Changing times – What CX means to me in 2020

Posted: June 24, 2020

I have been on a long hiatus from social media and business-related blogging. 2020 has been like no other year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what all this change in the world means for me personally and professionally. Now, I’m digging in again, and I wanted to share where I’m at.

I’ve been trying to articulate my stance on all of this and I think maybe a story helps.

A story

My first call centre job was taking calls from people about their pension payments. I had moved from a regular call-taker to a manager who would take escalated calls from other agents, and one day an agent escalated a call to me. I asked her what the call was about.

“I have no idea. I can’t make any sense of what he’s saying.”

I picked up the phone and greeted the caller, and in reply, I heard a kind of grunt. I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. I focused and tried to block out the noise around me to hear more clearly through my headset.

“How can I help you, sir?”

Listening closely, I could make out sounds. Words were there, but they were hidden under thick speech impediment that could only have been caused by a disability. I could make out maybe 25% of what he was saying, and he was a serious caller needing help with a payment. It was going to take a different approach to be able to help this person.

In normal speech, you can ask any type of question and be able to get a clear response. In speech where you can’t understand the response too well, in order to be clear in what you’re hearing back, you need to use a lot of yes/no questions to validate your understanding. It took a long time, but from what the caller was telling me, I was able to check the details with him slowly using these types of questions.

“Did you say that was in relation to your August payment?”

“Have you changed your bank account recently?”

Getting him through security to be able to confirm his payment status was another challenge requiring a lot of checks and validation.

“Was that D for dog?”

“So just to check, I’m going to read out your postcode – let me know if it’s right or not.”

And all the while I was trying not to patronise this man, who it turned out, had nobody to help him. In cases like this it was standard process to ask a relative to get in touch, or to communicate by letter or email. This guy had nobody, and he needed help there and then.

We managed to get through the call and get his issue resolved. Our standard call length at that time was about 6 minutes, but this call took close to 40 to resolve. As I hung up the call and started to type up my wrap up notes, I checked back on the man’s contact history.

“Had no idea what he was saying. Told him to write in.”

“Was unable to communicate with him. Asked him to get a relative to call.”

Pretty much every call this man had made previously had ended with him being told by the rep that they could not help him.

Why did that happen?

The moral of the story

If you’d asked me to tell this story last year, I’d have told you that the moral of the story is this:

When you’re representing an organisation, even as a regular call centre agent, you have the choice how to treat that caller. Not just in terms of your tone and style but also in what you fight for on the customer’s behalf. Fighting for the customer is the right thing to do, and we all must do it.

Back then, I thought if you didn’t fight this fight, that meant that you were lazy or you didn’t care enough.

I’ve learned more since then, enough to see that I was dead wrong.

Now, my moral of the story is this:

I understand that those notes left by others against that man’s file were not left by those who were malicious in a wish to not help. More likely, they were notes from regular agents who didn’t have the choice to be able to do more – who couldn’t take the extra time on that call for fear of their stats dropping and eventually, losing their job… or who weren’t “powerful” enough within the organisation to be able to persuade others that their actions were the right thing to do.

Contact centres are unequal places.

Our agents are not often people who have attributes we associate with privilege. A good sector of our workforce are part-time, or with college level education. Contact centre workers are majority female. And regardless of their demographic or our business industry, we pay our contact centre workers extremely poorly.

In that job, I was that person who could bend processes and kick up a fuss when things happened that were not good for the customer, and I got away with it. I got a reputation for being that difficult demanding woman, but that reputation never endangered my job. There is no doubt that it was my position that allowed me to do this. I was a white, British woman in a senior position in the centre. I had no visible disabilities and I was able to do and get what I thought was right. It helped that I was paid enough to care. Others do not have the privileges I had.

Many of us working in CX are in a position to stand up for customers and get better outcomes for them. That is absolutely a privilege. And I think, here in 2020, we should be having conversations about how we do that.

I stand strongly with #BLM and the protesters who are demanding better from our society, and who deserve more. I personally have benefited tremendously from our system while others have not, and that is not okay. I think it’s important to acknowledge where we can see that inequality exists in our society so we can take that on and play a part in fixing it.

I can never understand the experiences of #BLM or other groups who are fighting for change. But I hope that as a person who writes about CX I can be a part of the conversation on how CX needs to change.

How should CX change?

I believe that any CX professional has a responsibility to help in three major ways:

  • We must place customers at the centre of our concern. Not shareholders, not VPs. Customers. And actually do that in our actions, not just put it on customer-facing literature or talk vaguely about it as a value when it actually means nothing.
  • We must build processes that explicitly acknowledge and account for people of colour, people with disabilities, and trans people.
  • We must empower contact centre agents and stop treating contact centre jobs as the lowest jobs in organisations. That absolutely has to include paying them more.

I don’t think we can avoid conversations about politics in CX any more, as power and privilege frame the work that we all do. I think we all need to play a part in acknowledging and being vocal about what that looks like for each of us, and to encourage and listen deeply to the voices of those who need to be heard.

CX in 2020

Normally, at the start of every year, Forrester and the like will put out their predictions for the hot topics in CX. I think as the year started, a lot were predicting that chatbots and big data and the precariousness of CX as a discipline would be the headlines. I hope that as we round out the year we are able to say, actually the biggest topics have to be #BLM and the protests.

And not in the sense that companies who screwed up their messaging lost revenue. In the sense that CX professionals must now work to change our businesses and our society to secure more justice for these groups.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this post as it’s probably the most important and personal post I’ve made since, well, ever. Thanks for reading.

Photo by Cooper Baumgartner on Unsplash

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