Recently, I was shopping online late at night buying some clothes for my kids and a discount advertised on their website wasn’t being applied to my order for some reason. Fortunately (or so I thought) a live chat prompt popped up, so even though I’d never used live chat before, I decided to try it. I typed out my question and waited, waited, and waited for a response. It seemed to take a lot of back and forth to explain the issue and eventually, the live chat rep told me they weren’t able to answer my specific question and advised me to call customer service. I couldn’t help but think – “This was a complete waste of time. I’m back to square 1.”
The experience also made me reflect on a few other technology frustrations – IVR systems with poor voice recognition causing me to repeat information multiple times, complicated phone trees that often don’t get me to the right department, receiving canned email responses to customer service questions that don’t address the question asked, being asked to input my account number (sometimes more than once) only to be asked to repeat said information when the agent picks up the call, etc. Most will agree that technology is great, but it’s not necessarily a panacea and can sometimes even make situations worse.
I can’t help but start to think that that may be the case when it comes to customer service. I’m sure technology brings many operational efficiencies and cost savings that companies are eager to realize, but from the customer’s perspective, has it really helped or hurt the overall customer service experience?
Particularly intrigued by the area of customer service both personally and as a corporate trainer, I decided to launch my own informal — non industry funded, non scientific, non company specific — survey. Very simply my goal was to develop a simple straightforward survey targeted to real customers (not paid respondents) to find out What Customers Really Want!!! (See the 2016 Professionalism Matters What Customers Really Want Survey for additional detail.) The findings in many ways confirmed my hypothesis that in many ways the extensive, systemic implementation of technology in the customer service realm has had a deleterious impact on the overall customer service experience:
The survey results clearly revealed that most customers (49%) prefer phone to other communication options (e.g. text/chat, email, face to face). Text/IM came in a distant second at only 19%. While it seems that many companies are rapidly moving towards technology alternatives to traditional customer service by phone, customers seem to prefer discussing their customer service issues by phone to a live agent.
This doesn’t mean that alternate communication options are bad – just the opposite – ideally companies would provide multiple communication options to suit a wide range of customer preferences and/or customer service situations. However, eliminating or significantly minimizing phone options and replacing those with email/text/social media options exclusively will likely only frustrate customers and make the resolution process more difficult and protracted in many cases.
When survey respondents were asked to share their customer service frustrations, they complained vociferously about phone trees/phone automation systems. In short, THEY HATE THEM! How many comedy skits have been written about those pull your hair out phone trees with the monotone voice saying “Please press 1 for service… I’m sorry I didn’t understand that, please repeat your address…” In order to get you to the right representative, I need to understand a bit more about your problem. Press 1 for billing…”?
My sense is that most customers understand that some automation (maybe 1 or 2 questions) might be a necessary evil for some companies, but anything beyond that begins to feel infuriating. What’s more infuriating is that so often after you spend so much time answering the automated questions, the representative just asks you to provide the same information once they take the call. Why doesn’t the “technology” provide them that information on their screen once they’re assigned the call?
- Many companies have moved toward social media, email etc. as the preferred alternative for customers to submit customer service concerns, but customer service issues inherently are often fairly complicated and require quite a bit of back and forth to be fully understood and resolved. While these more technically advanced options might seem like a better option, they oftentimes don’t provide a better customer service experience and instead can make the communication much more difficult and protracted, not to mention sterile and impersonal.
Admittedly, technology may increase efficiency, but it doesn’t necessarily improve effectiveness. While companies look for ways to reduce costs and gain process efficiencies, they shouldn’t do so at the expense of the overall customer service experience and ultimate customer satisfaction. Companies must realize that customers are individuals, with varying appetite/tolerance for technology.
To draw a parallel from the banking industry — while ATMs were introduced decades ago, many customers still prefer to walk into their neighborhood bank teller to make deposits (and exchange pleasantries). And while ATMs are great for simple transactions where there are no questions involved, I can’t imagine trying to troubleshoot a banking problem via ATM. Similarly, at the airport I am fine using the kiosk to print my boarding pass, but as soon as there is an issue or concern, I want to speak to a live agent!
Indeed, even customers like me who prefer email or social media for other types of communication, may not gravitate to those forms of communication to discuss complicated and sometimes emotionally charged customer service issues. In so many ways it seems the customer service community is radically shifting towards technology while customers are clearly screaming for personalized interaction. My guess is that the most successful companies will be the ones who listen.