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. 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”. 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 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 seem intended to drive these folks away. There was also an interesting interview in Fortune Magazine some time ago with Jim Bush, Executive VP of World Service at American Express at the time, that covered this topic of the importance of customer service. Amex clearly gets it. Let’s examine some of the current bad 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 great fodder for the late night comedy shows–when calling an American company based in Chicago, or 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. 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 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, as 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 calling with a problem. Ironically, Automated Voice Attendants have been made possible by a really nice leap forward in voice recognition technology and artificial intelligence. 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 if desired. 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 common databases and company firewalls?
The advent of the Internet has allowed for the creation of the ultimate small company: one man or woman (or just a few), 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 person 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 actually understand the importance of customer service 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 the 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. The typically bad customer service of today is not treating the customer as king, but more like the lowest creature on the food chain. There are exceptions of course and they really stick out in the market today. 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 in which companies don’t properly assess the importance of customer service to their downstream profits.
IMPORTANCE OF CUSTOMER SERVICE: GAIN AN ADVANTAGE
But my guess is that those corrective measures discussed above to create good customer service are a long way off. 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 – 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 for senior management–especially 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. But in today’s world, used properly, customer and tech support can indeed be a strategic weapon.
Not only can 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 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 as time goes on 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, 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. 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 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. 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 communication method they prefer. I’m suggesting short phone trees, live operators and an adequate number of representatives to eliminate long waits. Fast email, social media and IM response times as well. 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: 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.
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Mike Sick says
Phil’s comments about outsourced call centers are spot on an there’s already a move afoot to build competitive advantage by bring calls centers back to the US. With labor rates in India increasing and first call resolution by outsourced call centers being about ten points below US based call centers, the savings are not what they were expected to be. It’s also easier to turn customer service to a competitive advantage when your competitors do such a lousy job of it.
One trend that is making a big difference in customer service is home sourcing – used home based remote call center agents. An exert in that movement is Michele Rowan, President of Customer Contact Strategies, a consultancy specializing in aiding companies to capitalize on home-based call center agents in the United States. Brands are realizing that providing a great customer experience is a good bottom line decision. Home-based call center agents tend to be more highly educated and experienced, have less stress and are focused on meeting callers’ needs.
Measuring the impact of low customer satisfaction has prompted this shift to the homesourcing model. As customer relationships rise in importance along with wages in other countries, off-shoring becomes a less desirable option for US companies.
According to a recent report by the CFI Group, customer satisfaction with calls perceived to be handled in the U.S. was more than one-fifth higher than with calls perceived to be handled outside the country. A NPR story reported that first call resolution with US based call centers was 34% higher than call centers outside the US.
Bringing more call centers back to the US is creating more jobs domestically. The biggest trend is virtual or home-based call centers. Michele Rowan helped Hilton Hotels Corporation expand their at-home agents from 200 to 1000 agents and now gives workshops to executives from companies like Marriott International, Terminix, Blue Cross Blue Shield and others. Rowan’s website is even cleverly named http://www.gohome.us.com.
Home-based call centers open up opportunities for stay at home moms, disabled employees and others who cannot work a typical full time job. These employees tend to be motivated long-term professionals that appreciate the opportunities provided by brands employing the homesourcing strategy. Experts see the trend increasing as more companies reap the benefits of moving their call centers back to the US and using home based agents.
I couldn’t agree more! SaaS companies should be paying more attention to their customer experience, and there are two significant ways that they can improve this, through self-service tools and their partner program.