No one answers the telephone anymore. What does this signal about the importance of customer service?
At least, technology companies in the US surely don’t answer the phone. Not many, anyway. With big companies, you are either presented with an endless phone tree–“press 1 for a company directory”–or that “favorite” communications technology. Yes, the cheerful automated voice attendant! Often 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 new approach extremely frustrating at times. Not to mention an incredible productivity sink. As a high-tech industry executive and consultant with a marketing background, I find this practice curious at best. And insane at worst!
Think about it. How many BILLIONS of dollars do companies spend trying to get the attention of potential new customers? Most of those new customers 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 famously 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 they have forgotten it, because “modern” customer service practices seem intended to drive these folks away. There was also an interesting interview in Fortune Magazine quite a while back with Jim Bush, Executive VP of World Service at American Express at the time. It covered the importance of customer service. Amex clearly gets it in ways many companies don’t. Let’s examine some of the bad customer service approaches that carry a high risk of turning customers off:
OUTSOURCED CALL CENTERS IN OTHER COUNTRIES
This may be every consumer’s favorite “pet peeve” and great fodder for late-night comedy shows. Calling an American company based in Chicago, Iowa, or San Jose, only to be connected to some call center somewhere in India or some other faraway place. Often this leads to a very, very frustrating experience. Companies go this route for support as an expense-driven decision. To obtain cheaper labor. Nothing fundamentally wrong with the thinking.
However, the reps on the end of the line are often poorly trained. They usually aren’t employees of the company that you are calling, and often don’t speak English many Americans can understand. Are there good reps available in these call centers who give great service? 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 because of a problem with his or her brand-new $1200 PC. This is not a prescription for a happy customer.
This one has been around a while, but the increasing complexity of the tree, as well as the difficulty of exiting it to get to a live person, has continually made the situation worse. I’ve gotten into phone trees which work so poorly that it would be hilarious. If only I wasn’t so completely frustrated. You can literally spend 5-10 minutes just navigating many phone trees these days. Oftentimes, callers just give up. This 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 worst scourges of the besieged customer calling with a problem. Ironically, Automated Voice Attendants were made possible by a really nice leap forward in voice recognition technology. And in general, these products have come a 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 if desired.
With the high market share of some of the Automated Attendant companies, I have 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 from then on???!!! I understand security concerns, but geez! Hasn’t anyone heard of common databases and company firewalls?
The advent of the Internet allowed for the creation of the ultimate small company. That is one man or woman (or just a few), behind an Internet site. These companies invariably list no contact phone number or physical address. You often can only email them for support. Or if you’re really lucky, IM them via a chatbot. Unfortunately, many potential customers figured out that this was likely a one-person operation long ago. They will be reluctant to buy your product as a result. That’s because they don’t believe you are “for real”. Or at least they won’t be able to get good support. If you actually understand the importance of customer service, find a way to offer 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 in some cases tech support fees are justifiable and necessary. Even for consumer tech products. But in most cases, tech support really needs to be bundled into the base product offering. At least at some level and for some period of time. 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 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, and up and running. Take care of any bugs or product defects WHENEVER they occur. If you don’t meet this standard, your company will pay for it indirectly. 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 the men or women working in a call center in 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.
THE CUSTOMER SHOULD ALWAYS BE KING
But as a marketer, above all else, I believe in the old axiom: THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS KING. The typically bad customer service of today is not treating the customer as king. It’s more like treating them as the lowest creature on the food chain. There are exceptions of course and they really stick out in the market today. Maybe technology maturity (AI?) and some additional training for the folks in those faraway call centers will correct the current painful situation. I believe that many companies don’t properly assess the importance of customer service to their downstream profits. Maybe that will change.
IMPORTANCE OF CUSTOMER SERVICE: GAIN AN ADVANTAGE
But my guess is that those corrective measures discussed above to create good customer service are still a ways off. Frankly, it got much worse during the pandemic and hasn’t even yet gotten back to pre-pandemic levels. As we sit here today, you would expect there should soon be a new generation of AI-driven automated attendants to improve the situation. But I haven’t personally experienced them yet. In the meantime, there is a big opportunity for savvy software, SaaS, and hardware tech companies to capitalize on this “gap” that has occurred in most company’s recognition of the importance of customer service. Allowing these savvy management teams to gain a strategic advantage in their market segment.
Unfortunately, in my consulting practice at PJM Consulting, I find that customer service operations are still usually an afterthought for senior management. That’s especially true in early-stage technology 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 early on. But in today’s world, used properly, customer and tech support can still indeed be a strategic weapon.
ITS ALL ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIPS
Good customer service and tech support cement the relationship with the customer and build long-term loyalty. But also 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 is of course one of the main reasons for the creation of “customer success” departments in B2B software businesses. But I don’t see any evidence of this seeping into consumer-oriented tech companies.
This interaction, by the way, REQUIRED NO INCREMENTAL MARKETING EXPENSES TO INITIATE. They’re contacting you! Companies don’t seem to realize the opportunity that they are leaving on the table. An opportunity to both 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. That means endless phone trees, automated voice attendants, email-only or chatbot-only tech support, and seemingly clueless reps 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” of course, which means less and less as time goes on in a standards-driven market like PCs. But poor customer service is certainly not the way to achieve high gross margins, let alone customer loyalty.
I WOULD PAY MORE – WOULD YOU?
Personally, I’d pay 10-15% more for a computer from a company that guarantees good, locally-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 for the base product. But if a PC company put forth a well-developed marketing message touting their emphasis on technical support and customer service–bundling it in and sticking with it for the long term–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, free 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, things are different. Good, personalized tech support has become a scarce commodity. It is therefore an opportunity that some smart companies can exploit.
There’s a big opportunity out there for smart technology companies to go against the grain in customer service and tech support. Make it easy for people to reach you, using whatever communication method they prefer. I’m suggesting shorter phone trees, live operators, and an adequate number of representatives to eliminate long waits. Fast email, social media, and chatbot response times as well. Focusing completely on expense control or technology-based support solutions, in lieu of 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. That means simply recognizing the importance of customer service and personalized support.
That’s what I have to say about the current state and importance of customer service and tech support today. What’s your opinion? Post a comment if you’d like to add to the discussion.