To Improve Customer Service Capabilities, "Perception Deficits" Must Be Eliminated


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I was called in to consult for a major insurance company that faced a conundrum.

The sales team was losing one major client after the next because of complaints about the customer service team’s mishandling of conversations.

The customer service team believed it was first rate, having just won a “best in service" award from a survey firm.

Who was right?

I audited calls and interviewed reps and managers and I found the service team was significantly lacking in several vital areas. Perhaps most startling was the size if the gap between how well it THOUGHT it was doing versus how well it was ACTUALLY doing.

I had witnessed this disconnect before in customer service call centers.

For example, it is commonplace for reps to overstate the frequency of angry customers and conflict calls that they handle in an average day.

Asked what percentage of calls involve conflict, responses are often “50%" and even higher. When the underlying calls are examined, conflicts constitute merely 5% or less of overall conversational content.

There are a lot of reasons for this significant distortion, not the least of which is the fact that negative experiences are often more memorable than positive ones. They leave us with more of an emotional “charge" that we need to dissipate because they seem to linger in our psyches longer than the pleasant exchanges.

Further, the “war stories" reps tell each other on breaks are more likely to contain references to clients from Hell than from Heaven. Conflict is juicier gossip material, and every rep has at least one favorite horror story to tell, enabling everyone to participate in cathartic coffee break chats.

Retelling these tales has the effect of making them seem more numerous and more significant than they had actually been, much like the “fish that got away" always seems to grow larger with each recital of that story.

Customer service reps, however, aren’t alone in experiencing what are called “perception deficits, " gaps between their perceived, self-reported experiences and the objectively verifiable, actual experiences.

Medical doctors distort, also, as a recent “hand-washing" study revealed.

Many doctors fail to scrub-up an acceptable rate between encounters with patients, though they believe they do.

A recent New York Times article explains why:

“There also seem to be psychological reasons for noncompliance. The first is what might be called a perception deficit. In one Australian medical study, doctors self-reported their hand-washing rate at 73 percent, whereas when these same doctors were observed, their actual rate was a paltry 9 percent. The second psychological reason, according to one Cedars-Sinai doctor, is arrogance. ‘The ego can kick in after you have been in practice a while, ’ explains Paul Silka, an emergency-department physician who is also the hospital’s chief of staff. ‘You say: “Hey, I couldn’t be carrying the bad bugs. It’s the other hospital personnel. " Furthermore, most of the doctors at Cedars-Sinai are free agents who work for themselves, not for the hospital, and many of them saw the looming Joint Commission review as a nuisance. Their incentives, in other words, were not quite aligned with the hospital’s. " (Source: “Freakonomics: “Selling Soap, " New York Times, September 25, 2006. )

Customer service dispensers also develop a sizable ego after being in their roles for a significant period of time, as I was reminded when I tried to cash a check at a Houston bank, at which I had a savings account.

Feeling the teller was being unduly persnickety about the transaction, I muttered, “This isn’t my idea of good customer service, " to which she snapped back, “I’ll have you know I give GREAT customer service!"

As a practical matter, it becomes quite a challenge to confront service personnel with the gap between their perceived performances and the underlying realities about them.

To do this constructively, the proper thresholds of service quality that need to be met must be defined objectively, and need to be communicated to service personnel. Frontline personnel need classroom training and one-on-one coaching and implementation guidance to assure that they have the experience of raising the bar of performance, and rising to the occasion by clearing it, time and again.

Once this has been done, these levels need to be sustained by being monitored, measured, managed, and rewarded.

Perception deficits may be common, but whenever possible, they need to be identified and eliminated.

Closing these gaps in the world of medicine means doctors will save lives by facing facts and reforming their habits.

In rendering better service, we’ll save customers.

In both cases, it’s well worth the effort!

Best-selling author of 12 books and more than 850 articles, Dr. Gary S. Goodman is considered “The Gold Standard"-the foremost expert in sales development, customer service, and telephone effectiveness. Top-rated as a speaker, seminar leader, and consultant, his clients extend across the globe and the organizational spectrum, from the Fortune 1000 to small businesses. He can be reached at: .


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