I remember running into a situation @ Citi where they did something very slimy to make their numbers appear better than they were…and was actually a disservice to many callers (who didn’t “self-identify”).

I caught the “trick” as I noticed an aberration in the numbers. The “Abandoned Calls” jumped from 2.1% to over 3% while the Service Level stood relatively flat.

Impossible!!!

If one deteriorates, they both deteriorate.

If one stay steady, both stay steady.

If one improves, they both improve.

100% of the time (based on my expertises & extensive experience in CitiPhone)!

Here’s how they pulled off their dirty trick…

– There are ~13 different ways to measure a call center’s timeliness performance, in this case “Service Level”.
– Service Level is a mathematical equation…”% of calls answered in X seconds of waiting”.
– Expressed as a fraction/percentage, it’s “calls answered by a rep with X seconds” / “calls the call center receives”.
– The “trick” (difference between the 13 different methodologies to calculate Svce Level) is what calls you count in the denominator (“calls the call center receives”).
– Some companies (like Citi U.S. Retail Banking) only counted those calls that the reps actually received & spoke with the customers.
– Other companies count EVERY single call that the call center received, including those where the customer hung up before being answered by a rep (“abandoned calls”).
– Still other companies count “all calls received by the reps” + “those customers who hung up after waiting X seconds”.

Different companies, different philosophies. The method used by Citi is, by far, the “most generous” in that it totally ignores all customers who hung up before being answered (abandoned calls)…in other methodologies, these “abandoned calls” are “failed calls”. In this method, these failed/abandoned calls are totally ignored.

That’s also a reason why Citi has employed the practice of measuring abandoned calls separately. It carried its own standard (no more than 2%), but had no negative impact on Service Level.

The use of 2 separate metrics “Service Level” & “abandoned calls”) served us well for many years.

In working with our Global Consumer Bank (specifically, their Service people) on how they measured the dozens & dozens & dozens of countries where Citibank had a retail banking presence, I convinced them to “limit the number of Service Indicators” that specifically measured the call center’s (CitiPhone) performance.

Historically, “Service Level” & “abandoned calls” are, basically, tied together.

If you’re doing well in Service Level (answering enough customers “quickly enough”), then you’ll also do well in Abandoned Calls (less customers will hang up due to an intolerable wait time).

Conversely, if your Service Level is poor, then Abandoned Calls will also be bad as more customers will get annoyed & hang up.

They run hand-in-hand.

All the time.

However, the VERY FIRST MONTH when I convinced the Global Consumer Bank to only measure Service Level for timeliness purposes (thus, eliminating the “unnecessary” Abandoned Calls indicator), the U.S. Citibanking Center (CitiPhone) made an all-important change to how they handle incoming customer calls.

We had started to prompt incoming calls to “self-identify”, that is, tell the computer your SSN or account number or card number, along with your telephone code, before we put you “in queue” (the waiting line) or sent you immediately to a rep if one was available.

The advantage of “self-identification” was significant to CitiPhone. When the customer self-identifies, the rep’s computer will automatically be populated with the customer’s account information via a “screen pop”, thereby allowing the call to be begin immediately.

When the customer does not self-identify, then we need to obtain their name & either account or card #, then ask additional “caller verification questions” so we’re sure the caller is who he says he is.

“Self-identification” is a great time-saver & can save a call center like CitiPhone SEVERAL MILLIONS OF DOLLARS ANNUALLY!

For example, every second we can chop off the average call length was worth $200K in manpower savings to us! (The longer the calls, the more people you need to maintain the same Service Level. And the shorter the average call, the fewer reps you need to achieve the same Service Level.)

You gotta trust me on this as there is actually a very scientific, mathematical method we use (Erlang tables) that’s the basis for all queuing theory. It works uncanningly well!

Save 20 seconds, for example, and that’s ~$4MM in annualized savings.

Normally, all callers are put into the same queue (the same waiting line) where the one waiting the longest is always the next call answered.

It’s the FIFO method…First In, First Out.

But here’s the change they made: they put the customers who “self-identified” into “queue A” & put the customers who DIDN’T self-identify into “queue B”.

And here’s the real kicker…

Queue A (callers who self-identified) got priority over Queue B…ALL THE TIME.

If anyone was waiting in Queue A (even for 2 seconds), they would get answered before EVERY call in Queue B, REGARDLESS OF HOW LONG THOSE CUSTOMERS WERE WAITING!!!

We were answering customers in Queue A waiting a couple of seconds or not so all…as long as they self-identified upfront…BEFORE customers in Queue B who may have waited several minutes!

This is commonly referred to as “priority queuing”.

Their reasoning? We want all our customers to self-identify as it’s much more efficient & even a better service experience.

Granted, those assertions are, indeed, correct.

BUT THEY NEVER TOLD THE POOR CUSTOMERS WHO DIDN’T SELF-IDENTIFY & WERE TREATED LIKE 2ND CLASS CUSTOMERS!

They didn’t provide a waiting message, something to the effect of “Hi, you’re sitting here waiting in line to speak to a rep. Had you only entered your SSN or acct # or card #, then your phone code, you’d already be speaking with a rep!”

How do you expect customers to change their behavior if you don’t specifically tell them the consequences of their actions??? When you don’t “share the secret” with them??? When you don’t educate them, but instead, “silently punish them”???

It’s like there’s a fork in the road…both options will take you to your destination city.

But one route will take 15 minutes while the other takes an hour.

But then, you never inform the drivers!

You don’t tell the ones that spent another hour driving (or display a sign that says), “Had you only chosen the other route, you would have arrived at the same exact spot…only 45 minutes earlier!!!”

The real reason Citi did it was to “inflate their Service Level” performance since many of the callers sitting in Queue B (NOT self-identifying callers) would get frustrated with the wait time & hang up.

They became “abandoned calls”.

And since we no longer reported “abandoned calls” upstairs to the Global Consumer Bank Service group, no one was any wiser as to what was occurring!

Also, if the customer abandoned (hung up), they weren’t counted in Service Level. Had they stayed on the line & eventually spoke with a rep, they would be counted as a failed call (a call answered AFTER X seconds of wait time).

This phenomenon would occur whenever there was a steady-enough stream of Queue A Calls (self-identified) to keep the reps busy.

Whenever there was no self-identified calls waiting, then we would start moving the Queue B calls to the reps. But not until there were no “self-identified” customers waiting!!!

This really came to light (as they kept this change “under the covers” as they knew it was a slimy way to handle calls) as I read a customer complaint letter that was returned with one of our mailed customer surveys.

The customer claimed to have waited 26 minutes before finally being answered one Saturday morning.

But when I looked at that day’s Service Level, it was in the mid-80s (~84% of calls answered were handled within a 20-sec wait time)!

And further more, when I checked that specific 1/2 hour when she called, we did an 92% Service Level!!!

It would be statistically impossible for an incoming call to wait 26 minutes before being answered…if we answered 92% of all calls within 20 seconds.

“Impossible!”, I thought.

I investigated the situation as thoroughly as I could. Couldn’t find any malfunctions, erroneous reporting or “number fudging”.

That is, until I questioned the Senior Director responsible for coordinating the backbone of CitiPhone, specifically, call routing.

Call routing controls the path that an incoming call will follow, depending upon the phone number dialed, information that the caller provided to the phone computer, time of day, day of week, etc.. it also determines which queue the call will wait it, which recordings the waiting customer will hear & when, what the rep will see when the caller arrives at their workstation, etc..

And that’s when I discovered this “new queue”.

Like I said before, all callers were previously placed into one general call when calling the main CitiPhone number…REGARDLESS of whether or not they self-identified.

They all got placed in the same order in order of arrival & there was no “priority queuing” utilized at all.

It was the fairest method possible.

But now, this new methodology of using separate calls for “self-identified” & “not self-identified”.

And when I saw Service Level staying relatively flat month over month, but Abandoned Calls steadily & significantly deteriorated, I was convinced something dirty was at play.

I raised the issue to the Sr Director who made the change, to 3 other Sr Directors & to the USCC CEO.

They all refused to face the issue & actually do something. The Senior Director who made/authorized the change kept handing me a complete line of bullshit, through which I kept poking holes.

I came thisveryclose to reporting the whole bunch of them to the Corporate Ethics Committee & to the SVPs in charge of Global Service & U.S. Citibanking.

I didn’t as I knew (believed?) that I’d get blackballed &/or someone would get fired.

I never was so embarrassed & infuriated in my entire life. Made me feel ugly as dirt about going to work.

It wasn’t by accident or just coincidental…and that’s what really pissed me off the most.

They took advantage of my common/business sense & relationship with Global Consumer Service to put this devious & dirty trick into play.

I lost all respect for each one of those people…and still kick myself to this day for dropping the issue.

One of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made by not continuing to pursue the issue…regardless of consequences.

Could I prove motive?

It was NOT coincidental that they made this change AFTER I lobbied hard to have the Abandoned Calls inductor (for Senior Management/Corporate Level reporting)…and Citi is a behemoth of a corporation!

I know that they’d simply provide those bullshit excuses & then claim ignorance with regarding to manipulating the Service Indicators.

And I had a family to feed here in Texas, thousands of miles away from my “real home” back in NY.

I still struggle with this whole episode, despite having left Citi more than a dozen years ago.

I was admired admired & respected as a man of integrity.

As the ultimate customer champion.

As a person filled with solid values & principles who always put the CUSTOMER & the EMPLOYEE ahead of everyone.

Yes, I ultimately answered to the Citigroup stockholders, but throughout my career, fought long & hard for the customers.

Four years after I left Citi (in late ‘06), I get a message on Facebook from my good buddy, Brian Huffman, VP in Training, about a meeting he was having with his Systems counterparts regarding enhancements he needed to a knowledgeware database (the “Source”).

It was the complete, electronic encyclopedia that was used not only by CitiPhone, but by all back-office units & all branches across the country.

It’s an essential tool used by employees to enable them to deliver exceptional service to all customers.

Anyway, Brian was negotiating (arguing?) with the Systems people & apparently was getting a little frustrated with the lack of progress.

(I always waves the customer flag in their faces when I asked for system enhancements or new functionality…right up to the breaking point!)

He then writes that he turned to them & said, “You guys know damned well that if Mike LoRusso was here, he would never let you get away with that!”

Make sure you have your personal principles & ethics & value system with you AT ALL TIMES…and that, regardless of the situation, company or consequences, you follow those feelings inside you.

That doesn’t mean you abandon your business sense or that you forget that practically everything is the result of some compromise, but above all, be true to yourself!

Good luck!

And again, thank you so much for listening to my stories!

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