Reality Check: Your Customers Have ‘Baggage’ Too

The definition of “baggage” varies depending on whom you ask. For instance, a travel agent or a road-weary businessperson will describe a container used to carry personal belongings on a trip. A therapist might describe emotions from previous relationships that hamper a person’s ability to have a healthy relationship in the future. A customer service leader will say — well, what will a customer service leader say to describe “baggage?”

Here’s how a customer service leader should define “baggage:”

“Baggage is a customer’s past experiences, perceptions, or facts that occurred before the interaction that influence the customer’s expectation of service and therefore the perception of the interaction.”

If this service leader’s definition of baggage is new to you, that’s OK because we’re going to delve into the discovery of baggage, its importance and impact, and what service organizations need to do to address it in service experiences.

Let’s start with an overview of the concept itself.

The Discovery of Pre-Interaction Factors

A study of more than 1,200 customers who had recent service interactions aimed to understand better what factors into a customer’s evaluation of the customer service experience. In other words, what criteria determine whether a customer describes his/her service experience as “poor,” “outstanding,” or somewhere in between?

The data revealed that the core elements of a service interaction — Issue Diagnosis, Issue Resolution, and Call Closure — are important in the customer’s overall evaluation of live service. That said, those elements account for only 47 percent of the customer’s evaluation of service.

The remaining 53 percent of the evaluation is made up of “pre-interaction factors,” those elements that occur before the service rep picks up the phone and greets the customer.

Pre-interaction factors are often missed by service organizations because so much focus is placed on what happens during the interaction. Unless the service organization looks beyond the conventional view of customer service (Issue Diagnosis, Issue Resolution, and Call Closure), these pre-interaction factors will continue to be missed.

In order to look beyond conventional wisdom successfully, service leaders must be able to recognize pre-interaction factors, including the following:

  • Perceptions of the company’s service capabilities;
  • Perceived value to the company;
  • Past interactions with the company’s frontline staff; and
  • Previous contacts the customer has had with the company about the same issue.

Once service leaders are armed with the knowledge needed to identify pre-interaction factors, the next step is to learn how to address these factors during service interactions, most importantly because of the massive impact they have on a customer’s evaluation of the service experience.

Introducing ‘Customer Baggage’

Customer Baggage is similar to emotional baggage in that customers are being weighed down by what happened in the past, and it’s negatively impacting their current service experience.

The research showed a 48 percent increase in the Customer Interaction Index (a measure combining Customer Effort, Customer Satisfaction, Net Promoter Score, and Quality of Service) for companies that handled baggage effectively compared to companies that did not acknowledge a customer’s history.

In addition to a significantly higher Customer Interaction Index, companies saw a 14 percent decrease in the perceived effort of the next interaction when customers’ baggage is handled. That’s like getting credit for delivering an easier experience before the customer even has an issue to resolve.

In order to achieve such significant gains, companies need to begin by recognizing that customer baggage exists. Recognizing the existence of customer baggage is only part of the battle, though. A failure to adequately prepare service teams to handle customer baggage leaves the organization vulnerable to a poor customer experience. To mitigate this, the best organizations are learning how to teach and coach Customer Baggage Handling to their frontline staff.

Implementing Customer Baggage Handling

Ignoring customer baggage cannot be an option because when asked, 92 percent of surveyed customers said they enter a customer service interaction carrying baggage from prior interactions.

For customers who have had repeat problems or multiple issues with a company and its products and services — then the problem today isn’t the entire issue. The issue also is recognizing and acknowledging the customer’s accumulated pain, frustrations, or heightened expectations from all past interactions — or customer baggage.

The data shows almost every customer has baggage, and when service organizations fail to incorporate baggage handling in their strategy, it’s as if they’re settling for mediocrity — at best!

There is good news: 23 percent of service reps have been identified by customers as baggage handlers. What this insight means is that customer baggage handling skills already exist in about one in four reps, so there is an opportunity to teach baggage handling skills beyond those who do it naturally through training, coaching, and evaluating reps on customer baggage handling skills.

Training Customer Baggage Handling Skills

Organizations that want the successful integration of baggage handling skills into their service strategy should build a strong foundation for frontline teams through training.

What are the behaviors service reps must demonstrate in order to deliver a low-effort experience?

In the past, rep training focused on traditional soft skills or relationship-building skills — being friendly, personable, polite, and nice. While those skills are still important, they have little to no impact on the customer’s perception of the experience.

Best-in-class companies have evolved from this traditional view of training and have started to focus on teaching and coaching skills such as Experience Engineering, Next Issue Avoidance, and the focus of this article — Customer Baggage.

Some Core Baggage handling skills:

  • Acknowledge: Ask key questions to understand the customer’s past experiences better.

    Sample Question: “Is this your first time calling about this issue?” or “I see that you called us recently. Is this call related to that last conversation?”

  • Advocate: Treat customers the way they feel they should be treated.

    Sample Statement: “I understand your issue and what you’re going through. I’m going to figure out the best solution for you.”

  • Own: Own the customer’s issue by guiding the customer to resolution with confidence.

    Sample Statement: “I can imagine how frustrating this situation is, and I’m going to make sure we get this problem solved for you as quickly as possible.”

Coaching Customer Baggage Handling Skills

Coaching is the top driver needed to boost rep performance today. However, if the coaching is delivered with poor preparation or using “tell” instead of “teach” language, rep performance will be impacted negatively, and the net result will be worse than if no coaching was delivered at all.

In order to deliver successful coaching, supervisors need to have a clear understanding of the service rep’s strengths and areas of opportunity. To learn these strengths and areas of opportunity the best organizations rely on Quality Assurance.

Evaluating Customer Baggage Handling Skills

QA outputs equal coaching inputs — meaning that what is gathered from QA will have a direct influence on customer baggage handling coaching sessions.

Today, service organizations are developing a more subjective QA framework in which reps are held accountable for the skills that drive the customer experience, like customer baggage handling (not just internal adherence metrics).

Evaluating how reps handle baggage can be done through Voice of Customer surveys or trends-based analysis listening sessions. These insights will be a critical part of determining if baggage handling efforts are working effectively with customers.

Key Takeaways

Customer Baggage exists in almost every service interaction, and handling this baggage is integral to making great strides in customers’ service experiences. Thankfully, Customer Baggage Handling does not require massive updates to current technologies or hiring processes but instead simply requires that customer-facing staff recognize that customers have a past and acknowledge this history before moving into issue resolution.

Creating a service organization that tackles Customer Baggage Handling will go a long way toward achieving outstanding customer experiences today and into the future.

When building a customer baggage strategy, service leaders should remember the following:

  • The customer’s past matters — a lot.
  • Nearly all customers carry baggage — and it’s the organization’s responsibility to acknowledge it, advocate on the part of the customer, and own the baggage.
  • Reps can manage customer baggage during interactions — and organizations need to train, coach, and evaluate them to ensure proper execution.

Pete Slease is a vice president and Lauren Villeneuve is a senior principal in Gartner's Customer Service & Support practice.

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