Supply & Demand

We’ve all heard about supply & demand.

It’s what business is all based on. We got something (a product, a service) that you want.

It also works in more specific situations…customer service, application processing, research/investigation handling, problem resolution, car repairs/maintenance, plumbing, any skilled trade.

What is sometimes just as important as “supply & demand” is “intelligent supply & demand” or “selective supply & demand”.


There are, indeed, times & situations where businesses routinely utilize “intelligent supply & demand” (as best as they believe they can).

If you take your car into a repair shop, depending on what your problem is (problems are), you’ll probably get funneled to different people.

Not sure that a master mechanic is gonna fix your flat, just as I’m quite certain that the new apprentt won’t overhaul your engine.

Financial services firms often divide up their sales & service organizations by customer balances & asset sizes.

Citi, for example, used “general customer base”, “CitiGold”, “Private Banking”, “Business & Professional”, etc. as designations in their Consumer Bank (specifically, Retail Banking)…offering unique products, separate service channels, different employees to better “customize” our offerings to better meet the customer’s needs & wants.

Out there in the trades, there are master plumbers, master carpenters, etc., just as there are apprentices. And most times, they perform quite different functions.

But there was always one area that I maintained truly needs/ed way more differentiation amongst the workforce when it comes to who does what…and that’s problem Identification & resolution.

Where you call a company, or even your doctor’s office (medical group), you’ll often hear a menu upfront to help direct your call.

“For direction & our hours, press 1. For appointments, press 2. For prescription refills…”

But what you’ll rarely, if ever, hear, is “if you’re having a problem or have a special request, press star.”

This is something that I tried for YEARS to implement at Citi, but could never convince senior management to do so.

Not sure if they were unwilling to try, didn’t agree with the concept, or didn’t really know what the hell I was talking about.

Probably a little of each.

I am THOROUGHLY & ABSOLUTELY convinced that when it comes to problem resolution, the customer’s satisfaction level depends MORE ON THE INDIVIDUAL EMPLOYEE with whom they deal than with anything else (policies, procedures, resolution timeliness, programs, reputation, etc.).

But what are companies doing to segregate these calls? To ensure that their best people have the best chance of getting these difficult calls? Why not increase the probability that your most skilled people are handing the most difficult calls?

I know a lot of companies often attempt to separate “easy calls” from the rest (“for balance & account information”)…kinda like ensuring that the flat tires & oil changes go to the newer mechanics & apprentices… but what are they doing to segregate the “problem calls”???

There are 2 ways to do this.

The first is simple.

Ask the customer.

At Citi, we (I) ran a very controlled test program where we presented the callers with an additional option when they called…”Are you currently experiencing a problem or do you need help with a special request?”

It was pretty direct, something which “turned off” several Directors. (As if when we don’t actually say the words “problem” or “issue”, these things don’t really exist.)

Oh, yeah, their other contention (an incorrect one, I might add) was that every caller would be selecting that option because we mentioned “special request”.


Well, we conducted this controlled pilot test with one of our smaller marketplaces. We placed this new IVR choice right upfront & when selected, calls would be routed to a select group of our better, senior reps.

We were able to easily track these specific calls (via unique note codes that the reps placed on the accounts) as we wanted to measure the customer’s acceptance of this unique offering.

We then sent specially-designed surveys to each of these callers.

For “normal” CitiPhone calls for that same marketplace (where the calls were disbursed amongst the entire Customer Service rep population), customers were “very satisfied” (top box) about 64% of the time.

Once again, these were regular CitiPhone calls, only a portion of which were problem-related. We didn’t segregate these calls nor designate selected reps for servicing.

Calls were randomly distributed across the floor (the rep waiting the longest got “the next call in queue”.

But, with the pilot test, for those callers that SPECIFICALLY said that they had a problem or special request, customers were “very satisfied” over 83% of the time!!!

This was for PROBLEM calls which are the #1 dissatisfier for customers! Not for customers who already had their problem fixed, but for those that currently had an existing problem or a special request!

83% top box!!!

Could you imagine what customer satisfaction would’ve been had this been a regular mix of CitiPhone calls (and not exclusively the “difficult ones”? I’d guess ~95%-98%!

Not only did the “better reps” achieve a high satisfaction level 19 pp better than the overall CitiPhone population, but they did it on these PROBLEM & SPECIAL REQUEST calls only!!!

I know it was my pet program, but anyone could easily see that the concept was, indeed, valid.

BTW, normal “high satisfaction” for customers who’ve experienced a problem was historically in the low 20s!!!

These senior reps bested “normal reps” by 60 pp when it came to problem calls! And were 19 pp better than “normal reps who handled all types of calls” when they handled ONLY “problem calls”!

That’s pretty incredible!!!

But I couldn’t convince the powers that be to expand the pilot to other marketplaces.


So, actually being open & candid with customers (“Do you have a problem or special request?”) is one way…one very effective way…to separate these calls from others so they can be handled by your best people (or the ones best qualified & able to resolve customer problems).

And, don’t forget, these calls are “problem calls” as per the customer’s definition of problem.

We all fully realize that many “problem situations” are not really “problems at all, that is, nothing really needs to be fixed, adjusted or corrected. It’s usually a matter of customers not fully understanding how certain products & services operate or not being familiar with policies & procedures.

But, then again, the customer is king & if he believes he’s experiencing an issue, then it is, indeed, an issue!

Perception IS reality.

So that’s one way to identify these calls that really require your best people to handle.

The 2nd method is to use information already available on the system to either offer the customer a special IVR prompt or simply automatically route the call to selected individuals.

For example, at Lehman Brothers, we designed a new IVR application that would search the caller’s account history for certain specific notes or transactions.

For example, customers with mortgages MUST have hazard insurance on their home. The customer does not have any choice in the matter. It’s a requirement at every mortgage closing.

But if the mortgage servicing company sees…sometime in the future…that a policy has lapsed or wasn’t renewed (and does not receive documentation from the mortgage holder of new coverage), they can, and will, “force place” insurance. This is done to protect the bank’s interest in the property.

The mortgage servicing company would first proactively contact the customer if/when this situation existed before they took any action.

Allow the customer to “fix the problem” &/or provide documentation that a renewed, or new, insurance policy is now in place.

So, we created functionality that would look for “forced-placed insurance” on a mortgage (within the past X days), then prompt the caller with “Are you calling today regarding an issue with hazard insurance on your property?”.

Or if we saw that a warning letter (regarding force-placed insurance) had been mailed with the previous X days, then we would proactively offer the appropriate prompt right upfront after the customer identified themselves on IVR.

Similar functionality was designed if the mortgage holder (who did not have escrow on their loan) did not pay their annual property taxes according to the information provided by the county of jurisdiction. (Note: “Escrow” is an additional amount paid by the customer monthly that’s set aside by the mortgage servicing company to pay annual property taxes, PMI/Private Mortgage Insurance premiums (for customers with less than 20% down payments until they achieve a 20% owner equity share in the property), force-placed Insurance, etc..)

Chances are that if one of these events occurred or we recently sent a warning letter to the customer, then that’s exactly why the customer is now calling.

(Note: These are mortgages…they’re not “transactional accounts”, like Checking or trading accts. There’s no need to check your balance before going to the mall. I’d often wonder why customers even called us in the first place!)

Some places use “call harvesting” technology to automatically route certain calls to “certain reps” based on a specific identification factor in the account/customer profile.

You can use customer balances/assets, zip codes, the presence/absence of a certain product/service, etc. to segregate these customers from the “normal population” for “specialized handling”…once you’ve identified who the caller is & are able to take a look at their total relationship with your company.

For banks, you may want to specifically identify those callers who recently had a check bounce within the past X days…who didn’t validate or use their replacement ATM/debit card within the first X days after receipt or expiration of the old card…who had a purchase denied within the past X hours/days, etc..

Any of these situations would normally lead to a conversation with the customer, regardless of that’s why they were actually calling us or we feel the need to let the customer know about something.

Not very different than calls/text messages/e-mails a customer may receive regarding “suspicious activity or transactions” that the bank sees on your account.

Here’s the analogy I would always use…

Let’s say that you had the opportunity to first speak with EVERY single caller & ask them why they called. Then based upon that answer, you would route each call to a specific rep (based on the reason for the call & the minimal expertise required to effectively & efficiently meets the customer’s needs).

Wouldn’t you wanna do that? Yes, I know it’s impractical but think about it…

Easy call? Give that one to the new guy.

Problem call? Send that to Nancy, she’s our best rep.

Caller looking for a new bank? That’ll go to our best salesperson.

Well, since you can’t do that, see what information you can use to anticipate why the customer is calling. And even if your best guess is not correct, the customer’s call is still being routed to a service rep.

And if your assumption is correct, then you’re properly matching the customer’s need with one of the reps best suited to handle that type of situation. And you can also automatically populate the rep’s screen with the appropriate system information or needed function.

And since I wasn’t successful in convincing the powers that be that being upfront & actually asking the caller if they’re “having a problem or need help with a special request” was a superior way to identify these difficult calls & assign them to our best people, perhaps you might be successful in adopting something similar for your organization/company.

At a minimum, it merits your looking further into it & seeing if any opportunities for “intelligent/selective supply & demand” exist in your business.

If you need any proof as to whether this concept actually works, look back over your various service experiences with a company with whom you deal regularly.

Is every interaction the same? When you have an issue, doesn’t your level of satisfaction often depend on which employee is handling your problem? Do you get frustrated with a new employee’s inability to effectively service all your needs?

It’s a valid concept…see how you can implement something like that in your own shop.


And, as always, thank you so much for listening!

BTW, I was recently told by a number of financial services firms that there were “more qualified candidates” than me who had applied for a position in their bank’s Contact Center. And, as such, my application was not being considered.

Hmmm… 🤔


More qualified?

Guess I’ll just stay disabled & retired…and useless!

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