Customer-centric.

That’s what you, your people & your company MUST be in order to truly be successful in today’s world.

Oh, yeah, everyone says it, but ask yourself…Does it truly permeate every fiber of me?

Does everything we do, say & think revolve around the customer?

Am I regarded by everyone within earshot of my voice (and my communications) as a customer advocate?

As the ULTIMATE customer advocate?

I remember always saying that the people who occupied the boxes above me in the ol’ organizational chart were NOT my real bosses.

I didn’t do what I did to please them…not at all.

Excluding my own beliefs, values & goals, my ONLY bosses were (in no particular order)…

My employees.

The stockholders.

My customers.

They were all equally important, yet/while each one of them was also the most important.

And dependent upon your particular role in the company & your specific area’s function, your “customers” could very well be “internal customers” (or users) that you support.

But that would be in addition to your customer’s “external” customers…the end users of the products & services your company provides.

Here are a few recollections of mine that’ll help illustrate the principle of what truly being “customer centric” is all about…

> When I ran Customer Service for Lehman Brothers (at their Aurora Loan Services mortgage-servicing subsidiary in Scottsbluff, NE)…

*BTW, “NE” stands for Nebraska, the Cornhusker state. Its capital is Omaha, home of Warren Buffett as well as the NCAA Men’s Collegiate Baseball World Series.

NE does not stand for New England nor any of the “New” states, e.g., York, Mexico, Hampshire, Year’s Eve, Jersey, Kids on the Block, etc..

Oh, I can’t wait until I get to quiz you guys on the “Mi” states…Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Michigan & Florida.

🤔

Mickey Mouse.

Duh.*

…I would always get into heated argument, er, debates with our Service Quality partners (the Call Monitoring Unit).

They would absolutely drive me nuts regarding how they listened to, and “scored”, my people’s calls.

Seemed that they “waited in the nearby high grass”, stalking my reps, ready to pounce on them for the slightest & stupidest procedural infractions.

Did you use the EXACT “official” opening for the call, word for word?

What about the “mandatory” closing, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”?

*Attn: grammar freaks: Since you’re theoretically not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition, e.g., of, about, under, over, from, after, before, within, etc., the correct phrase should actually be “Is there anything else for (or with) which I can help you?”.

On that note, lemme ask you, “What do most sentences actually end with?” (properly speaking, that would be “Most sentences end with what?”)?

The answer?

Probation.

🤪*

But I digress…

Did they cover every single aspect of the call, including proactively offering every option or service enhancement to the customer?

Were there any incidents whatsoever of “speaking over” the customer?

They were like hungry female lions or cougars, hiding in the bushes, just waiting (and salivating) to sabotage & pounce upon the defenseless baby wart hog or impala that was grazing nearby.

Little to no consideration was actually given to the “acceptance of the rep’s answer” by the customer. Were they pleased? Did they express gratitude? Did they say “Thank you for your help!”? Were they happy? Were they smiling?

Conversely, even if the rep did absolutely everything according to the book, but the customer went away not totally understanding the situation, not completely understanding what the rep said, or not smiling, then guess what? It wasn’t an acceptable call!!!

Not in MY book!

In another story that I previously wrote about, I spoke of the joint monitoring session that we held…the entire Monitoring Unit, their boss (an incredibly-smart & sharp lady), me & one of my Cust Svce team leaders.

We listened to a “live call” (vs. one of the thousands that we had recorded) in the Board Room.

And it turned out to be the PERFECT EXAMPLE of what I was trying to demonstrate to the monitoring unit about how they seemed more interested in the procedural aspects of a call rather than taking a step back and seeing how the customer accepted it. Instead of measuring the value that it actually added to the client’s experience. Instead of taking into consideration the solutions that were provided to the customer and so on and so forth.

We got the opportunity to listen to one of our mortgage customers from northern Texas.

The client got on the line with a full head of steam…she was as irate as someone could be, right outta the gate!

Apparently, her monthly payment suddenly went up by about $500-$600…all of a sudden, out of nowhere. Supposedly, with no prior notification nor communication from us, we’re now asking her for an additional $500-$600.

Now, it wasn’t as if she missed a payment, or came up short on her prior payment, so this didn’t represented a past due amount.

Nope, nothing like that. It was just that her payment went up and she was absolutely furious with us!

Lemme tell you, my rep did one of the best jobs I’ve ever listened to in my entire 40-year career!

She acknowledged how the customer was feeling & allowed her to blow off some steam. She took control of the call, following my philosophy for handling the angry caller…the LEAF method.

Listen. Empathize. Apologize. Find a solution.

What had happened to the customer is that her “tax abatement program” came to a close.

In that particular Texas county, for the first five years of home ownership for a new dwelling, the county would waive all property taxes.

It’s a great incentive that counties use to spur new home construction by incenting potential new home buyers to come and buy a new house.

It works great! It’s not applicable for resales. The homeowner had to buy a new dwelling, a newly-constructed house. What happened to this particular customer is that she bought her new home exactly 5 years ago!

The five-year tax abatement program ended. She claimed that she received no formal communication from her county, nor from us. (Personally, I seriously doubt that. So many people receive letters that they just don’t understand and instead of calling to seek an explanation, they just dump the letter into the garbage.)

This customer had escrow attached to her account, meaning that Aurora would add an additional amount…the escrow portion of your normal monthly payment of principal and interest…to cover things such as annual property taxes, any type of hazard insurance on the home, and other things where your mortgage servicer would pay others on your (the homeowner’s) behalf. With these monthly escrow payments, the servicer would basically set aside the money that would eventually be spent (to pay the county, the insurance company, etc.).

So, the tax abatement program was over. We apparently knew about it as we started to charge escrow as a means of setting aside enough funds to pay the partial year’s worth of property taxes come 4th quarter.

So we started charging the customer escrow in this case, the infamous “extra $500-$600 “, so we would be ready for the upcoming bill.

Did we contact the customer? Yep, by letter. It certainly would make sense, especially when the customer’s total payment increases so significantly.

Well, this customer was absolutely ecstatic when she finally understood why! Maybe not exactly happy that she hadda fork over the extra $ each month going forward, but incredibly pleased with the explanation she received. By the time the call ended, she had expressed her gratitude on numerous times, not only for what the representative said and the accuracy of the answer, but for the manner in which she did it.

She apologized for being so angry & irate at the beginning of the call. She was ecstatic at the patience & professionalism of my rep.

When the call was over, everyone in the room briefly discussed their impression of the service provided by the rep.

The phrase “better than sliced bread” & “an incredible job by the rep” popped up a few times.

Now, it was time for everyone to grade the call…independently & “in secret”. I didn’t actually write anything down on paper (as I no longer believed in the 1-100 scoring methodology), but I gave it an A with a hundred + signs! Not only was it a great call, it was one of the best calls I’ve ever heard in my entire career of being at Lehman Brothers or Citibank.

OK, so we went around the room.

The first call monitor gave the call a 94…started at 100 (as all calls did), then subtracted 3 points for “talking over the customer” (there was one incident where, after a short period of silence while the rep was looking at the escrow screen, she began to speak at the same exact time that the customer simultaneously began to ask a question. It was totally unavoidable as she began to ask my rep a question so my rep backed off immediately & apologized. Despite that, the monitor took three points for “speaking over the customer” which was ludicrous, absolutely nonsense!), then deducted another 3 points because my rep did not use the standard, formal closing, the grammatically-incorrect “Is there anything else I can help you with?”.

Her final score came to 94.

We then continued to go around the room and, even though each monitor was supposed to have completed their assessment independently, it was pretty obvious that they took the cue from the previous assessment(s) as every call monitor scored it a 94 & for exactly the same 2 reasons.

*bows deeply & blesses himself as a miracle truly occurred*

It soon came all the way around to me, but I withheld judgment as I wanted to hear from my team leader as well as the Monitoring Unit manager.

They gave their scores & reasons why.

“So, Mike, how did you score it?”

“Well…

“I listened to each one of you praise the call. Many of you commented that it was the best call you ever heard, that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, blah, blah, blah!

“But you know what I’m gonna do? Right now, I’m gonna leave the room & gonna go out there and talk to my rep. I’m gonna yell at her in front of everyone. I’m gonna tell her how embarrassed I was to be in that room, listening to her call with everyone else.

“I’m gonna tell that ‘Suzie’ that she failed the call! That we just monitored the call & the entire Monitoring Unit gave her a 94! I’m gonna remind her that 95 is the passing grade for all calls!

“Tell her that I’m going to enter this information on her record, her permanent record & that it’s gonna stay there forever! Tell her that she had better learn from now on how to properly handle phone calls!”

Everybody in the room looked at me like I was crazy.

“I don’t care what you said about the call…you failed it with a 94 score!!! That’s the bottom line!”

I paused to let everything sink in.

“This is exactly why I have issues with how you guys look at scores & the problems with using a 1-100 scale.

“The reps are not taking a spelling or math test! You’re looking for these tiny little procedural errors and not taking into consideration the entire call. You’re not looking at it as a ‘customer experience’, but rather, as a phone call!

“The client was ecstatic, extremely pleased not only with the information & the the answer to her question, but for the complete explanation as well as the manner in which the rep explained it & displayed extraordinary patience and care! None of you really took the rep’s wonderful handling of an emotional customer into consideration nor the customer’s obvious reaction to that. How do you think the customer would’ve rated the call?

“Would she have selected ‘highly satisfied’ or just ‘satisfied’ when she gets interviewed by our Service Quality before?

“Now, maybe, you can understand why I’m campaigning to move away from this 1-100 scoring methodology and move to one that we developed at Citi. With my system, you would have scored this a ‘5’ (on a 1-5 scale), as ‘Exceptional’! We would have awarded her a special blue ribbon. We would have made a big deal out of it.

“With my process, most calls start off at ‘3’, or Par, and then the rep moves the needle to the left or right. Depending on what the rep says or doesn’t say, depending on how the customer accepts that, will move the needle.

“Granted, she didn’t use the proper closing, but between me and you, it wasn’t really necessary on this call. But I’ll concede that it was, indeed, a minor procedural error. The needle would move ever so slightly to the left.

“And we can talk forever as to whether or not she actually ‘spoke over the customer’. It’s possible that the customer spoke over her! It actually happened that coincidentally, they both started speaking simultaneously, nothing within the rep’s control. But if you’re insistent on ‘blaming the rep’, the needle would’ve moved ever so slightly to the left again.

“But then, the needle would’ve went 100 MPH to the right with regard to her answer, her ability to calm down the angry caller, the gratitude that the customer continually expressed, how thankful she was. All that plays a huge part in how we should be looking at, and, scoring, our calls!”

> When I was back running CitiPhone for the Brooklyn/Long Island/Staten Island Region, we got this li’l hotshot from our Bankcards business into the Upper Manhattan’s CitiPhone managerial ranks.

While the NYBD/NY Banking Division historically used “Service Level” (of the callers that contacted CitiPhone, what % of them were answered within a ‘customer-tolerable’ waiting time of 20 seconds?) as the official timeliness performance inductor, our Bankcards partners used “average speed of answer” instead. He wanted us to change from “SL/Service Level” to “ASA/Average Speed of Answer”.

Why?

Because the behemoth Credit Card division of the Consumer Bank accounted for the most customers and, by far, the most profits at that time.

(Personally, I didn’t give a rat’s ass how big they were or how much money they made.

To me, right is might.)

Normally, a service level of “80% of callers answered within 20 seconds” = “~10-12 seconds average waiting time”.

Both units of measurement are valid.

But both aren’t “customer-centric”!

Service levels tell you exactly how many callers “you made happy” or “satisfied” with how quickly you picked up the phone.

Yes, for some callers, even a 20-second wait is too long. Hell, anything other than immediately being answered is too long of a wait!

And there are those callers who’ll still be satisfied with any wait under a minute.

(Basically, the 20-second “cutoff” was “created” by sales companies on how willing a potential customer would wait before they became even the slightest bit annoyed.

20 seconds = 4 rings.

When I worked for Lehman Brothers, it was pretty commonplace in the mortgage servicing industry to use 30 seconds (not 20) as the timing parameter to gauge “customer waiting tolerance”. Maybe it’s because that the nature retail banking service was “more immediate in nature”.

Customers need to get cash NOW. They’re angry NOW that their check bounced (and, especially, since it’s ALWAYS the bank’s fault & NEVER the customer’s.) We’re talking about the need for IMMEDIATE access to MY funds.

Perhaps the need for “immediacy” is not as present with normal mortgage-related inquiries.

You don’t need your mortgage to go to the mall or buy food for your family. And while your home is, probably, your single largest expenditure of your life & the need for shelter is one of the most basic human requirements, there really isn’t as much a “transactional nature” associated with mortgage calls so the industry as a whole, believes that a 30-sec wait is indeed tolerable.

Hey, everyone doesn’t drive a red car.

My second reason for disagreeing with Boy Wonder (Boy Blunder?) is my distaste for “average” as the sole unit of measurement in terms of looking at performance, satisfaction, quality or just about anything else.

Besides, we’re servicing customers, not slide rulers or mathematicians.

We don’t handle 10,000 calls or customers a day. Instead, we handle 1 customer at a time, then repeat that process another 9,999 times!

As the old saying goes, “Figures lie & liars figure!”

Actually, what I meant to say was, “On average, you may be ‘very comfortable’…with your head in the oven & your feet in the freezer!”

> One more quick one before I let you go…

Our S&T partners (Systems & Technology) would always have a ton of metrics to measure their performance, be it “transactions processed in a timely manner”, “daily loads ready by 7AM following a business day”, etc., including, of course, my very favorite, SYSTEMS AVAILABILITY.

Almost every system had a standard of “99.9% uptime”.

First, I would always push them for 99.99% availability to more accurately reflect the critical nature of our business.

Apparently, even though we employed some of the very best & sharpest thinkers I’ve ever met, along with some of the very best technology ever invented, it was pretty apparent to me that no one in S&T owned or used a calculator that could go more than one digit to the right of the decimal point!

And industry experts also admired Citi for our incredible wealth of human capital as well as being technologically superior compared to our peers!

Hell, we invented the CD/Certificate of Deposit (as well as the ability to “purchase one” for an amount <$10,000 with the introduction of our Easy Access CD)…we were the first major bank to roll out ATMs…we offered the best “deposited funds availability” tools in the business with our GCRP/Good Customer Recognition Program & CAC/Checks as Cash offerings…were pioneers with “Provisional/Immediate Credits” for non-Credit card financial investigations…we even had a subsidiary (Linex?) in the early 70s that created/sold an ACD/Automated Call Distributor (but the Federal regulators forced us to spin off from FNCB/Citicorp as it didn’t fall under the permissible auspices of a federally-chartered bank).

But we couldn’t get to that second decimal point…

Anyway…

I worked really hard in getting/convincing our Systems partners to discard the “time-based” availability metics in favor of ones that were truly customer-centric.

Pls allow me to explain.

I’m not sure if it was when I was still in NY (up to 10/31/93) or after when I joined the USCC/U.S. Citibanking Center that I realized the “fallacy” of the then-current availability metrics.

When you look at the entire calendar month (an average of 30.4 days), that’s a total of 730 hours, or 43,800 minutes, each month (on average…😱😱😱!)

If the standard for “systems availability” is 99.9% minimally, then we’re talking ~10 mins/week, or ~45 mins/month, allowable downtime.

Doesn’t seem like a lot.

But if that 10/mins a week happens every Monday or Tuesday morning, then we’ll be underwater for at least a few hours that day when the systems finally comes back up!

We’d have an impossible task of meeting our service level standard (80% of callers answered within 20 secs) for that day & a difficult time of even meeting it for the week.

Our scheduling philosophy was pretty fine-tuned to result in a ~82% service level. For months & months & months (with exception of the pre-1995 period & the 6+ month reign of Javier Villanuava IV as CitiPhone Director), CitiPhone was eerily consistent with coming in between 80.5% SL & 83% SL.

That’s exactly where you wanna be.

If you’re doing a 60% SL, then way too many customers are being negatively impacted by poor timeliness (that doesn’t meet customers’ expectations or tolerance).

And if your SL is “too high” (say, 85% or higher), then you’re simply wasting money. Queuing theory clearly states that the higher the SL, the more service representatives must “be idle” (that is, ready for a call, but not doing anything productive).

You must maintain the fine balance between “being effective” (making customers happy) & “being efficient” (making your superiors @ Citi happy).

And that doesn’t happen magically…trust me on that one.

There’s a whole lot of science that goes into running a call center the right way…and a great deal of art when it comes to doing the right thing for the customer.

While I ALWAYS placed more emphasis on what we did once we picked up the customer’s call, I always keep my eye on how long they waited before we answered their call.

Unfortunately, many senior leaders mistakenly place way too much importance on timeliness as its easy/easier to messure than the way more nebulous “customer satisfaction” indicator.

If it moves, measure it. I agree with that 1000%!!!

But you DON’T manage, nor lead, with numbers.

You worry about your people’s behavior…what they do & say, how they do & say stuff, when they do & say stuff, and how long it takes them to do & say stuff.

Manage behaviors ALWAYS…and the numbers will magically appear.

In my entire career (NY CitiPhone, Retirement Plan Services Ops, Control Desk, Micrographics, USCC CitiPhone, Lehman Brothers Customer Service, First American/CoreLogic Southeast Regional Service Center), my teams NEVER, EVER failed a single monthly KPI/Key Performance Indicator.

Never.

That’s because I always made sure that our people knew their responsibilities, performed up to their/my expectation, understood how they contributed to the overall organization’s success, tried our very best to give them the authority/tools/training/opportunity/guidance to do their job in the best way possible.

Man, that was a long one, heh?

As always, thank you so much for listening!

Subscribe to Mike's Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Leave a Reply