The importance of empathy, effective communication & engagement

If you learn one thing from me today learn this. Sometimes rules can be a tyranny. They can be utterly destructive.

Not because they’re bad rules per se, but because they’re applied unthinkingly. Without variation.

It’s bad enough when our bots and automated processes do this, but worse still when we force our human agents to follow scripts and rules – giving them no discretion, no ability to empathise or take appropriate action. We effectively remove all the value that a human agent can bring to the interaction and turn them into little more than breathing bots.

When automation and rules go wrong

An example of how inflexible processes combined with disempowered CSRs can create bad outcomes is highlighted by a disturbing letter in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. A reader wrote to explain that their elderly mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. A terrible situation for any family and one where the family is under considerable stress. The reader explained how the family has power of attorney over the elderly lady’s affairs.

She then went on to relate how a telecoms giant – Vodafone – had steadfastly refused to help the family deal with their mother’s phone. She hadn’t used the phone for over a year and was unable to remember key pieces of information. Yet, Vodafone refused to cancel the subscription, and ignored the family when they sent in evidence of ID and power of attorney.

The UK’s regulator was so concerned that it uncharacteristically intervened directly with Vodafone.

The response from Vodafone was shocking. Its spokesperson stated that it takes “up to 40 days” to add the power of attorney to an account. It rather predictably blamed “human error” and told the Guardian that it has since trained its staff to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It remained silent on the fact that the customer had been charged for 12 months of non-usage.

Use your people better

We beg to disagree with Vodafone. When your staff are forced to follow rules that are not appropriate, and are not empowered or trained to do better, it isn’t human error, it’s corporate error. Cancelling a subscription in these circumstances should take hours, not more than a month.

The charity Dementia UK says it’s all too familiar. Their director of clinical services Paul Edwards noted the situation was not just unacceptable but could easily be avoided if firms simply looked at their own data. If someone hasn’t used a phone for 12 months why are they still being billed because of inflexible contract terms? “If companies are able to monitor their customers’ usage, this should allow them to stop excessive and unwarranted bills for vulnerable people,” he said.

This is already possible Mr Edwards. We could easily do this. Depressingly we’re choosing not to.

Customer-centric organisations are focused on providing value and satisfaction, not gouging customers by selling them something they don’t need or can no longer afford. This case shows just how far the telecoms industry needs to go to mend its ways and become customer centric.

The damage is amplified

The damage done through this article to Vodafone’s reputation didn’t end there. Readers shared anecdotal evidence that bereaved families also have problems closing accounts.

In the comments section, customers lay bare other shortcomings: “Vodafone sent out bills for nearly a year after my mother passed away, which was quite disturbing to my stepfather,” said one respondent.

Another, who revealed her service provider was EE, painted a different picture: “My mum died recently, and it took a single phone call to close her account.” However another customer revealed that EE doesn’t always get it right: “It took me four attempts to get them to cancel my dad’s phone and broadband after he died, including two after they cut off the phone! Eventually, one brave soul agreed that their assurances that ‘it will all be taken care of this time’ were beyond annoying after I recited the dates and times of my previous calls and undertook to take care of it personally and confirm it in writing.”

We all need to do better

Telcos spend millions on advertising how caring and wonderful they are and then uncurated experiences, inappropriate use of rules, and inflexible processes frustrate and harm customers.

Rules can be very useful. But sometime they need to be broken. Having the commonsense to know when to make an exception and the authority to be able to do so is essential to creating an engaging, communicating, thinking, feeling customer-centric organisation.

Plan ahead and empower your agents

All telecoms and digital firms need to stand back from the scripts and think what it means to be a customer. They need to anticipate common situations where there needs to be an exceptional response and put alternative arrangements in place. Otherwise there’s a real risk of being non-compliant with laws and regulations that say you have to be inclusive and supportive of vulnerable people, and of brand damage that swiftly destroys your carefully crafted image.

This isn’t about the performance of individual companies within our industry; but the industry as a whole doing better. Customers can now readily share their experiences online and while they might let minor issues roll, if a company fails during a critical moment like this then they will share that experience with the world.

For those of you who are moved by this to think your organisation should do better, I’d suggest convening a team to work through common scenarios and put some simple measures in place starting now. Get advice from those working with elderly and vulnerable people. Always err on the side of honesty, kindness and generousness.

Sadly, Vodafone were always going to lose the correspondent’s mother as a customer. Now they have lost her children, her wider family, her friends and the people who have read this story. All because no-one had the authority to intervene and cancel a contract worth a couple of hundred pounds.

Find out how to improve your communications & engagement

  1. […] The most basic level of digital trust is practical trust, which is still a challenge for many telecoms firms. Can your customers rely on you to deliver? Beyond this lies emotional trust. Do your customers believe you are honest with them? Do they think you respect them? Do they perceive you to be on their side? Do they approve of you and like you? Do they feel you listen to them and respond authentically to their needs? (see also The importance of empathy, effective communication & engagement) […]