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The Biggest Myth In Customer Service, Debunked


Customer service bloggers and speakers love to talk about the value of “personal, above-and-beyond support at any cost.”They’ll share stories of Ritz-Carlton’s legendary customer service policies.They’ll tell you about the one time a Nordstrom rep opened the store early for them.They’ll try to make you believe that the only way to be successful in customer service is to spend limitless time and money on making every customer smile from ear to ear.But here’s the truth: that’s not the reality that most of us live in. Sometimes, the costs of customer support are too high to justify spending much time and money on particular interactions or customers.Sometimes, the business model doesn’t support grand gestures to “wow” the customers.And that’s perfectly okay.Just like those that say you should always go for relationships, there are those that say you should go for speed: get the issue resolved and the customer off the phone as quickly as possible.The truth is, both approaches can be extremely effective.Which is best for your business?  The answer is: it depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

Transactional and Constructive Interactions

The formal terms for the speed vs. relationship spectrum are:

  • Transactional (speed)
  • Constructive (relational)

To understand these, let’s look at several examples of both:

Transactional Interactions: Optimized for Speed

Transactional interactions are typical when customers have a single problem they’re trying solve. For example, let’s say you need an airline to move your ticket date for an upcoming trip.You have one problem. Once the date has been changed, you’re done. You don’t expect to form a personal bond with the airline or the customer service rep who helps you.And the airline doesn’t try to build a relationship in return. They get you on and off the phone as quickly as they can.

Solve Problems Fast

Valet parking attendants usually have transactional interactions, too.They take your keys, park your car, and bring it back when you need it. But they don’t usually form deep relationships with individual customers.

Constructive Interactions: Building Relationships

Constructive interactions are more typical when a business wants to form a relationship with a customer over time. Let’s say you’re having a problem setting up an online store. You call customer service for help. The agent solves your issue, but she also spends a extra minutes explaining other features you can use to improve your store. Then she gives you her direct phone number and invites you to call directly if you ever need help in the future.In this example, the support agent is going well beyond solving your problem. She’s constructing the beginning of a relationship. She wants you to feel happy about her and her company. Happy enough that you’ll come back again and again for future purchases.Some doctors strive to have constructive interactions too. You return to one doctor many times, and a good doctor will work hard to develop a constructive relationship with you over time.This was famously described as “delivering happiness” by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in his bestselling book of the same name: Delivering Happiness.

Make Customers Happy

Choose a Style that Fits Your Needs

Speed or relationships? Transactional or constructive?Which style should you choose?At Hickory, we recommend and support a mix of both styles.We use constructive interactions with our manager clients and transactional styles with the learners on their team. You can (and should) do the same for different situations in your business.

When to Use the Transactional Model

Choose transactional interactions when optimizing for reducing cost—especially when a dollar amount can be tied to time-on-call (sometimes measured down to the second).Here you care about:

  • Labor costs
  • Call times
  • Response time
  • Onboarding time

Call times, error reduction, and routing should be heavily managed and measured in transactional settings. Since the goal is to offer reasonable support for as little cost as possible, outsourcing is a popular option for this type of support. Lower quality and CSAT scores may persist when using a strictly transactional model. You might also deal with high agent churn.

Speed Lowers Costs

When to Use the Constructive Model

Use constructive interactions when you want to create happy, motivated customers who will purchase from you again and again.Here you care about:

  • CSAT
  • Quality scores
  • Churn of customers and agents (since they both take a while to cultivate)

Reps using constructive interactions take the time to ensure every customer feels welcomed, helped, and appreciated. This is typical of marketplaces and early-stage startups. They usually have a strong CSAT score, high quality scores, and moderate agent churn.They spend more on support, but they consider the cost acceptable because they believe the relationships they build will lead to additional sales (and profits).

Repeat Buyers

Perfect Support for Zero Cost

The ideal goal of every customer service interaction is to deliver perfect support at zero cost (or net negative cost, due to the value created).Transactional interactions focus on minimizing speed and cost; constructive relationships focus on sending each customer away happy.  Depending on your business model, you’ll probably use one model more than the other. The bottom line?Don’t be fooled into thinking one approach is intrinsically better than the other.In some situations, the transactional approach will yield better results. In others, the constructive approach is best.You—the business owner or manager—know your business best. Pick the style that suits your business. Then help your agents deliver the absolute best possible support using whatever approach you choose.

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