Should you care?Customer care often fails us as consumers and is rarely a pleasure for the businesses providing it. Columnist Dale Vile says it is time for a radical step... Customer service is a good thing, right? Customers are clearly the most important component of any business so if they have a problem, it makes sense to help them solve it. If a company doesn't, customers might just move to a competitor. That's the conventional wisdom. We have all had bad customer service experiences. A recent personal example was when I contacted my ADSL service provider about getting my broadband connection transferred to a new address. This process didn't turn out to be simple. I was advised to (a) check with the billing department about the penalty for cancelling my contract early, (b) if I was happy with the penalty - indeed! - send an email to their cancellation team, and (c) call the sales team and re-apply for a new account. Essentially, I had to stop being their customer then proactively sign up again. The first step turned out to involve a 30 minute wait in a queue, during which I passed the time calling another service provider to get a quote on their ADSL service. Needless to say, I never got beyond the second step with the original provider as the whole experience was so painful and time consuming I decided to do exactly as the textbooks warn and move to the competitor. The poor service in this case was partially a result of fragmented systems and processes but more fundamentally to manage support costs in order to keep product prices to a minimum. We customers are therefore partially responsible for some of the poor service we receive as we are always pushing for things to be delivered more cheaply. That doesn't really help, however, when you are having those frustrating conversations with call centre people who have limited knowledge, flaky systems and are judged on the number of calls they close rather than the problems they solve. Many of us have at one time or another muttered phrases like: "It would be better to offer no support at all than pretend and mess everyone around." So what would happen if suppliers took this request literally? Imagine asking: "Where do you keep your extra hot chilli sauce?" in Tesco and being told: "I'm sorry sir, we have signs over all of the aisles - please read them." But we don't have to imagine. There are actually companies that have gone to this kind of extreme and I came across one recently. The company concerned is an e-tailer of computer equipment and other electronic goods. It offers the bare minimum of human interactivity as part of its business model. One of the steps it took was to discontinue telephone order support for smaller customers. It made no apologies for doing so. Its website explains: "We no longer accept consumer or small business one-off orders by telephone, only via our website. We realise we will lose a little business but we will save a lot of overhead." As part of the same move, it stopped offering pre-sales support and advice on products and wound post-sales support down to an absolute minimum. Such action flies in the face of conventional CRM wisdom that says the customer is king and should communicate with a business when and how they want. However, in this particular case, the retailer has some of the lowest prices around and a slick selection of online facilities for ordering goods, paying for them and returning them when mistakes are made. For the right kind of customer - those that know what they want and don't need hand-holding - the service is excellent. Furthermore, no promises are made or expectations created which the company cannot deliver against. Of course, this approach would not work in many other cases but it does illustrate there is always a trade off between the price of goods and level of service. This is where technologies that help streamline the whole process can be of use, provided they are used appropriately. By this, we don't mean the multi-level convoluted IVR implementations that are all too common: "Press 1 for an account enquiry... Press 9 to speak to a technician..." Things have moved on considerably and voice recognition advances are providing opportunities to make phone-based navigation and self-service an almost pleasant experience. Combined with intelligent call routing - so a customer has more chance of finding the person who can help first time - dispatching costs can be reduced and callers can have their problems solved more quickly. While some specialist retailers are able to deal exclusively through electronic channels, the vast majority of organisations can help themselves and customers better if they just pull the threads together. This might be across internal functions - something that would help my ADSL provider a great deal - or across different channels - call centre, web, email. Some of these ideas are boring and old hat but organisations are still not implementing them. Technology is not the answer per se but it can certainly help, especially with advances in convergent solutions that can allow more coordinated customer interaction across the board. These solutions can even assist in dealing with some of the human issues, such as relieving boredom of call centre staff through being able to switch them easily between inbound and outbound activity. This can reduce staff turnover, increase motivation and, something that is often overlooked, make them sound less like automatons just reading a script or going through the motions. So my plea to all those suppliers out there is don't try to solve the cost problem by just cutting call centre staff and allowing your queues to grow. This will certainly cut the number of calls but for all the wrong reasons. What's required in most cases is a top down look at CRM strategy and more creative and intelligent use of technology. What are your thoughts? Post a Reader Comment below or email email@example.com to let us know - or say what you'd like Dale to cover in future 'What if...' columns. **Dale Vile is service director at analyst house Quocirca. His C.V. boasts years at Nortel Networks, Bloor Research, SAP and Sybase and his job now involves working with vendors and users wanting to tap the business benefits of technology. For more information see: http://www.quocirca.com Past columns:
What if... we didn't have modern communications and IT?
What if... everyone always knew where you are?
What if... the sales and marketing director was put in charge of IT?
What if... 3G was available right now?