Thursday, August 17th, 2017

Cellpocalypse: When Communication and Customer Service Collide

The day of the BellAliant outage in the Atlantic Provinces, I had an appointment at the bank – a national chartered bank that shall remain nameless for now. We were on vacation and I was driving into Charlottetown from the Stanley Bridge area – about 45 minutes away – to meet my sister and mother. They were travelling from work and their homes respectively.

The outage was mentioned on the radio before I left and it said: “some banks are affected.” In spite of my husband’s assertion that it would be a waste of time, I drove to town. With no ability to call one another or the bank, we all showed up.

Their Solution

When I pulled into the parking lot, there were at least five employees standing outside the building, telling people the bank was closed because they relied on the Internet. More were standing around inside the branch. The ATMs weren’t working and appointments would have to be rescheduled – but they couldn’t do that until the systems were back online.

I knew there was a chance they wouldn’t be open. What really bothered me was the lack of effort to either provide a level of customer service in absence of their systems or to provide notification. The radio news was covering the story and yet there was nothing about the closure on the radio or on the station’s Internet page – where some banks and branches were listed as closed.

My Questions

I’m a solution-oriented person with a keen sense of curiosity. The conversation I had with one of the banking staff went like this:

Me: Why didn’t you let the radio stations know you were closed?

Bank rep: We couldn’t phone them.

Me: You’re in Charlottetown. It’s only a short drive. Why didn’t you send someone to tell them?

Bank rep: We’re not allowed to leave.

Me: Not even one person?

Bank rep: Well, we’re not really allowed to do that. The Communications and PR department would have to approve it and we can’t call them.

Me: They wouldn’t let you announce an operational thing like a closing when that’s better service?

Bank rep: I know it sounds crazy, but they have to approve everything.

To be fair to the Communications and PR department of the bank, I can’t confirm whether or not that was truly the case, but it’s not unlike other things I’ve heard and seen in the past. Communications and PR departments have been known to insert themselves in operational announcements of various kinds, even when they are just internal.

An Alternative Solution

Here’s one of the truly frustrating things about this experience from a professional point of view: the best customer service option was obvious.

If they really couldn’t serve customers, they should have let customers know they were closed – to save them time, inconvenience and frustration.

If I were the branch manager (or manager in charge that day), I would have gone ahead and notified the radio stations. It supported customer service – and communications with customers – and there was no way to reach the Communications department at head office in Toronto. This was an ideal example of a time to “ask for forgiveness later.” At the very least, it would open a dialogue about what procedures and expectations make sense for this type of event. Where is the common sense? Where is the freedom to make sensible decisions that support effective customer service?

The Breaking Down of Communications

If the local folks were following procedure – or at least their interpretation of it based on past experiences and the direction they receive — what does that signify? I’m going to gloss over the employee empowerment piece for now, although it seems wanting. Let’s focus on communications.

What happens when Communications and PR insists on being involved in these types of operational announcements?

  • It hamstrings local management and staff, who understand the environment they’re operating in and their customers.
  • It feeds the perception that XYZ bank is not really about service. It’s just another institution raking in money for its big city headquarters. These smaller markets and customers aren’t important. In this case, can you say “Credit Union”? Seems to me there’s an opportunity there.
  • Resentment builds with employees who otherwise were trusted to communicate operational information. You’ll let them advise people on their finances – the core of your business – but not let customers know the branch is closed!?
  • In this case, it led to a poor customer service situation and frustrated customers. That couldn’t have been much fun for the employees doing the greeting either.

The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good (people) to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it. ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Effectively, this command and control approach to communications goes completely against one of the biggest goals of Communications and PR departments: build and maintain the organization’s reputation.

I have spent a lot of my career working in communications departments in various organizations, including a couple of big private sector companies. I worked hard to stay away from operational communications or – alternatively – to build guidelines and templates to support the employees who worked in those areas to communicate effectively. Then, we got out of the way or asked how else we could support. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that in both those organizations, there was a strong, ingrained customer service culture!

What Ends Well

We did end up meeting with the banker – just 15 minutes after the planned time, when the systems came back on. Ironically, the first 20-30 minutes of that meeting required nothing from the system. The personal banking advisor was great – friendly, helpful and very focussed on the needs of us as customers. Now, if that customer service approach could permeate throughout the organization and its procedures, wouldn’t the result be better for all?

Does your organization have procedures and guidelines in place to support employees to make the right decisions regarding customer service? To communicate those decisions effectively? I have a passion for communications and customer service and would love to help. Just get in touch.