Has technology killed customer service?

At lunch the other day, a group of us were trading horror stories of bad customer service--each story was worse than the previous one, and the whole table was groaning at the utter stupidity that was being described. The two common characteristics were big companies and highly automated customer service systems. Some of the examples include:

  • Companies that have constructed "help yourself" phone support that requires navigating a complex phone mail system that seems designed specifically to keep customers from ever speaking to a live person.
  • If you do get a live person on the phone, an assumption that the customer is always wrong, and that the company has no obligation whatsoever to fix anything.
  • Out of control outsourcing, meaning that instead of the company that sold the product handling some aspect of service or product delivery, that has been outsourced to some third party firm who could care less about you. A variant is not even being able to find out who has the product or service you are supposed to get, because the customer support people have no access to the third party company--not even a phone number.
  • Bad IT systems that can't find orders, are extremely slow, or that require extraordinary efforts by service staff to do simple things.

The problem seems to be a perfect storm; a combination of sophisticated software and networks, decisionmaking by accountants, and a global economy that enables shipping customer support to some distant part of the world. It is ironic that the technology is a key culprit in all this. Outsourcing would not really work if the technology did not exist to enable a firm to ship a customer call half way round the world. And there is nothing inherently bad in voicemail systems--unless bean counters demand a design that drives customers away.

The opportunity is for small companies that use the same technology as big companies to level the playing field, but don't let corporate customer service policies be driven entirely by cost cutting.

Economic development tip: Put together classes for your local and regional businesses that shows them how to use high tech systems to look "big" while maintaining a steadfast focus on high quality customer service.

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