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What happens to a brand without customer service empowerment?

In our previous blog, we explored what exactly employee empowerment is, and the benefits of an empowered call centre for the staff, customer and the business. But what does ignoring empowerment mean for the call centre, and its customers? The unfortunate truth is that we have a wealth of examples of a lack of customer service empowerment to reference from major brands, every single week.

National headlines often feature the latest customer faux pas and facepalms from the UK’s most successful businesses, and the dwindling collective tolerance of consumers is almost palpable.

Statistics from consumer research reports mirror these sentiments, such as those from CorvisaCloud last year, which surveyed 1,200 consumers to find that 80% of respondents were ‘vexed’ by calls that involved ‘robotic’ call centre agents, with reading from scripts rated the largest annoyance.

It’s one we can all relate to - feeling like you’re on the phone with a machine rather than a human. It’s frustrating to know that despite your issue, the person on the other end of the phone isn’t empowered enough to deviate from the script or call centre processes in order to make your life as a customer any easier.

Is self-service the answer?

It’s normal to think that in these cases you might as well be talking to a robot, and a lot of call centre leaders out there agree. We’ve recently seen interest and growing investment in self-service capability in the multichannel call centre.

Social and digital and web channels might appear to meet the customer demand for immediacy and ease-of-access, but removing the human element from customer interactions doesn’t always make life easy. If self-service options fail to provide customers with what they are looking for, and many self-service options fall short, they are simply going to drive contacts to the call centre and annoy the customer in the process.

It’s vital that the customer experience is geared around getting to the root of what the customer really wants as quickly as possible, not vain attempts to increase efficiency.

A lack of customer service empowerment.

One example where a lack of empowerment has landed one brand in hot water happened just last month. One traveller on a Virgin East Coast train service close to tears after she travelled on a Newcastle to Leeds train ticket - but got off at Darlington. The mother-of-four was hit with a £33.70 fine - despite the ticket she was using costing £10 more than the one she was supposed to have bought.

"A male member of staff took me to the office to complete the unpaid fare notice and another female member of staff was there too. I was very distressed by this point and close to tears as I have never once broken the law in my entire life. I tried to explain that it was a genuine error and they kept cutting me off in mid-sentence, the female member of staff telling me that I'd 'obviously got away with it'. I was made to feel like a criminal in front of other passengers and felt completely embarrassed and humiliated. My two small children were also at the other side of the barrier with my husband and were extremely distressed at me not being allowed through."

This is a perfect example of archaic and antiquated processes guiding staff to treat customers unfairly in circumstances that are usually completely understandable, and only take modicum of empathy to consider.

Passenger Focus, a rail watchdog, is calling for a shake-up in the rules governing ticketing – some of which stem as far back as 1889. But the rules aren’t always going to be the problem. The issue in this case was that staff weren’t empowered to use common sense and differentiate a customer who had made a harmless and honest mistake for someone who had genuinely tried to take advantage of the business.

Customer service empowerment done right.

On the other hand, another Virgin brand, Virgin Holidays recently demonstrated a fantastic example of company-wide empowerment. 26-year-old Richella Heekin had booked a surprise holiday to Vegas for her boyfriend’s 30th birthday. But when they turned up at the airport, it turned out that she’d actually booked it to depart from Birmingham, Alabama, instead of the one in the West Midlands.

Virgin Holidays sensed an opportunity for some good PR, and offered the couple a five-star, five-night holiday with flights and everything included.

Both examples here are from different companies under the same brand umbrella. The complimentary holiday cost a relatively large sum of money but gave the company a customer-focussed, altruistic and warm image - the gripe over a train ticket was a smaller issue but made them appear robotic, unfair and unempathetic.

Both the freedom and skills to differentiate between these two is what it takes to leverage the human element in interactions to create a positive outcome for both the customer and the brand. This can’t come from changing the rules or moving the goalposts, but from genuinely empowering your staff to act with autonomy and good-judgement.

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