The Red Phone of Accountability

Sparkfun Rotary Phone 1
At the same car dealership with the exceptional waiting room, there were a series of “red phones” that customers could pick up to talk to the dealership’s owner.

Supposedly (these phones are promoted not only at the dealership, but in most of the dealership’s marketing materials), when a customer picks up the phone and dials 0 or whatever the appropriate number is, the call is routed to a phone that the owner of the dealership has on him at all times. I didn’t pick up the phone to test it out (next time I will), but the idea behind it is interesting.

Most obviously, the red phone provides the customers with a sense of accountability. Assuming that the red phone is actually a direct line to the owner and not a marketing gimmick, it has the potential to be very effective. Customers know that, if things go wrong, they can pick up that phone and talk to the guy with his name on the door. This provides customers with a sense of comfort because the phone serves as a valid course of action to any potential problems.

Besides comforting customers, the phone also makes employees work harder. Employees know customers can pick up the phone to talk to the owner as well, so chances are, they are going to work hard to avoid that. No employee wants a customer utilizing a special medium to call up their boss (and in most cases I imagine, their boss’s boss) and complain about a negative experience. When employees know the phone isn’t a gimmick, it serves as a reminder that extra help is always available to customers. Employees should also be encouraged to use the phone as a quick way to get in touch with managers when they want to go above and beyond.

Keep in mind that your company doesn’t necessarily have to use a red phone; you can just as easily use an “elevate to manager” button built into your help desk or phone system. Neither the tool nor the process need to be elaborate at any great extent. For it to work, though, companies must follow through on whatever the elevation system is promising to do (connect the phone call to the owner, elevate the ticket to a manager, etc.). If the company doesn’t follow through, not only is the time and effort put into the elevation system worthless, it undermines the company’s brand and is disrespectful to customers.

The phone, and systems like it, provide a public system of accountability to everyone – customers and employees. When the system is used effectively, it can truly help to improve the customer service experience.

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2 Responses to “The Red Phone of Accountability”

  1. Susan V said:

    Apr 24, 08 at 9:24 am

    This “red phone” concept is an interesting one. I have personally had some frustrating customer service experiences where I’ve wished that I could just pick up a “red phone” and talk to someone high up. Dealing with umpteen layers of customer service personnel when you’re trying to resolve a complex issue can be exhausting.

    I think it’s entirely possible for a similar concept to be applied to the contact center. What if there was a secret phrase or passcode you could share with an agent or an automated system to bypass the rest of your transaction with them and go directly to a knowledge worker with specialized expertise to solve your problem? Or, how about a special hotline that enables you to reach a designated executive at anytime, anywhere to report an issue or provide positive feedback? It may soon be possible.

    Contact centers are beginning to extend the reach of customer interactions into the enterprise via unified communications (and starting to fully grasp all of the possibilities that UC offers). Ultimately, as you mention, this process will lead to happier, more productive agents and better customer experiences.

  2. Service Untitled said:

    Apr 24, 08 at 4:36 pm


    Thanks for your comment.

    That is an interesting idea for contact centers. I would be curious to see how often the line had to be used, but I definitely agree there should be a clear way to elevate your issue to the next level if you are unhappy.