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Is Technology Killing Customer Service? 

Dana Brownlee | Dec 1, 2016 597 views 4 Comments

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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.

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4 Responses to Is Technology Killing Customer Service?

  1. Michael Lowenstein December 2, 2016 at 5:54 am (1225 comments) #

    Recognizing that there is often a profound difference between what consumers say vs. mean vs. do, if technology isn’t enabling and enhancing the experience, then it is emotionally undermining delivery of value. If service can’t, at least, maintain trust between vendor and customer, then it is detracting from both perceived image and behavior.

  2. Gautam Mahajan December 3, 2016 at 12:40 am (164 comments) #

    Thanks, Dana. The problem is there is no focus on really giving customers a good time or the least hassles. Companies think:
    We have hired a head of Customers
    We have put processes and systems into place
    the Customer is taken care of.

    There is no true customer centricity and no customer focused mind sets.
    I keep telling clients focus on the customer focused mind set and you will be winners. Dont focus on processes alone

  3. Andrew Rudin December 3, 2016 at 12:40 pm (163 comments) #

    Hi Dana: thank you for asking such a provocative and valuable question. I don’t think that technology, by itself, can be deleterious for customer service. Similarly, if you chose to write about a poor experience with a call center rep who was rude and unhelpful, you could rightly ask a similar question, substituting people for technology. In other words, the resource isn’t the culprit, but rather how that resource is designed into the process.

    You have pointed out an issue that, unfortunately, seems all to common in customer service. That is, companies have deployed technology because they can, forgetting that positive customer outcomes must be central to their objectives. Mostly, the objective is cost reduction, and when that comes across, as it often does, customers get miffed.

    I like what technology does for customers and service representatives. In many cases, technology (primarily, information technology) removes the tedium and drudgery that accompanies call center jobs. It provides call center reps with information that is more accurate, broader, and more timely. So I think when it is used effectively, technology is an invaluable part of vendor-customer interactions, and neither party should want a world where technology isn’t there to help out.

    I found your survey interesting. Like many consumers, I prefer talking with people over any other medium you mentioned. But not always. If I’m in a noisy environment and need to resolve a billing or technical issue, I’d far rather use chat or email than to attempt to hear what the rep is saying.

  4. Shaun Belding December 4, 2016 at 4:16 am (58 comments) #

    Technology on its own might not be killing customer service, but the way many organizations are deploying it might be.

    Too many companies begin to drool when they see the cost-savings that can be realized by using automation to force people into self-serve processes. The challenges occur when technology decisions are made for simple cost-saving factors – not customer experience concerns

    Your illustration of ATMs is a perfect example. They caught on pretty fast. They were profoundly more convenient than the old way of getting money. Self-serve checkouts, in contrast, are still struggling to gain traction, because they offer zero value to the customer.

    My instincts are telling me that the self-serve pendulum may be peaking, and people are beginning to fatigue of it.

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