government grants which comprise 32% of TFL’s revenue could be reduced and the £100 million used to build a new hospital or fund initiatives to help the homeless.

TFL is expected to have a deficit of £700 million in the next financial year. It is likely that they will continue to purse a policy of closing ticket offices and increasing fares. This will only make fare evasion more attractive and increase the deficit further. Not that TFL care, because they’re not paying for it.


360 Degrees of Pain

360 degree feedback is akin to a chairman asking football players to decide if the coach should be sacked or not. The idea is to gather opinions from everyone, including the individual themsleves, and use them to review performances. It’s dangerous because the comments are not necessarily based on facts and someone has to decide which ones carry greater weight.

Theoretically annoymous contributors can say what they want. In practice, in a small team, specific comments enable identification. Staff are likely to go down the sycophantic route of offering false praise, in anticipation of later favours. Those who make critical remarks run the risk of being classed as a statistical anomaly and ignored, because their opinion does not match that of the assessor.

Relevant feedback should be genuine, not a product of a formal process. If you have something good to say, share it with the person or people concerned. If you can’t be positive and don’t feel comfortable talking,  stay silent and hit the delete button when the 360 degree survey appears in your inbox.

No home, no tax return

Recently the government revealed that they attempted to fine a homeless man for not submitting his tax return. At the appeal tribunal HMRC argued that the individual’s circumstances were not special. The judge called them ridiculous and it is hard to disagree.

HMRC automatically fine those who don’t submit a tax return when asked to do so. They have the power to waive the requirement to submit a return and to cancel penalties and do not pursue every case through the courts. Decisions are made on an individual basis as to what constitutes a reasonable excuse and what does not.

In this instance the trader lost his records after being evicted and did not receive letters sent to his old address. Clearly it was unreasonable to demand payment of the fines, especially as the return was eventually completed.

What is really ridiculous is the Self-Assessment tax system. Ineffective when introduced in the days of post and paper, it is totally absurd in the immediate digital age.


Easy Genealogy

Once a man called John Smith decided to trace his family tree. He knew nothing about genealogy but had a credit card which brought a subscription to a popular website with templates to populate. He could remember where and when he was born and knew details of his immediate family. Beyond that he was reliant on the records that the system recommended. There were hundreds, waiting to be carefully checked but John did not have time for that.

Many other people called Smith had already built their family trees on the website. Some did not make them confidential, so John was allowed full access. Delighted that someone had done the hard work for him, he exported the data and soon had a complete tree going back two centuries. Proudly he emailed it to all his surviving relatives.

Within minutes he was bombarded with replies about dates and names being incorrect and questions asking how it was possible for ancestors to marry before they were born and to give birth in different countries at the same time.  John didn’t understand the errors, so he blamed the website and cancelled his subscription. His tree remains online to confuse serious researchers.


Finding the best sellers

When I was a child you could identify the best-selling books by looking at a display in your local book store. In America there was also the option of checking the list in the New York Times. Today it is the Amazon best seller lists which give the best indication of a book’s popularity but the top ones aren’t necessarily those which have sold the most.

If volumes of historical sales were used to determine ranking, The Bible, the Quran, Harry Potter, and the Lord of the Rings would dominate for years. Amazon offset this by using a formula that gives heavier weighting to recent sales. This allows classics such as The Great Gatsby to stand in the top 50 alongside new releases. They don’t reveal the exact calculations, and nor do they state the volume sold.

Looking at today’s top 50  in all categories I was surprised by some of the titles, and the lack of fiction, but encouraged to see that many of them are also bestsellers in the New York Times.



Show don’t tell

Show don’t tell is advice usually given to writers, but it should also apply to those starting new jobs. As an applicant you summarise your past experiences and describe the most suitable in the interview. Then, when you start, it’s all irrelevant. Your new colleagues, and managers, aren’t interested in anecdotes of previous glories. They want to see your skills in the current role.

This is illustrated by the constant movement of football managers. Success at one club usually earns an offer at another but often is not replicated. There are lots of reasons for this, but one is that the manager, like Brian Clough at Leeds or Jose Mourinho, at Manchester United, rely on reputation rather than taking time to understand the different culture and structure in their new role.

It’s natural for us to speak proudly of our greatest career achievements, but we should save the memories for reunions and concentrate on creating new ones.