Automation and Customer Service: The Emperor Has No Clothes
Editorial by Al McClain
Over the weekend, I had a couple of experiences that illustrate the problems consumers have getting real people to pay attention to them. Remember George Anderson’s story last
week about the difficulty in getting Trader Joe’s to stock enough of his favorite pizza in the freezer to meet demand at peak times? (RetailWire
10/13/05 – Out-of-Stock – Out-of-Chances) Well, my theory is that big businesses of all types have, in many cases, automated things to the point where no humans are actually
involved, and when they are, they aren’t up to the challenge.
Trying to listen to the Astros-Cardinals playoff game on the local New York affiliate radio station of ESPN on Saturday, I was mildly surprised when the station cut away from the game in midstream, and shifted to audio from what was apparently Sports Center. The real surprise came when they hadn’t caught the error after ten minutes. Mind you, this was in the middle of the game – I think it was the fourth inning. Meanwhile, presumably, advertisers were paying to reach a promised radio audience matching their desired demographics, and clearly that wasn’t happening. I didn’t bother trying to reach ESPN to complain – figuring out who to call and how to explain that it was not the TV version, but radio, and the NY affiliate at that, seemed ineffective, at best. And, whoever was in charge of what was on the air on this affiliate was clearly asleep, out to lunch, or not even in existence.
Same weekend, different company. Trying to explain that neither my wife nor I ordered Disney on Demand (no kids = no idea what this option even is) from my cable company. Cable rep says anything more than 30 days old – this had been a line item on my bill for 90 days without my noticing it – was my problem. Supervisor said “their records” indicated I had ordered the service, and I had to prove otherwise or pay for the service. Supervisor’s supervisor was supposed to call within 24-48 hours – never happened. Bottom line on this one is at least one cable company has enough of a monopoly that they are comfortable making customers prove they did NOT order something – even though there is no call record, no record of who called; just a date in their files saying the customer added this.
My bottom line reason for telling you all this is not to complain about my personal service issues (thanks for the therapy!), but to make the point that our society has become so automated that we’re now often in a situation where the customer doesn’t even receive POOR customer service – there is nothing at all. It’s man (and woman) versus machine. The other day, on one of those automated service lines, I actually heard, “Do not attempt to press any number for customer service until you listen to all other options first – it will not work!”
For retailers, suppliers, and advertisers, it’s more important than ever to get out among your customers, call your own customer service lines, watch and listen to your own programs, and see if you’re delivering on your marketing promise to consumers. Unfortunately, much of this has become a numbers game. If the bottom lines for revenue and profit are being made, it’s all too easy for businesses to just say, “Well, we must be satisfying somebody, or we wouldn’t have made our numbers.” But, in reality, do you really want to just keep making numbers if you’re not delivering on your promises? It may or may not make a critical difference in your business, but it’s the right way to do business. And, for many companies, doing better than average can provide a competitive advantage and help reel in loyal users for life.
Moderator’s Comment: Generally speaking, what has been the impact of automation on customer service in retail and food service environments? What companies
do the best job (IYHO) of blending automation with the human element to deliver superior customer service? –
Al McClain – Moderator