I have become increasingly frustrated about the state of the customer care delivered by companies that I engage with. At a time where companies talk about customized experiences for their clients, what I see are scripted responses that don’t: 1) address the issue; and 2) provide for an effective escalation process.
Let me start by saying:
- That I believe that customer service should be relationship oriented. A good customer service interaction does not just address the immediate issue at hand, it should also make the customer: 1) feel good that they chose the vendor; and 2) want to continue to patronize the vendor and recommend them to their friends and associates;
- The customer service representative should be equipped to do their job. They should have the knowledge, experience and authority to resolve 90% plus (that is how I define “the vast majority” in this instance) of the issues that come their way. And they should know where to go for help when they cannot.
- A really good customer service organization should have the goal of putting themselves out of business i.e., an important component of the job is to be part of a feedback loop whose goal is to eliminate the reasons people need to contact the customer service organization in the first place.
- Automation of the customer service experience has largely been a failure. Most of the automation efforts are designed to lower costs, not improve the experience—regardless of what the sales pitches say. And, unless you define success by dealing with primitive automated assistants or AIs that provide scripted response to customer service representatives who otherwise are ill-equipped to service a customer, “failure” is the right word.
- And finally, customer service should not be a way of insulating top management from the customer. It seems to me that large consumer-oriented companies have spent a lot of time and money to make sure that their customers cannot get the attention of senior management. Instead of being an insulator, customer service should be a conduit for information that is vital to the ongoing health of the business. This includes feedback on current products, ideas for improvements to those products and ideas for new products.
Mass market customer service should be benchmarked against that offered to big ticket buyers of items like jet aircraft and industrial equipment. In the world of big money, there is a clear understanding that revenue is directly tied to the company’s ability to serve the customer. In this elevated world the customer service folks understand the points I have outlined above and are equipped to make the customer happy with the understanding that if they do this, they will make money for their company.
The customer care (which includes sales and after sales service) organization in these big-ticket sales organizations are focused on the long term. Boeing can take 10 years to sell an aircraft, and they do it by understanding their client and building a relationship. Understanding the client includes understanding: 1) what they want; 2) what they need and 3) how Boeing can work with them to provide products and services that truly add value. The customer care organization is integrated and feeds information back from not only sales, but also after sales service to improve the product.
In contrast, you have companies like AT&T and Dell that have good (they work well and are well designed) products, but awful customer service. These companies do not understand what a customer service organization is supposed to do. With AT&T it is now becoming increasingly clear that their heft will no longer ensure their success. And, they have:
- Managed to alienate their customer base to the extent that annuity customers (for phone, internet and television services) are now looking at and actively moving to other alternatives. They have no loyalty to AT&T and will often accept an arguably less capable alternative to avoid dealing with AT&T;
- Completely missed changes in the market and are as a result have products that are no longer at the leading edge of the markets in which they compete. Had they used their customer service organization as a resource rather than a cost center, I would contend that they might not have totally missed the migration of tastes for the consumption of video from linear programming to streaming.
And, treating customer service as a cost center rather than a resource affects the character of both what is offered and how it is offered. Squeezing cost out of a business function has the affect of making the people who staff it feel less than valuable and constantly under pressure to “move on to the next incident”. There is a quota to be met. As a consequence, the customer service calls move from being opportunities to strained interaction whose objective is to get the incident closed as quickly as possible rather than make the customer happy.
As a cost center, the business is not likely to spend the money to attract the “best and the brightest” or provide the training to equip the customer service reps to do their job. In contrast, at Textura, we only hired college graduates into our call centers. These folks really wanted to join our consulting/sales function. They were motivated to understand the systems they were providing support for and build relationships with the customer as this was good practice for the job they really wanted. And being a successful customer service representative was the best way to move on to the highly coveted consulting/sales function.
The folks a Dell and AT&T on the other hand do not understand the systems they are supporting and have quotas. As such the customer service experience at these two vendors is “head ‘em up and move ‘em out”. Not very satisfying or likely to induce loyalty when it counts. Most importantly, Dell and AT&T do not seem to use the customer service organization to understand what characteristics the next generation of products should include.
For many years I looked forward to the next generation of Nikon cameras. They had a fabulous customer service organization. And I was always amazed (although I should not have been, the customer service organization was obviously doing its job) that the newest generation of the product was delivered, it seemed to address every issue I had with the last generation of the product—really, no bull. Sadly, Nikon seems to have lost its way. They no longer seem to be in sync with the wants and needs of their customers. Hopefully they will get their mojo back.
So, what should companies who want to leverage their customer service organization do?
- Senior management must decide that customer service is a resource, a profit center not a cost center. I have run an “experiment” (not scientific) over the past several years. I have sent letters (on paper) to the CEOs of companies that I have had “unsatisfying” customer service experiences with. They have been respectful and short, one page. I have described the problem and what I was looking for. Only one (and I have sent almost 20) of these CEOs has seemed be interested enough to do more than forward the letter back to the customer service organization that had already failed to provide the support I needed.
- Companies need to develop programs to train and motivate the customer service organizations. If the customer service representative is not equipped to be successful, they will not be. So, companies need to decide how they are going to define success and put the resources in place to achieve it. They also need to put incentives in place to motivate employees to excel.
- Leverage technology. Just because technology isn’t generally being used successfully today, does not mean that it can not be. I would concentrate on data analytics and workflow management technologies. But would make sure that I understand what I want to achieve and how I want to achieve it before looking to technology. It has been my experience that buying technology and letting it lead/direct what is being done is a mistake.
- A good friend of mine says “What gets measured gets done”. So, understand what metrics are going to indicate success or failure and hold the organization accountable to those metrics.
- Finally, make sure that senior management is part of the customer service loop. There is a lot to be learned from what happens when your customers feel a need to reach out and contact you. Take advantage of that and take it to the top. Your organization will be better for it.
I close with a story about Airbnb. I had an issue with one of their hosts who seemed to be asking for way more information about me than they could possibly need. I brought this to the attention of Airbnb’s customer service organization. I had two questions:
- How do you know that that your hosts are complying with local privacy laws and regulations when they collect this information?
The customer service rep had a scripted response that really did not address the questions. The response included the word “privacy” but, beyond that, was not responsive. I repeated (using their chat function) the questions several times and received the same scripted response—several times.
I will walk away from that interaction:
- Believing that Airbnb has something to hide even though it may just be innocent lack of competence (bad training by Airbnb) on the part of the customer service representative.
- Looking to use other vendors. I will not cut my nose off to spite my face, but Airbnb has not earned any loyalty with this interaction. They will become a second-choice vendor.
- And, telling all my friends that I question whether Airbnb has a serious problem with privacy policies.
I would not be surprised if some of the animosity that the public feels toward “big tech” has as much to do with deficient customer service as it does with the realities of other (perceived) improprieties on the part of these tech firms. There is real competitive advantage in a customer service organization. Putting a good one in place is not easy (or cheap), but I would argue the return on investment is worth it.
— you can find this (days earlier) and other posts at www.niden.com.
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