Excess technology can hurt customer service
Don't discount the human touch in building customer relationships

When I was at Concordia in the mid 1980s it never ceased to amaze me how many of my fellow accounting students seemed to fit the stereotype: you know... male, skinny, wears glasses, nerdish and emits loud belly laughs at jokes that aren't that funny.

There was also a marketing type: slightly better looking, more likely to be female, and also someone who always seeming to be talking about skiing and parties.

Marketing tended to attract artistically inclined people, with good verbal, musical and artistic skills, but also people who like people. Those who were more mathematically tended toward disciplines such as computer science and finance.

These banal categorizations conveniently illustrated the truism that marketing was regarded as an art; a field in which hard and fast rules don't always work best, and where subtle strategic alterations can yield impressive results.

But during the past decade it has become harder to define a stereotypical marketing person. Technological advances in polling and research, and in particular the advent of the Internet, have led to a flood of nerds into the field, (some have even become marketing columnists) -- and their influence is being increasingly felt.

One area where this is so, is in customer service departments, which are being increasingly automated to make them more efficient and in theory, to better serve the customer.

It is an axiom that an effective customer service operation can be a corporate lifesaver, far beyond its apparent function. According to pollster Jean-Marc Leger, a satisfied customer will on average tell five people about his experience, but a dissatisfied customer will tell 14.

Hence traditional marketers are likely to treat customer service departments as more than just a place to steer nuisance customers. They regard the department as a way to boost after-sales satisfaction and to generate new business down the line.

But technological advances such as automated answering machines, Web-sites and cheap telecommunications, which have allowed companies to outsource customer service work to huge call centers located in low cost areas, have been chipping away at the effectiveness of many large customer service departments.

A good example is Bell Canada's Sympatico High Speed edition's customer service department. As anyone who uses the Internet as part of their daily work lives knows, the medium is no longer just a causal convenience. Once you get used to it, the Net for all intents and purposes becomes indispensable.

One of the beneficiaries of this phenomenon has been the Sympatico division which provides a high speed service using DSL (dedicated system line) technology that I have been using since late last year. However, huge traffic growth has led to numerous service outages, snafus and bureaucratic bungling.

I am addicted to the speed offered by Sympatico's service but since it is less than reliable, I also opened an account with a competitor to provide me with a backup for when the service crashes. During these outages I still have to deal with Bell's customer service people.

The problems begin when the phone is answered. They have one of those automated voice message systems -- you know: "...for service in English, push one..."

What this system saves Sympatico in money, it more than costs each customer in wasted time. Customers are forced to listen to numerous long messages just to get a human being on the line. God forbid if one of those answers is wrong - because then you have to call back and start over. For business users, who are on company time, this can be particularly expensive.

This automated answering service is a classic misapplication of technology. The service ignores what many marketers feel is the main reason people call customer service or complaints departments: not only do they want to resolve what is often a minor problem - they also want to be reassured they made the right purchase decision, and that their supplier cares about them.

An automated system can be efficient, but by not offering a simple service, where for example customers can get an operator online by pushing "zero," the Sympatico customer service department conveys the unintended message that they really don't give a hoot about the customer.

A second problem with the Sympatico service is what I call "Web-siteitis," -the tendency of many companies to believe that since they have a Web-site, any answer that any customer may possibly want is available there.

That's fine as far as it goes. But most Web-sites today, even those that are filled with information, are so slow and inefficiently designed that finding that information can be a nightmare.

In many cases telling a customer that information is on the company Web-site is no more helpful than a reference librarian telling a student, that the information is available in the library. It's technically true, but not very helpful.

A good corporate Web-site can be a fantastic source of value in building customer relationships and may be a good labor saving tool. But it will not eliminate the need for effective customer service employees.

I don't want to dwell on the Sympatico customer service department. Many of its deficiencies are increasingly common among large companies, and there is no question that these technologically advanced departments are more efficient, and cost less to run.

But one wonders whether they are as effective as they can be at building long-term customer relationships, and whether we have not turned a little too much marketing power over to the accountants.


E-mail can be sent to Diekmeyer at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com


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