When training goes bad: the Comcast saga continues

by on August 13, 2014 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Top Sales Dog

In an earlier post, I reported on an overeager Comcast customer-service rep’s misguided efforts to save a customer from defecting. And I wondered whether it was a case of training gone awry. I mentioned a well-established technique — the Five Whys — that we teach in our own sales-training platform, and I fretted that perhaps this rep had been taught this technique but not how to apply it correctly.

Well, there’s some good news and bad news.

The good news (for us): It wasn’t our training.

The bad news (for Comcast): It was their training.

Someone leaked a copy of Comcast’s training manual for its “retention team” (the folks you’re sent to if you ask to cancel your service). For the record, there’s nothing wrong with the content itself, unless you think there’s something inherently evil about companies trying to hang onto their customers. But it’s easy to see how a rep might draw the wrong conclusions about what the bosses really wanted and expected.

Apparently, calls are reviewed and given a score based on what the rep does or doesn’t say. For example, reps earn points if they’ve “paused after each question, giving customer time to process [the] question and respond” and “made the process as ‘effortless’ for the customer as possible.”

In other words, you earn points for customer focus. So far, so good.

But soon we come to the point where that poorly trained rep probably jumped to the wrong conclusion: The manual said he could lose points for failing to ask “appropriate follow up questions to probe for root causes or underlying issues.”

What message was the training manual sending to customer service reps?

Click to enlarge image: What message was the training manual sending to customer service reps?

Boy, did he ever ask.

And when the customer declined to provide a “root cause or underlying issue,” he kept asking. More and more forcefully. Rudely. Endlessly.

I don’t know what the rep was thinking, but I suspect his scorecard was on his mind. “My bosses told me to discover the root cause, so that’s what I’ll do,” he might have told himself. At some point that became his overriding objective — even when it was getting him ever farther away from his ultimate goal, which was to save the sale.

Teaching good judgment

I’ve blogged before about a key difference between highly effective salespeople and less effective salespeople. The best ones know when to put aside the playbook and use their judgment. But how many times have we told salespeople to just work the system and follow the script? How many times have we left them with the idea that their job is to say the things their managers and trainers have taught them to say? How many times have we tried to use a good script to make up for poor judgment?

Now, in fairness to Comcast, they do include some “Auto-Fail Behaviors” at the end of the manual, which result in a score of zero no matter whatever else the rep did right. And one is “acting rude, disrespectful or arguing with the customer.” (And for the record, I’m a Comcast subscriber and find most of their customer-service people to be friendly, polite and helpful.)

But there is a matter of emphasis: Where the manual gives abundant detailed examples of point-earning behaviors, it gives no examples of these “Auto-Fail” behaviors. So it might be easy for reps to conclude that they’ll get in more trouble for not probing enough than for probing too hard.

There’s nothing wrong with giving salespeople language they can use — questions to ask, counters for objections, and so forth. And there’s nothing wrong with giving them a process. But these are only tools; you also have to teach people how and when to use them, how to handle unscripted scenarios, and how to stay focused on the ultimate objective.

I’m not sure that assigning points for using certain words and phrases does much to advance these critical thinking skills. Comcast, for example, didn’t really need to assign scores to these calls; the real scorecard is how many successful saves the rep achieves over time. Granted, it’s a lot harder to teach good judgment than to reward people for using stock words and phrases. But which is more important in sales?

There’s one more lesson to consider here for sales trainers. Would you be comfortable if your organization’s customers saw your training materials? In these days of citizen journalism, you should assume they will.

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