The Invaluable Stories inside Customer-service Calls

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Much of the story work I’m familiar with involves asking people to tell stories about their experiences on a particular topic. I do some of this myself. But I’ve also done work with a completely different class of story. This story is created out of the spontaneous meeting of two people – a customer and a customer-service rep – over the telephone.

A customer-service call is less an anecdote than it is like a play unfurling in real time. There’s nothing but dialogue, yet there’s conflict, emotion, suspense (will she get the credit she’s demanding for the series of dropped calls? Or will she have to escalate to the supervisor?). Listening to these recordings gives you an intimate view into the relationship customers have with their products and with their service providers.

And within these calls there are almost always sub-stories–the sequence of events that led to the person calling in the first place. There are also moments of human connection… and of estrangement.

Compared to elicited stories, contact-center calls have advantages and disadvantages:


  • Spontaneity
  • Authenticity
  • Freely given
  • Lack of self-consciousness or self-censoring
  • Highly inclusive (everyone has a telephone and most people call customer service eventually)
  • Easy to access


  • Noisy–lots of pro forma dialogue which is not story-related
  • Undirected–if you’re interested in one scenario, you’ll have to spend time narrowing down the calls
  • Voluminous and redundant (which is not always a problem)

Listening to series of customer-service calls reminded me of reading the work of William Gaddis. His books (especially “JR” and “A Frolic of His Own“), continuous dialogues with few bits of exposition, are not easy to read. But they are full of meaning and insight. This insight isn’t presented in headlines, but accrues, organically, as you’re immersed in the conversations. Similarly, searching through call recordings and finding patterns reveals true customer insight that’s hard to gather any other way.

If you think you lack customer intelligence, and you have a call center, you couldn’t be more wrong. You have terabytes of it sitting in your call-recording databases. Start using it.

Related post:
Turning points in telephone sales calls

(Photo by benthecube via Flickr Creative Commons)

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