Emily Tan
Jun 8, 2015

Humanity, not technology, the key to service excellence: Don Peppers

HONG KONG - The more a company can automate services and minimise call-ins, the more critical its customer-service staff becomes. And because of this irony, according to author and consultant Don Peppers, companies must be willing to invest even more money and trust in customer-service staff.

Peppers speaking at the World Business Forum
Peppers speaking at the World Business Forum

“What’s happening is that after trawling through the FAQs and the website, the calls that do come in will be harder to handle and will require even more empathy from the customer-service representative,” Peppers, author and founding partner of consumer-centric consultancy Peppers & Rogers Group, said during an interview following his talk at the World Business Forum Wednesday. “This will therefore require a higher calibre of employee. Call centres also have to accept that time spent on calls will go up and resolutions will go down.”

There is a perception that more technology equates to less human input. “Take data for example," he said. "People take refuge in it. They say it’s because of greater accuracy but really, it’s about less responsibility for decisions. A lot of times companies will need to make decisions for things they don’t have a formula on, such as evaluating the future value of a customer well-served today.”

Too much of modern business practices and attitudes are based on 19th-century accounting rules. “Most companies not only don’t see the value in the good opinion of a customer, they don’t even admit it exists,” said Peppers.

“I had a client in Australia, a telephone services provider, that realised they weren’t about to make their quarterly numbers if they didn’t tighten up expenses," he said. "The finance department, all by themselves, decided to eliminate customer refunds. Sure they made their quarterly numbers, but their satisfaction scores plunged. They destroyed more value than they made, but accounting practices won’t tell you that."

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It takes a human being to decide not to take a quick buck to protect a long-term relationship. During his talk, Peppers praised the Amazon feature that warns you if you’re trying to repurchase a book you’ve bought with them before. “Amazon is prepared to forgo the extra money it would make if I’d accidentally purchased a book twice, to save me from having to wait and check my bookshelf before buying," he said. "Sure it’s a line of code that’s making it happen, but it took a human being who understands book lovers to implement it. Amazon increased my trust levels and made shopping with them, that much more frictionless.”

‘Friction’ is why brands lose customers, said Peppers. “While customer loyalty isn’t highly correlated with a superior customer experience, customer disloyalty is highly correlated with poor customer experience.”

Friction is a bank making customers fill in the same forms over and over when they have all the details they could possibly need. It’s a mobile company that doesn’t go over its billing system with new customers, resulting in sticker shock and an angry phone call. It is refusing to combine data from online customer-service platforms and call centers, forcing customers to repeat their problems from beginning to end again and again, said Peppers.

An example of friction at work

“I have a friend who consults for big retail chains," Peppers said. "One day, he’s in a shopping mall during Christmas season and he needs running shoes. The place is jammed with people and every salesperson has two or three people standing in front. He joined a queue and listened as the young woman who was the first person in line tell the sales guy that she wanted Reebok crosstrainers. The sales guy says, ‘Reebok does make a great crosstrainer, but there’s this new brand called New American that makes great crosstrainers for half the price and you’ll love them’. The girl tries them on and she buys the cheaper shoes.

“Then the next guy wants a pair of Nike basketball shoes, and got the exact same pitch, except for basketball shoes. When my friend got to the front of the line, he asked the sales guy, ‘Why are you pushing shoes that are cheaper and getting you a lower commission? What is New American doing to get you to do this?’

“The sales guy starts to look nervous and finally, after pleading with my friend not to tell his manager, he said, ‘When the store is this busy, I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom… and New American ships their shoes with the laces already in them.’

“That is frictionless. Are you shipping your shoes with the laces in them?”

The human factor is also the only way a company can hope to meet rising customer expectations. “Every time I get great service from one company, my expectations for all companies go up,” said Peppers.

The only way for brands to ensure that customer service meets expectations is to get steadily better at it, he continued. “A large part is mindset—a unifying purpose that’s central to the organisation. If the direction of success you hold employees accountable for is to treat customers as they would like to be treated, then you have a strong and easy mission to understand,” he said.

A great idea that’s currently being tested by one company, said Peppers, is to empower employees to solve problems when there is no prescribed solution. “If they can get sign-off from just one other colleague, they have the ability to come up with solutions for customers that fall between the cracks in the manual.”

Because problems, he said, can be solved if you remember that your customers are human just like you.


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