Source: Pixabay.com

Waiting. For some it’s easy, for others not so much. People find themselves waiting many times in the course of a day, be it queued up for their morning coffee or standing in the grocery checkout line. Waiting is so ubiquitous, it should come as no surprise that academics study it in its many forms.

Nowhere is waiting more common than customer service. Customers stand by for assistance in telephone or chat queues, then wait for an answer to be delivered–and that answer might not be immediate, requiring research by the agent and a future follow-up. While it’s been a growing trend that customers prefer self-service due to its anytime-anywhere nature, there’s no doubt some of that popularity has arisen as a result of waiting.

Like the research into waiting cited above, the government of the city of Detroit came to some similar conclusions as revealed in the 99% Invisible podcast “Wait Wait … Tell Me!” as they embarked on a city improvement project. Since the 1950’s, Detroit’s population has been steadily declining, though many of the vacant homes came as a result of the financial crisis a decade ago. In 2014, Detroit started a city-wide demolition program to address the estimated 40,000 houses that were beyond repair. The program was revealed to the public, and as houses began coming down across the city, progress wasn’t fast enough for many residents. As a result, citizens began flooding the voicemail of Brian Farkas, the city representative managing the program. Residents were struggling with waiting. They had many questions: when abandoned neighborhood houses would be demolished, whether they could buy the property, and others.

Farkas is the director of special projects at the Detroit Building Authority, the agency overseeing the demolition program–in other words, not a customer service person by trade. During the course of this project, he made some changes to the program scope to better respond to residents’ needs. His actions are great examples of how best to address those times when customers must wait.

Get the word out

Customers contact customer service because they have a question or a problem they have been unable to solve on their own. Typically, problems are not unique to a single customer, resulting in multiple contacts for that same issue coming into customer service via telephone, email, and other channels.

Farkas learned very quickly that as the public face to the house demolition program, he was perceived as the single source of information. He would regularly find his voicemail overflowing with questions, and many of them similar. At first, he and his department tried to respond individually to the queries, but it quickly became clear this was not sustainable.

Farkas’ solution to this dilemma started by making the answers to the most common questions easily available to residents. Citizens could now self-serve when trying to determine when nearby homes would come down. The burden on him and his team was significantly reduced.

Be as transparent as possible

Hand-in-hand with providing information in an easy-to-use self-service manner, Farkas had another realization. Access to information alone wasn’t going to be enough.

That was when he discovered research by Ryan Buell, a professor at the Harvard Business School, related to transparency in customer service. Among his work, Buell cites the travel website Kayak.com as a great example of transparency: in its early iterations, rather than showing a progress bar as the website searched multiple travel providers, it would tell the customer exactly what was happening. The result was customers were more patient because they understood the extent of the work taking place behind the scenes.

Farkas set out to provide visibility into all aspects of the city’s demolition program. Citizens could go online and see on a city map which houses were going to come down and the approximate timeline. They could see how work was progressing at any given time, anywhere in the city, and if delays were occurring. Farkas’ hope was that this level of transparency would not only help address questions, but also lead to an improved relationship between residents and the demolition program. And it did.

There was also another benefit: a better workplace for his employees. With online visibility into current and future plans now available to citizens, this resulted in a significant reduction in resident calls and emails to the demolition program. No longer addressing high volumes of inquiries from frustrated residents, this allowed the staff to focus on higher value work at the Detroit Building Authority.

Improving the citizen (and customer) experience

It could be argued everyone needs to exercise more patience. Unfortunately, today’s fast-paced world requires all of us to always be on the lookout for ways to get some time back into our lives.

When it comes to customer service, providing self-service channels online–apps, knowledge articles, chatbots, communities, and automation–is the first step. In cases where a resolution will take time, ensuring visibility into issue status and when customers can expect a solution means they don’t need to continue to check in. It also creates greater trust. When instantaneous answers aren’t possible, customers will appreciate knowing a resolution is on its way.