No one answers the telephone anymore.
At least, technology companies in the US surely don’t. With big companies, you are either presented with an endless phone tree–“press 1 for a company directory”–or the newest innovation in communications technology: the cheerful “automated voice attendant”. In many cases these attendants, and several other “innovative” service options, can lead to a great deal of frustration for customers and prospects.
As a consumer and business buyer I’ve found this frustrating, not to mention an incredible productivity sink. As a High Tech industry executive and consultant with a strong marketing background, I find this practice curious at best–and insane at worst!
Think about it–how many BILLIONS of dollars companies spend trying to get the attention of potential new customers–most of who are going to need to contact the company at some point. Yet it seems that once we’ve got their interest, or God forbid, they’ve signed up as an actual customer–we are doing everything possible to keep them away. Doesn’t anyone remember the old marketing adage about current customers being your best source of additional business? Management guru Peter Drucker once said “The purpose of business is not to make a sale, but to make and keep a customer.” Apparently not many people agree with this, or have forgotten it, because “modern” customer service practices are doing there best to drive these folks away. There was also an interesting interview in Fortune Magazine last year with Jim Bush, Executive VP of World Service at American Express that covered this topic. Amex clearly get’s it. Let’s examine some of the current customer service approaches which carry a high risk of turning customers off:
OUTSOURCED CALL CENTERS IN OTHER COUNTRIES
This may be every consumer’s favorite “pet peeve” and fodder for the late night comedy shows–calling an American company based in Chicago, or Iowa or San Jose–only to be connected to some call center somewhere in India. Often this leads to a very, very frustrating experience. Companies go this route for support as an expense driven decision–to obtain cheaper labor. But the reps on the end of the line are often poorly trained, probably aren’t employees of the company that you are calling, and often don’t speak English with an accent that is easy to understand for most Americans. Are there good reps who give great service available in these call centers? Certainly, I have spoken to more than a few. But compared to the “good old days” of local support, the average caller experience has degraded significantly. Add this to the built-in frustration of the caller who is dialing has because of a problem with his or her brand new $1200 PC–and you don’t get a prescription for a happy customer.
This one has been around a while, but the increasing complexity of the tree, and well as the difficulty of exiting it to get to a live person, has continually made the situation worse. You can literally spend 5-10 minutes just navigating the phone tree these days. Oftentimes, callers just give up–which appears to be what these companies may want. I’ll discuss below why companies shouldn’t.
As I discussed above, this is one of the more recent scourges of the besieged customer with a problem. Ironically, Automated Voice Attendants have been made possible by a really nice leap forward in voice recognition technology. And there is no doubt that these products have come a very long way from the days in which they were first implemented. But talking to a machine is at this point still inherently inferior to speaking with a real human. I endorse the use of these Automated Attendants, but they should be used judiciously. I would still utilize them only at the very beginning of calls, and not require them to take a customer too far down the line of getting their problem addressed. Also, please make it much, much easier to get away from them to a live human. With the high market share of some of the Automated Attendant companies, I am having far too many conversations with the same perky, Stepford Wife-ish-sounding artificial female voice. It’s getting a bit creepy. While we’re at it, let’s talk about my biggest customer support complaint. With all of the sophisticated software available today, why is it that I have to give my account number and god knows what else to this robot lady, and then repeat all of the same information to the first live person that I speak with, as well as everyone that they transfer my call to? I understand security concerns, but geez! Hasn’t anyone heard of data sharing and company firewalls?
The advent of the Internet has allowed for the creation of the ultimate small company: one man or woman, behind an Internet site. These companies invariably list no contact phone number or physical address. You can only email them for support, or if you’re really lucky, IM them. Unfortunately, potential customers figured out that this is likely a one man operation long ago. They will be reluctant to buy your product as a result, because they don’t believe you are “for real”, or at least they won’t be able to get good support. If you have the capability of offering real support, I urge you not to present your company in the image of one of these “Internet companies”. If you do, it will cost you business.
FEE-ONLY TECH SUPPORT
I won’t deny that is some cases tech support fees are justifiable and necessary. Even for consumer tech products. But in most cases tech support, at least at some level and for some period of time, really needs to be bundled into the base product offering. This trend came about with the intention of making tech support a “profit center”. While I believe that tech support can drive profits, in many cases it shouldn’t be done by attempting to extract additional money from customers (especially upfront or on the initial call) for the right to call in to get product issues fixed. This happened to me with a recent PC purchase and I found it infuriating. There is a standard of care that most customers believe is fair: Help them get the product installed, up and running. Take care of any bugs or product defects. If you don’t meet this standard, you will likely pay for it yourself–in reduced customer satisfaction, loyalty and downstream purchases.
I want to emphasize that I am not a racist, market protectionist, political isolationist or technophobe. I have nothing against a man or woman working in a call center India, doing their best to do their job. I’m also a tech guy, and certainly love the idea of using technology to increase labor force productivity. But as a marketer, above all else, I believe in the old axiom: THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS KING. Customer service today is not treating the customer as King, but like the lowest creature on the food chain. It’s possible that we are just undergoing a period of “growing pains”, implementation issues, and the new customer service methods discussed here will be the way to go in the long run. Maybe technology maturity and some additional training for the folks in those faraway call centers will correct the current painful situation.
BIG OPPORTUNITY TO GAIN AN ADVANTAGE
But my guess is that those corrective measures are a long way off. In the meantime, there is a big opportunity for savvy software and tech companies to use this “gap” that has occurred in most company’s customer service, to gain a strategic advantage in their market segment.
Unfortunately, in my consulting practice at PJM Consulting, I find that customer service operations are usually an afterthought to senior management–especially in early stage companies. It’s understandable, since it doesn’t appear to be part of the strategic core that will mean the difference between success and failure for a young company. But in today’s world, used properly, customer and tech support can indeed be a strategic weapon.
Not only can good support cement the relationship with the customer and build long term loyalty, but don’t forget that you’ve got a customer on the line! Remember the old adage I mentioned above about your current customers being the best place for incremental business? Once you’ve satisfied the caller’s concerns, you have an opportunity to educate them about new offerings, present them with a special offer, etc. The possibilities are nearly endless to profit from this customer interaction. It’s a great way to build your brand, at a minimum. Just don’t go out of your way to profit from their current frustration!
This interaction by the way REQUIRED NO INCREMENTAL MARKETING EXPENSES TO INITIATE. Companies don’t realize the opportunity that they are leaving on the table, both to increase customer loyalty, and sell incremental offers to existing customers.
DIFFERENTIATION FROM COMMODITIES
Let’s talk about a specific example: HP & Dell in the PC business. I’m an old HP alumnus, and until recently, a long time Dell customer. Over a long period of time customer support, specifically technical support– has gone from a major strength to a nightmare for customers of both companies. At various stages of the customer ownership lifecycle, both of these companies throw every obstacle I’ve discussed in this article at you–Endless phone trees, automated voice attendants, email-only or IM-only tech support, and clueless representatives in foreign call centers. PCs are as close to a commodity as anything in the High Tech business these days. These two market leaders, along with their competitors, are pretty much slugging it out on price (and brand, which means less and less in a standards-driven market like PCs). This is certainly not the way to achieve high gross margins, let alone customer loyalty.
Personally, I’d pay 10-15% more for a computer from a company who guaranteed good, local-based tech support. I run my business on my PC (and other mobile screens); when a problem occurs that I can’t fix on my own, it is often excruciatingly painful. I’m sure that these companies don’t believe that I or many others would pay more. But if a PC company put forth a well-developed marketing message touting their emphasis on technical support and customer service–and stuck with it–they would obtain a customer for life. Now, I may not have been willing to pay such a premium 10-15 years ago, before real customer service “ended”. I may have gone for the lowest price. But with personal service and support nearly gone the way of the Dodo bird (become extinct), things are different. Since good, personalized tech support has become a scarce commodity–it is therefore an opportunity that some smart company can exploit.
There’s a big opportunity out there for smart technology companies to go against the current trends in customer service and tech support. Make it easy for people to reach you, using whatever method they prefer. I’m suggesting short phone trees, live operators and an adequate number of representatives to eliminate long waits. Focusing completely on expense control or technology solutions, not personal service, is a mistake for tech companies. Savvy, “forward-thinking” software and hardware companies can increase market share and customer loyalty with an “old school” approach–personalized customer service and support.
That’s what I have to say about the state of customer and tech support today–what’s your opinion? Post a comment if you’d like to discuss this further.