Friday, January 13, 2012

No more human touch

The opinion of many is the level of customer service people enjoy has dramatically slipped over the years. My initial response is to agree with this point of view.

However, after thinking deeply about this for a few minutes, I am not so sure. After all, we all tend to romanticize the past. Experiences from decades ago are often remembered as being sweeter than they probably were.

Still, the level of customer service we experience is an interesting topic. I recently watched a documentary on the CNBC television network titled 'Customer Disservice' that analyzed the efforts of big companies to provide customer service and the attitudes of people toward them.

The program focused mostly on the roll call centers play in servicing customers, and it was not a pretty picture. For all the rhetoric companies speak about taking customer needs seriously, they are streamlining more and more the processes they use to interact with the public.

The results are most people experience unsatisfying encounters with companies, and look forward to calling them with the same eagerness most of us have when visiting the dentist.

Let us not be so one sided though. Customers often view the relative anonymity of these phone calls as an opportunity to be rude and somewhat brutal. After all, we all tend to get braver when we do not have to stand face to face with the person we are telling off.

My primary fascination with this topic is that I used to work in the customer service industry. I worked in call centers for two large companies, and I have to agree with a lot of what I heard from that documentary.

I understand the frustration of customers. Companies have streamlined their interactions with customers so much that it has become cold and impersonal. All the marketing campaigns in the world cannot cheer up a customer if their experiences make them feel like a number.

On the other hand, I understand where companies are coming from as well. Customers want services provided as efficiently and cheaply as possible, and companies are under pressure to provide it. Customers can sometimes want the world, but they do not want the fall out that can come with that.

The situation is definitely a double-edged sword. With the situation, we find the customer service professionals that must deal with the demands from the public and the indifference they receive from their employers.

These people are in a tough spot. Depending on the company for which they work, they are expected to field about 100 calls per day on a variety of topics. On each of them, they are expected to balance the interests of their employer while helping the customer.

Even the best professionals are human, and therefore, make mistakes. Their employers micro-manage them with an assortment of metrics, and the weight of these expectations leads to high turnover and burnout.

So, when customers call a company, these are facts that are worth remembering. Nobody should settle for second-rate service, but understanding the circumstances of the people you are dealing with may help communication between the two sides.

It was my experience that successful resolutions to problems most often took place when a customer did call not talk to me like they were breathing fire. When both sides remained rational, it was a lot easier to make progress. When somebody screamed at me, it made it more difficult to get at the root of their problem.

This issue will likely remain a problem in the immediate future. Companies try to deliver more with less, and the breaking point may be coming soon...if it isn't already here.

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