If you want to find out just how bad customer service is, go buy something.

It hardly even matters where you go, who you call, or which website you visit. Sure, there are exceptions—those fabled companies that spring to mind when one thinks about legendary customer service: Zappos, Disney, L.L.Bean, Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton, etc.

But if you’re not dealing with a very special company, chances are you’re dealing with a very average company in terms of customer service.

Just this week, my wife phoned one of those very average companies, AT&T Wireless, to verify that her data service had been disabled on her stolen iPad.

When she contacted the AT&T rep at the 800 number, she initially had difficulty hearing the rep’s voice. Unsure of whether the issue was on her end or the AT&T call center’s end, she asked the rep, “Can you hear me?” to which the rep answered, “AT&T Wireless. Can I help you?”

My wife responded, “Yes, I need to verify that the data service on my stolen iPad has been disabled but, first, can you hear me okay?” to which the AT&T rep said robotically, “If you give me your wireless number, I can verify that the data service on your iPad has been disabled.”

My wife, confused as to why the rep would not respond to her question about the quality of the call connection, provided the rep with the wireless number and then asked her again whether or not she could hear her clearly.

The rep verified that the data service had been disabled and asked, “Does this resolve your issue?” to which my wife responded, “Is there some reason why you cannot leave your script and confirm whether or not you can hear me clearly?”

The rep mechanically responded, “Your iPad’s data service has been disabled. Does this resolve your issue?”

Frustrated with the rep’s obstinance, my wife responded, “I’d like to speak with a supervisor.”

At this point, the rep said, “Please hold.”

My wife held for five minutes before she realized the AT&T rep had no intention of locating a supervisor but was just continuing her childish game of “You’re not the boss of me” at which point she hung up—frustrated and underserved.

This disappointing situation was avoidable. All the rep had to do was acknowledge my wife and respond to her question but she refused.

So, why is customer service at AT&T and elsewhere so consistently poor? I’ll answer this question in a moment but, for now, consider this:

Many employees define their entire job roles in terms of related job functions. For a AT&T call center rep, that includes: accepting phone calls, verifying accounts, updating accounts, providing information, etc.

Job functions are mandatory and, in many cases, are tied to a job description, policy, procedure, checklist, or script. Job functions are also what employees are paid to do.

What employees oftentimes fail to consider is that their jobs are not defined solely in terms of job function. There’s another half of their jobs that’s made up of job essence. Job essence is an employee’s highest priority. And, for employees at most companies, their highest priority is to create a promoter—a customer who is less price-sensitive, has higher repurchase rates, and recommends the company or brand to others.

This provides insight into why customer service is so consistently poor: While employees consistently execute mandatory job junctions (e.g., accept phone calls, disable data service, adhere to lifeless scripts, etc.), they inconsistently demonstrate voluntary job essence (e.g., express genuine interest, convey authentic enthusiasm, provide pleasant surprises, etc.).

So, the next logical question is this: Why is it that employees consistently execute mandatory job functions but inconsistently demonstrate voluntary job essence?

Here’s why: Because job functions are mandatory! (If they were optional, then they too would be overlooked!) Job functions, as outlined in an employee’s job description, are what she is paid to do. If an employee fails to perform her job functions adequately, she will be reprimanded or even dismissed.

Assuming the employee does receive feedback on her job performance, the feedback will likely be based on her mandatory job functions for which she is paid. In a call center, performance-based feedback may focus on protocol, scripts, and metrics such as: calls per hour, first-call resolution rate, average handle time, average wait time, abandonment rate, and completion rate.

In the absence of feedback on voluntary job essence (e.g., anticipating the needs of customers, expressing empathy, demonstrating flexibility, etc.), employees tend to direct their efforts toward what does get attention. In most work environments, this includes productivity and financial metrics that can be quantified, measured, tracked, and analyzed.

As a result, the AT&T call center rep consistently executes her mandatory job functions for which she is paid (e.g., accepting phone calls, adhering to a script, providing information, etc.) but inconsistently demonstrates voluntary job essence for which there is no additional cost to her employer (e.g., demonstrating flexibility, valuing her customer, creating a promoter of AT&T Wireless, etc.). And the customer is left frustrated and underserved—again.

Unlike AT&T, companies that consistently provide the very best customer service understand that energy flows where attention goes. Leaders inside these companies are intentional about recognizing and reinforcing the fact that every employee’s job role is made up of both mandatory job functions and voluntary job essence—both of which are required to create promoters!

I welcome all questions, comments, bouquets, and brickbats.

[Oh, and don’t just take my word for AT&T’s atrocious customer service. Check out the latest findings from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) based on a sample of 250 customer interviews. You’ll see that its score has gradually slid nearly 17% since the ACSI first began tracking it in 1995.]
  • As I read in one of your previous blog posts, Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says that, “Any job is twenty percent knowledge and eighty percent interpersonal skills.” Unfortunately too many businesses hire based on the technical expertise defined in a person’s resume or application to be able to perform the mandatory job functions as you described. They just don’t understand that a more important quality are the interpersonal or job essence skills. When I was a hotel general manager, our job descriptions were revised to include those critical job essence skills like responsiveness, friendly and professional service and recognition. I would interview operators and reservationists on the phone before meeting them in person. I was literally hearing for their smile over the phone. I am convinced you can hear a smile over the phone. While you can train for skill, you simply can’t train anybody to smile more often. And as the proverb goes, “A man who cannot smile should not open a store.”

  • Bill, thanks for sharing the ways that you were able to successfully integrate job function and job essence in the workplace. Last year, I worked with an executive team at a Boston hotel who did something similar. Their overall satisfaction scores rose from 67% to 88% over a six month period. Though there were other contributing factors, holding employees accountable to both execute job function and demonstrate job essence elevated the quality of guest service. As it turns out, the more you can integrate exceptional customer service into the design of a positive guest experience, the more consistently you can reproduce it.

  • Enkata

    I wonder if some call center employees are trained that they are not allowed to deviate from the script for any reason. I’m sure everyone has had a similar experience where certain questions go unanswered or the answer doesn’t fully answer the question. I realize companies are trying to be efficient, but employees have to be able to handle going off script from time to time!

  • Enkata, scripts are great for consistency and, when mastered, are undetectable. However, an unwillingness to deviate to confirm whether or not you can clearly hear a caller is unacceptable. Apparently AT&T’s leadership agrees. I heard from a company rep who said the call center employee and recorded conversation had been traced. After listening to the recording, appropriate action was taken to ensure that future customers who not have to endure the same poor treatment – at least from this particular employee.
    Thanks for stopping by the blog!