The agility and responsiveness of an organisation can be measured by its ability to respond to a customer enquiry, comment or complaint within an hour. Those clever people at the Harvard Business Review have established that businesses that respond to customer enquiries within the hour are seven times more likely to qualify a sales lead than those that contact the customer even an hour later and more than 60 times more likely than companies that wait 24 hours or longer. It is therefore surprising to learn that the same Harvard study indicates that only 37% of businesses are actually able to manage a reply with the magic hour.
This is a simple, yet powerful dramatisation of the disconnect between real time and institutional time. Real time working and responding has become a mantra for our social age, but for the majority of organisations – hamstrung by tortuous internal approval processes, over-centralised decision-making and poor monitoring systems – it remains more of an aspiration than a reality. It demands a reappraisal and reorganisation of structures and operating procedures, but above all, it requires a change in organisational culture, empowering customer-facing employees to make decisions without the need to refer everything to their line managers.
It has become something of a cliche to reference online retailer Zappos as an exemplar of best practice, but it remains the poster child for employee-empowered customer service. One of the secrets to Zappos’ success is the quality of its customer-facing employees, who neither use scripts, nor are forced to keep their telephone calls with customers to a set time-limit: the longest call in Zappos history was a remarkable eight hours. The Zappos team can also, at their own discretion, send notes of apology or even flowers to customers who have had a bad sales experience, without having to go through the usual approval processes. This is completely at odds with the tight way that call centres are typically managed, in which calls have to be processed in a set period of time, scripts cannot be deviated from and all decisions have to be referred to senior management. Zappos can operate in this loose way, not because it pays high salaries or bonuses – it doesn’t – but because it spends far longer recruiting and training its customer service reps than any other similar operator, putting them through a four-week immersion in culture, core values and service at its Las Vegas headquarters. New recruits emerge from this training programme with a profound understanding of the company’s culture and core values. Any recruit who doesn’t like it is offered $3,000 if they quit – a golden goodbye rather than the typical golden handshake. Around 10% of employees take the money and run.
This is what it takes to deliver within the critical one-hour time frame. It isn’t complicated but it does demand investment, trust in your employees and senior management support. Without this commitment to cultural and organisational change, real time customer service is merely an unfulfilled promise.