Technology is Killing Customer Service


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What? That is outrageous you say? I first want to apologize for all those reading this that are under age 35. You have no idea what customer service excellence is because frankly, you haven’t seen it.

You never experienced having someone pump your gas, check your oil and tire pressure and clean your windshield.

You never experienced getting your ticket fast and efficiently from a trained ticket agent wearing a pressed suit and starched shirt or blouse.

You never experienced calling a business and actually have someone answer the phone right away — someone that actually worked at the company you called and could answer your question about the company’s product or service without having to forward you to another department.

You never experienced checking out and having someone thank you for shopping with them rather.

Technology has replaced good old fashioned customer service. This includes CRM packages, IVR phone systems, online chat, FAQ’s, hidden telephone numbers (so you actually can’t call a company), kiosks to purchase tickets at airports or subways, self service gas where in minus 10 below you need to answer a series of questions about credit or debit, car wash (Y or N), receipt (Y or N) before you can pump and on and on.

All these technologies have one purpose – to reduce cost by eliminating labor. As a result, customer service has suffered. With the advent of the internet beginning in 1994, the slope of decline in customer service grew steeper. A few companies have recognized that they can use customer service excellence as a key differentiator. They view it as a marketing investment, not a cost center. Like everything in business, the pendulum experiences large swings. I believe we are at the point where customer service has become so poor, that it will start moving in the other direction. What is lacking is sufficient numbers of highly trained individuals who can actually interface with consumers in person or over the phone. Just last week for example, I was checking out of a Target and when I received my receipt and change I instinctively said “thank you”. The clerk responded with “yup, no problem”. How pathetic is that?

The book Negotiate Anything! is the culmination of a 30 year longitudinal study of customer service in the U.S. by Tom and Lynn Wilson It presents the 12 Success Criteria businesses must implement to make customer service a key growth driver. They used their learning to form The CareGiver Partnership, a national direct to consumer retailer of a wide range of home medical supplies.

Tom Wilson
Tom Wilson, former global Sector President at Kimberly-Clark Corporation spent 30 years in consumer products, started up two companies, one manufacturing underground coal mining equipment (Wilson Manufacturing Company, Inc.) and in 2004, The Caregiver Partnership, a national direct to consumer retailer of home medical supplies to the more than 66 million caregivers in the U.S. He is also co-author of Negotiate Anything!, a 30-year longitudinal study of customer service in the U.S., the first of its kind.


  1. You apparently live in world that I do not. I am a 25 year old male who lives in a metropolitan city.

    I have indeed had someone give my care a full once over while they pump my gas.

    I have walked up to a ticket agent when there was no line, and had him gladly help me check in and help me with my bag.

    I work for a company where a person actually answer the phone right away. That person happens to be me, actually. And we are the largest in our particular field.

    Our generation knows what customer service is. We also know that convince is a key part of that. I would rather check into my flight at home in my underwear than wait in line for an hour to get my ticket BEFORE waiting two hours to go through security.

    People of a certain generation might not like how customer service is evolving, they may still have an expectation that everything will be handed to them on a silver platter while they demand the world and more, but for those of us who know how to use a computer, customer service is a balancing act of hands-on service and convince.

  2. Jakob,

    Thank you for your comments. I try and make it a point to always respond.

    I knew I would get push back on this blog post and that is why I apologized upfront for potentially offending younger individuals. I agree with most of the excellent points you raised.

    I can not agree with you that customer service expectations are generational or that an expectation of good customer service is being asked to have it handed to you on a silver platter. Our empirical observation over our 30-year longitudinal study of customer service is that customer service is on a slippery slope of degradation. Consumers of all ages, must expect more from their interactions with businesses of all types and sizes.

    By the way, I’ve lived in Chicago and Manhattan so I do know which way is up. And… I know how to use a computer. Us boomer’s taught your generation how to use them starting with Reader Rabbit!

    Best regards,

    Tom Wilson
    Consumer Advocate & Author or
    Negotiate Anything!

  3. I take joy sometimes in thinking of the good old days. Unfortunately, I couldn’t disagree with you more. Specifically on two points.

    First, technology has not been the downfall of customer service. The justification and application of technology, or outsourcing or business process re-engineering for the sole purpose of cost reduction has in fact had a negative impact. But think about the last time went to the bank at lunch, with only 30 minutes to spare. All you needed was to make a simple deposit. Would you have preferred to stand on line for a teller for 15 minutes or go to the ATM and be done in two? Sure, you could make the argument that ATMs would never exist if it weren’t for the original objective of cost cutting. But, it now makes possible banking whenever it’s convenient for you, not just from 9 to 4:30 Monday through Friday. At the gas station, when you’re running late, it might be nice to close your eyes and imagine 5 strapping lads servicing your car from grill to tailpipe. But, when you can jump out, pump your own gas and be on your way, you’ll relish saving those precious minutes.

    Second, to say this is a generational thing, well, you’re right there. But to say that a younger generation is somehow being cheated out of a rich customer experience is projecting your preferences on others. Delivering a value-rich customer experience starts with understanding your customers’ preferences and accommodating their wants, satisfying their needs, seeing the experience through their eyes, not our own.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post

  4. Technology enables. People serve.

    Take the same exact person and put them in two organizations: one that uses technology to automate and enable better interactions and one that does not.

    Where will that person thrive more? Which organization will provide a better experience for the customer?

    I believe you are assuming that investments in technology replace investments in personnel. That could be the case for some companies, but that’s a management problem, not a tech problem.

    Technology enables better experiences. People still serve the customer.

  5. Tim,

    I agree with you that all customer service issues are caused by poor management. They don’t view it as an important investment area. We cover that aspect extensively in our book.

    Tom Wilson
    Consumer Advocate & Author or
    Negotiate Anything!

  6. Barry,

    Thank you for your comments. You raised good points — especially the banking analogy. From what we’ve studied, technology should be used to support service — the high tech, supporting the high touch. Also, I feel many organization abandon their customers to technology and don’t even offer a lifeline, a real person to talk to. Senior executives need to ask themselves, how does this technology enhance (not replace) customer service excellence. Cash machines for example, introduced in the early 1970’s allowed 24/7 banking. Thats a good thing.

    I agree with you that “delivering a value-rich customer experience starts with understanding your customers’ preferences and accommodating their wants, satisfying their needs, seeing the experience through their eyes, not our own.” The issue is that customer service has declined over the past 30 years and technology hasn’t helped on a macro level because much of it has been implemented solely for cost savings, not customer service enhancement.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.

    Tom Wilson
    Consumer Advocate & Author or
    Negotiate Anything!

  7. Generalizations are tricky as are generational issues. When the sparks fly I hope we can use the sparks for illumination not incineration.
    My direct experience: In our hospital setting and healthcare, customer service is becoming critical because medicare/medicaid payments will be affected by the customer satisfaction ratings we receive. So we are giving it more training and support than ever.
    Personally it has been my experience that too often high tech has seemed to produce low touch ie. automated phone trees; out of country support centers for starters. But ultimately I believe it is up to the organizations to train, support, and hold accountability around customer service, regardless of the generations in the workforce.

  8. David,

    Thank you for your excellent comments.

    You are right…. generalizations are usually not productive.

    Like you, it has been our experience that in many cases high tech has been implemented in order to cut cost, not enhance service. We’ve been tracking this for quite some time.

    On a personal level our large health care provider used to answer the phone when you called. Now its right into a recording telling you about their Personalized service with lots of locations to serve you better. Then you wait on hold for usually 3 to 10 minutes.

    My point about service from a generational view point is that unless you’ve experienced good service, you have a hard time judging. For example, service stations used to pump gas, check oil and air pressure clean you windshield and give you stamps. Somebody 25 would never had been able to experience this. That’s why we conducted a long term longitudinal study of service to understand not where we are, but how service is trending.

    Airlines have had the most dramatic and rapid decline in service.

    Customer service must be led and supported by senior management. I was President at a leading global consumer packaged goods company. Customer service was generally viewed as a cost area. The question was how can we do more for less, versus how can we better serve our customers (consumers, not trade customers).

    Our book, Negotiate Anything! presents the 12 most important steps leading to customer service excellence – starting with senior management leading it. We incorporated this into our start-up business, The CareGiver Partnership, a national retailer of home medical supplies.

    Again, thank you for your comments David.


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