Nov 242012

I began training in the martial arts when I was 17. I’d read George Leonard’s book The Ultimate Athlete a year or two prior and had fallen in love with a martial art called aikido. It was offered at my university by Shihan Bowen, who taught both aikido and karate.

One day in class he demonstrates the difference between the arts.

“Let’s say I have a student who wants to cause trouble.” He motions to his assistant to come at him with a punch, and demonstrates disabling him with an arm break but doesn’t follow through. “If I use karate to stop him, I break his arm, and I am not forgiven.”

“But if I use aikido to stop him,” he says, motioning again to his assistant, who throws the punch and is wheeled around and quickly pinned to the floor, “I don’t break his arm, and I am forgiven.”

When faced with a communication that you find threatening — a complaint or a conflict — do you strike back, or do you respond in such a way that you will be forgiven?

Image used under Creative Commons license from toosuto’s Flickr feed.

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Nov 242012

The other day I called Asus for authorization to return my husband’s laptop for repairs. Hoping not to have to speak to support, I’d filled out the online request form, but I ended up having to call them anyway.

The support rep asked me to confirm my name, phone number, address, and e-mail address. Each piece of data elicited the response: “Thank you for that information.” Not “Thank you,” or “Thanks.” “Thank you for that information.”

This is going to be a long call, I thought.

The previous warranty issue with the laptop had drawn out over months and many phone calls, so I was familiar with the protocol. Each time, no matter how many times I had already called, the support rep asked me to confirm all of my personal information and thanked me for providing each piece. When we were done, each rep gave a summary of the call and the actions taken.

I understood some of this. It made sense to confirm my details the first couple times to ensure they’d been entered correctly. But by about the fifth call, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Can we skip this?” I pleaded.

It also made sense to summarize the call, in case there was a misunderstanding. But the language throughout the call was so stilted and so unvarying from rep to rep that it was clear each rep adhered faithfully to his script.

It seemed to me, after this latest call, that instead of reciting a script, the support rep could have easily been replaced by one.

An online troubleshooter could have walked me through the steps I had to take to confirm to their satisfaction that the laptop was indeed faulty and needed repair. Even with a name and address as tricky as mine, it could have solicited and confirmed that information with nary a fumble.

I would trade those Asus reps for a computer quicker than you could say “Thank you for that information.”

But that’s not really what I want, at least not much of the time.

What I really want is this: a human being with enough autonomy to go off-script.

A script, whether programmed into a computer or read by a support rep, cannot care for a customer. It cannot soothe anger, crack a joke, engage in smalltalk, or skip parts of the algorithm based on what you’ve already told them. Even its expressions of empathy sound insincere. The phrase “I apologize for your frustration” makes me more frustrated as a customer, not less.

Scripts can be useful to teach new reps. But if you’re not weaning reps off them and giving them the freedom to speak to customers in their own language and using their own problemsolving skills, you ought to call it customer dispatching. You’ve no right to call it customer service.

Image used under Creative Commons license from dalbera’s Flickr feed.

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