Whether you have a problem or you just want an answer to a question, here is what you’re looking for from customer service:
a way to connect quickly and easily, and good information that’s clearly and courteously expressed.
Now, there are a lot of subjective elements to that statement. Your satisfaction will depend on your expectations and the promises of the brand, as well as your actual success in getting what you need.
Technology has a role to play in having a satisfactory experience on a customer service call. That role may be either good or bad depending upon the priorities of the organization that provides the service. According to Mike Wittenstein , a 2005 Bain & Co. study found that 80% of top executives from big service companies ranked the experiences of their customers as “excellent.” Unfortunately, their customers only replied “excellent” 8% of the time.
Technology has provided a plethora of ways to connect with customer services. Often, you can call my phone, send e-mail, open an online chat or use twitter. The communications firm Verizon offers online video to enable its deaf clients to use sign language. And of course, there are sites that have frequently asked questions, online diagnostics and communities of eager volunteers, ready to share the answers they’ve found.
There are companies that provide the full array, but others seem to be focused mainly on cutting costs. Anyone who has struggled with a telephone tree (if… press or say one), knows that it often takes great patience and wit to reach a human with a question. Often, there seems to be no opportunity at all to talk to an actual person. The priorities of the company (e.g., cost containment) may make the new technological opportunities into weapons against the customers. Or they may lead to behavior that is counter to the brand. For instance, one Internet/phone provider only accepts complaints via snail mail.
Technology has also expanded the time availability of firms, as they cover different hours of the day with people in different geographies. And one can imagine that technologies that will provide real-time translation or accent amelioration will also create opportunities for economically providing direct human assistance. Again, this can just as easily lead to a company providing poorly trained, cheaper help that is hobbled by language and cultural differences. Much depends on the attitude of companies. Some lean toward charging more for more personal, informed services. Some realize that more and more customers look at service before making their buying decisions.
What about the criteria of quickly and easily? In addition to the obvious aspects of these tied to the connection options listed above, a key success factor is the ability of the rep to understand the customer’s problem or question (as well as having questions for the customer, whether in a diagnostic or in a conversation, that are understandable). We have tools that can suggest questions. We have research approaches that can validate the effectiveness of questions. We also have tools that can measure the frustration in a client’s conversation (both by analyzing tone of voice and analyzing words). All of us can help, but other tools — restricting the time for rep/customer interactions or putting reps into situations where they are simultaneously handling more than one call — can work against the customer experience. Those ticking clocks especially push the reps into offering quick answers and kill interest in understanding the problem. In a recent experience, I found that my chat partners in services had no interest in my identification of a technical problem that was affecting thousands of their customers.
What’s good information? Ultimately, the customer decides. It’s good if they find it to be current, complete, relevant and understandable. But it’s actually possible to give a correct and useful answer and fail because the customer doesn’t recognize its value. A good experience I had recently was with a rep who not only told me in the service would be restored, but cited the source of his information.
On the other hand, while in a chat, I simultaneously reached a rep on the phone. My chat partners pointed me toward modifications to my system at the same time I was discovering that my system was fine, but there was a broad outage. Either this was a failure of cross-company information sharing, or the people in the chat did not have time or attention to find this current information. The best database in the world doesn’t make up for lack of interest, engagement or curiosity. And people with great capability and concern can be blocked by policies that put the customer at a low priority.
That’s the take away lesson. With customer service, as with many other aspects of business, it’s easy to get excited about the opportunities created by technology. But ultimately, it is the culture and values of the organization that determine whether the technology is used to improve the customer experience or used for another priority, such as cutting costs.