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Staffing the Elk Hotline

Elk (c) Naomi Karten

You may find it hard to believe, but one of the first things I thought of when I visited an elk refuge was customer support. And in particular, the patience telephone staff need when they hear the same questions repeatedly.

This story takes us to Wyoming several ski seasons ago. During a skiing break at Jackson Hole, my husband and I visited a refuge where elk congregate between summer seasons.

The high point of this visit was a tour by horse-drawn sleigh that gave us a close-up view of what elk do in the winter, which is mostly nothing. They just lie around looking bored. Occasionally, they buck horns, just like managers.

During the course of this 45-minute ride, people asked the guide lots of questions. What do elk eat? How much does an elk weigh? What do the antlers signify? You know, elk questions.

The guide answered each question enthusiastically, as if he had just heard it for the first time. Afterward, when we were out of the path of beasts that looked at us hungrily. I asked the guide how many of these questions he had heard before. All of them, he said. And how many had he heard frequently? All of them. How did he manage to answer every question with enthusiasm and still retain his sanity.

He said he just got used to it; it was part of his job.

So there we were in the middle of an elk refuge, and what struck me was how this fellow’s job was similar to a customer support job. If that’s your job, you may hear the same questions over and over. And even though you may have heard the same question 3,000 times before, you don’t hold it again the person who unknowingly becomes the 3,001st (do you?).

But is it satisfying to repeat yourself for a living? (My job? I answer questions about the location of the on-off switch.) Most likely, you excel at responding to frequently asked questions, but do you also aim to minimize the number of times any particular question is asked?

If you really want to minimize repeat questions, then with each question you hear, you must ask yourself, How can I make this the last time I hear this question? (The two most common answers — destroying all the phones and catching the next flight to Tahiti — may not be permitted in some companies.)

Therefore, every question that’s asked more than a few times should trigger two actions: First, respond to the question. Second, think about steps to take so that customers have access to the answers without having to contact you. You needn’t worry that you’ll succeed so well that they’ll soon have no more questions. Not a chance!

I can envision a sign posted on the sleigh at the elk refuge. It’s labeled, Frequently Asked Questions About Elk, and in bold letters, it says:

* What do elk eat? They eat . . .

* What do elk weigh? They average . . .

* What do the antlers signify? They grow . . .

Probably the tour guide wouldn’t want this sign in his sleigh. Why? Guiding the elk sleigh is not the most challenging job. So although he may get bored answering the same questions repeatedly, he probably likes answering them better than the alternative — dead silence.

That’s a situation you’ve probably never experienced.

Text and graphics copyright © 2009 Karten Associates. +1-781-986-8148,


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Karten Associates
Randolph, Mass., USA
Phone: +1-781-986-8148
Fax: +1-781-394-0530