Instead, I dropped out of academic life and got a real-world job.
I worked in a technical support center as a receptionist, making sure engineers answered the phones and customers got help. I was probably the most over-educated receptionist ever, but it was a pretty good job, and it felt good to help these callers who couldn't get their software to work as they wanted. And these engineers had a lot to do - help customers solve their problems, work with software engineers to get issues fixed, general paperwork.
Phone was the communication medium of choice at the time. We only got a few emails or faxes asking questions; most people called. The challenge was the availability of the engineers - 3 were scheduled to answer the phones - more than enough staffing based on typical call volumes - but they were so focused to resolve customer problems that they would sometimes leave their posts for hours to talk to the developers. This was ok if only one wandered away, or a second went away for a few minutes. During a rush of calls if there was only 1 engineer available for 3-4 hours, that soon became disastrous.
One engineer got 19 complex support calls over 3 hours while the other two engineers were off fixing issues in their queue list. And yes, there was a huge argument that night about it amongst the entire staff.
It wasn't just the team dynamics that suffered through this. Customers who called could't reach an engineer on the first try and were forced to leave a message. At the time, leaving a message at a call center was the equivalent to submitting an email form - good luck with getting a response.
It was painful all the way around - and the metrics showed it.
We needed to answer about 90% of the calls upon first contact, fix problems in a specific timeframe based on complexity, all of the standard metrics for a call center. We were doing ok - kinda sorta making the numbers - but it could have been better.
I decided to help the team resolve some of these issues - and this was basically my first Customer Experience project. I didn't know what Customer Experience was at the time. I thought I was doing a form of process engineering to help the engineers be more available to talk to customers.
How did I do this?
- Surveys and interviews with the engineers. I talked to every engineer about the phones to understand how they viewed their shifts and their jobs. I wanted to learn how they wanted to work, their challenges and frustrations, and what made them happy with their jobs.
- After the interviews, I organized the information into a document and distributed the draft for review. I wanted everyone to give their thoughts and feedback and make sure this change was headed in the right direction. After all, this was to help everyone on the team work better together.
- Everyone was encouraged to give comments and feedback - it was a collaborative effort. This came from management too - I wasn't working alone. Everyone wanted to work in a better way.
- We didn't want this document to be "rules" so we called it an "etiquette." It was guidance as to how to work better together and give customers better service. No one was being forced to follow it, they were choosing to follow it to work better with the team.
What happened as a result?
After everyone agreed to the "etiquette", the metrics improved significantly - and the team was happier.
- Increased respect between team members - no more leaving anyone hanging, making that person feel "punished"
- Greater collaboration - the engineers talked to each other more often
- Stronger teamwork to achieve a goal - exceeding expectations for metrics and setting new standards
And after a few more months, the team didn't just achieve the metric goals - they far exceeded them and set new records. Needless to say, this made for happier customers.
In the end, the team won an award - Best Complex Support.
Why was this so successful?
- The team wanted the change. I don't think this initiative would have worked if the team didn't want to work better together and achieve their numbers. They wouldn't have collaborated to create the etiquette or followed it.
- The team cared about the customers. We had a few regular callers and people knew them well. They cared that their customers were able to do a good job. If the team didn't care and want to help, this wouldn't have worked.
- When I say "the team", I include management. If I didn't have the support of my manager and the VP to work on this - this would have gone nowhere quickly. Their support helped make this change happen.
When I think back to what I worked on, I thought I was helping the team, when in fact I was really helping improve the customer experience. They got better response time and service - and a happier voice at the other end of phone.
While I was doing this, I was also working on the Web and dipping my finger into UX. I wouldn't say I totally left customer experience after this, but I did shift my focus to the customer experience in the sales cycle - just keeping a Web focus. More on this later.