When I joined Campaign Monitor there were only four of us, and as the sole support person each day was a constant series of decisions; should I give this person a refund? Do I make this change for the customer or do I ask them to do it? If someone sells their company, who can now login to the company's account?
There were no procedures or policies for anything, only 'have I done this before?' and 'what should I do this time?'.
8 years later we have over 20 support agents all over the world talking to our customers 24 hours a day. Every one of them is highly skilled and independent but ad hoc decision making is a lot less efficient when it's happening 20 times more often than it used to.
Mistakes multiply too; an account broken because the wrong tool was used or a customer leaving because they were given the wrong information.
As the team gets larger and our customer base grows nobody can have a perfect understanding of the full history and context of every customer question or request.
The temptation is to add a new procedure, another document with rules to avoid the same mistake happening again. And we certainly have started to work hard at documenting everything.
But when you have a team of independent and skillful people, adding more policies and procedures can stop them from being their most effective. One of my team leaders expressed this very clearly:
" there's been a small, naggy part of me that's had a bit of an unhappy reaction to the quest to document and process-ize everything. We have a fantastic team of wicked smart customer service professionals, and it feels a little disenfranchising - do we want a team of empowered professionals or monkeys who only have to work off a flow chart?"
She makes an excellent point. Processes can create a perception of taking away the authority of people to make their own decisions. The cost is emotional (that feeling of being disempowered) and also financial.
A team member who has been told how they must respond to a certain situation is much less likely to take the time to come up with a better solution for the customer. Too many processes and procedures can lead down a path of dimishing independence and increasing frustration.
We'd end up losing our best people because they would no longer feel like they could do their work in the most effective way. Adding a procedure or a script for every conceivable situation is how the average call centre operates, and we've all been the recipients of that sort of "service".
Still, the problem of multiplying poor decisions and inconsistent service remains. Even the most experienced people on our team can't know everything about everything any more.
The as-few-as-possible policy path we try to walk at Campaign Monitor is a riskier one (because it removes some of the barriers that prevent mistakes) but when it works it pays off in the form of an engaged team who provide exceptional service. It allows them to do what needs to be done in most situations quickly and with confidence that the organisation will back them up if they go "off process".
There's a book by David Marquet called Turn the Ship Around which discusses "Commander's Intent". The core idea is to let your team members make decisions for themselves based on their clear understanding of what their company is trying to achieve. This short video explains it well.
That's the model I'd like to use for our support team. If we are all clear on our goals as a company and as a customer service team, then we can all make decisions that further that goal.
So to take an example: Should we have a detailed policy on when a customer is entitled to a refund? A decision tree that will get them to an exact amount to refund? Not under this model. Instead, each agent would consider the overarching goal of our customer service team and decide whether offering a refund would further that goal.
They may decide that actually a refund isn't going to help the customer as much as a personal phone call would do. Or that the right answer is to give a full refund, even though the customer was at fault. This system really only can work in the right circumstances:
- We have a clear understanding of the company's and the team's goals
- We only hire smart people who share our company values
- We put the tools and information in place to help them make good decisions
- We trust them to do their job well (and back them up even if they make the wrong call)
- We have some way of measuring that we're on track overall
There will always be a need for processes and policies, but they should act as safety barriers on a wide open highway, not as rails on a train line.