Automation and Customer Service: The Emperor Has No Clothes

Discussion
Oct 18, 2005
George Anderson

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.



To wit,



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

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22 Comments on "Automation and Customer Service: The Emperor Has No Clothes"


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Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 4 months ago

I can rant with the best of ’em when it comes to bone-headed customer service, but let me play the contrarian: this isn’t about the ill effects of automation; it’s about bad customer service, plain and simple.

To counter Al’s experiences:

* The mid-game cutaway? Two words: Heidi Game. (For you non-football fans, this was the famous game between the Jets and the Raiders that some human decided to cut away from early for the start of the movie Heidi. The Raiders staged an amazing come-from-behind win in the last few minutes.) It doesn’t take automation to do stupid things.

* Mistake on your bill? I’m betting that was human error, not a systems malfunction.

Many retailers do employ “secret shoppers” as Herb suggests, to make sure they are providing a good customer experience.

Bottom line: companies that understand and value customer service will use automation to their advantage. Those that don’t, won’t.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
There are two UK companies I would credit for actually having real people to deal with real customers. First up is my old favourite, Ocado, the online home delivery service for supermarket Waitrose which, in turn, is the grocery division of the John Lewis Partnership. Every segment of this company is well managed by knowledgeable, helpful, friendly people no matter what the enquiry or problem. They are all able to offer acceptable solutions without having to go through channels. And I have never encountered a machine offering choices when I call. Second, oddly enough, is a technology company. My ISP also has real people working for it who respond to email queries almost immediately and NOT with a formulaic standardised message telling me how many days/weeks/months it might take until they get around to making contact. I had a problem recently, submitted what they call a ticket through the website (all such tickets are numbered and can be tracked for progress on the site), and had a reply with detailed suggestions for solving the problem… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
Two issues seem problematic in this discussion. First, when companies implement automated phone systems they should definitely go through the process themselves to see if that’s what they want for their customers. Adopting someone else’s system, adopting what the technicians recommend, or adopting what looks good on paper isn’t good enough. Go through the system, try to use the system with and without a complaint and see what happens. Is that how you want your customers to feel? If not, change it. Second, what about the issue of competency when you do get to a real person? Either the right person wasn’t hired for the job or the person did not receive adequate training. If the right person wasn’t hired for the job, was it a problem with the hiring process or the lack of qualified candidates? Those are issues that need to be addressed. If the person did not receive the appropriate training, that can also be addressed. Al’s examples point out a number of different issues and problems – none of which can… Read more »
Jason Brasher
Guest
Jason Brasher
15 years 4 months ago

Great comments all around. After reading all of the postings, I conclude that the best solutions may be the correct combination of technology and human interface. I believe it is simply asking the question, does this (proposed solution) leave the human in charge of the machine? If the answer is no (such as following directions of what button to push only after hearing all directions), then it is very likely that the technology is going to detract from customer service. In my experience, humans do not like to be subservient to computers, despite the fact that machines are more efficient. Asking this question at every point of interface, whether an employee or consumer interface, can help with the planning that Rick speaks of. After all, isn’t designing the automated process a form of controlling the machine.

Lastly, if it weren’t for automated systems, how would it be possible to service customers competitively on a large scale? Is this really a case for smaller local companies vs. the global corporations in remote centralized offices?

Herb Sorensen
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

This says it all: “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.”

As I read this (and of course having suffered the same kinds of egregious insults as a customer), I thought to myself, maybe what we need in our company is to employ a “professional” customer. Work with me on this: do you really believe that any customer sensitive employee has reviewed many of these outrageous corporate procedures?

I do believe that management should get out and attempt to look at things from the customer point of view. But let’s face it, you may be an outstanding leader and shrewd business person, and still not have really good instincts on the firing line. What is needed here is not a passive ombudsman to listen to complaints (and maybe respond) but an active ombudsman to look for outrages practiced on our customers, and even little lapses that ought not to happen.

Robert Antall
Guest
Robert Antall
15 years 4 months ago

I have 2 pet peeves: (1) Automated telephone attendants that make it impossible to talk with a human being, and (2) websites that make it almost impossible to find a telephone number to call for questions. But this is a retail blog, so what does this mean for retail? I am a retail management consultant, and I can tell you that lower payroll trumps customer service in almost every retail business. Virtually every retailer espouses better customer service, but few deliver. I don’t count sales people trying to up-sell me as good customer service. Think about it for a minute. Aren’t you surprised when you received excellent customer service? This shouldn’t be the case, but it is today’s retail reality. I can’t calculate the amount of money department stores have lost, because one cannot even find someone to ring up a sale. There is a great opportunity out there for retailers that actually can deliver on the promise of better service.

Rick Moss
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
Some of the best customer service I’ve received lately has come from my phone company, Verizon, but what is most ironic was that the experience was eased by giving me a choice to avoid use of the telephone. When my phone line went silent, I logged onto their customer service website and was efficiently led through a “wizard” to classify the problem and submit a repair request. While online, the system automatically dialed my number to assess the type of problem I was having. I was offered a choice of response by email, phone (obviously had to be an alternate number) or both, and was able to schedule an appointment for a service visit. What this represented was a well-thought-out system that provided convenient options with the speed and efficiency that I doubt a live person could match. It’s all in the execution. I agree that no level of technology is going to make up for poor human planning, but that doesn’t give cause to blame the technology. And for a poor example, have to… Read more »
Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

Great thoughts, all. Trouble is, customer alienation is next to impossible to measure, so it’s not being measured. Bean counters can “measure” the “savings” of having fewer bodies around to satisfy customers; they can’t measure the lost loyalty and lost sales of shoppers. Until some bright researchers do a credible study on the true cost of alienating customers this way, it’ll continue. I know I certainly have turned away from companies I used to do business with, based on this sort of nonsense.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

When I led my most recent report with the statement, “Customer service has become non-existent in retail,” one of my software vendor clients objected. I stand by the statement. Self-service is not a proxy for customer service. Empowered, knowledgeable human beings (once known as employees) are a pre-requisite to servicing the customer. Technology can help, sure, but it does not replace intelligent sentient life forms.

Often, I hear retailers use the example of “Airline self-check-in” as the best example of automated customer service. Actually it is the best example of long-line avoidance. That is not the same thing. As long as consumers have choices, they will opt for those retailers they perceive are providing superior service.

And for the best example of Dante’s Voice-mail inferno, try calling your local Cable company when you have an outage.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
15 years 4 months ago

Customer Service has become a misnomer and should be called Stay-on-the-Line Computer Relations. Nothing is more annoying to me than to call a Customer Service number, being put on hold, then having an automated voice say, “All of our operators are busy. Please stay on the line. YOUR CALL IS IMPORTANT US ….”

Or having automated voice ask you, “Please repeat your number we didn’t understand that information.” Or even trying to get an answer from a live clerk who doesn’t know beans about what’s happening in his/her retail area. These things characterize
the victory of machine over man in our commercial transactions today. I’m with Al on this one.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

Herschell Gordon Lewis calls this Customer Elimination Management. It’s all related to Sales Prevention. Can some of it cause Phone Tree Rage? The problem is that justice comes much too slowly for the guilty executives to be punished. The cumulative effect of torturing customers is only noticed years later when some other hapless management discovers how much people hate the brand and that’s why it’s declining. A few months ago, for its sellers, eBay instituted online interactive help featuring the assistance of real human beings. I’ve used this service several times, and the people are actually well-trained and helpful. I know that eBay has to lose money on this if measured on a transaction by transaction basis, but I assume they realized that, by saving the relationship, the seller would continue to return for years to come.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 4 months ago
To me, the issue comes down to one of trust on the part of HQ’s. They do not trust employees to do the job (and they don’t want to pay live people, but more on that in a second), so they automate the contact. Even when one is fortunate enough to reach someone live, they are so often only allowed programmed responses that the fact of their being able to breathe is immaterial. A friend told me of an occurrence at a golf course, wherein employees were only allowed to schedule tee times on the phone, and refused to talk to a man who had wandered up to the desk. So, standing in front of the desk, two feet from the woman behind it, and making eye contact all the time, he pulled out his cell phone and called her, whereupon she scheduled his tee time. My personal experience with automated phone systems is that by the time I reach a live person (and I will usually go through the process until I do), I… Read more »
Stephan Kouzomis
Guest
Stephan Kouzomis
15 years 4 months ago

This is opposed to the consumers’ willingness to pay for realness,
and better service!!!!!
If retailers want to save labor, and lose the middle
to high end upscale shopper (who can afford to pay more
and does),
so be it!

You sell to segments of consumers, not the mass market
retailers!!!! It is a different world than our parents
and grandparents.

And unfortunately, it is occurring right now, so be it.
Hmmmmmmmm.

David Zahn
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

Al’s experience has likely been mirrored by many of us participating in the discussion. Customer Service seems to have become more about classifying, categorizing, shuttling us into neat boxes (without human intervention where possible), and not about truly resolving issues. Rather, it is more about concluding the contact in as expedient a fashion as possible.

Sad to say…as a customer/consumer…service has become something that is in short supply. How do you prove you did NOT order something anyway?

Ben Ball
Guest
15 years 4 months ago

Full Disclosure: I absolutely HATE automated voice systems. We don’t have one in this company and we never will.

Having said that:

Here’ s a positive story, and from a health (dental) insurance company no less!

I recently called up Advantis to clear up my daughter’s student status. I got the usual automated system, and I listened to all the options as a good trained monkey (er…insured) is supposed to. Then I (as usual) hit #0 to get to a live CSR.

Not only did this wonderfully pleasant CSR promptly handle my request, she then asked if I would mind taking a simple five question survey about Customer Service Systems. Of course I couldn’t resist.

Imagine my surprise when the questions were obviously targeted at understanding the value of live CSR’s vs. automated systems and how they were valued. It would appear that this company is actually listening, and at least considering, increasing the use of real live people again. What a concept!

Bob Houk
Guest
Bob Houk
15 years 4 months ago

We say we want good customer service at retail, but our shopping patterns say otherwise. Is the biggest, most profitable retailer in America the one who gives the best customer service or the one who gives the best price?

We used to say we wanted meals on flights, but the most (only?) profitable airline is the one that gives us a bag of peanuts and a rock-bottom fare.

Matt Roher
Guest
Matt Roher
15 years 4 months ago
Wow, I was just discussing this same subject with my colleagues earlier this morning. My dilemma is the lack of service coupled with total mind control in the form of relying only on what the computer tells someone. I went in to Best Buy just yesterday to pick up some electronics (as opposed to??) and I was told “the computer says we have lots in stock, but I dunno where.” The Associates looked around, and ultimately shrugged it off with “I dunno, the computer says we do…” They need the computer to tell them that they should flag down the nearest happy manager and report the discrepancy in an attempt to find this missing inventory! I then went into Chapters (big mistake #2) and had the audacity to ask the clerk a QUESTION. I had read a book review recently in one of our popular national newspapers (The Canada Igloo & Perennial Winter), couldn’t recall the exact title or author, and dared to ask if they had this book. The clerk was baffled, as apparently… Read more »
Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
15 years 4 months ago
I think the pendulum will start shifting back soon – that we’re almost to the bottom and there’s no place to go but up. To Warren’s comment that the ill effects are hard to measure, I offer a retail banking example that I heard from one of their marketing execs. After implementing customer self-service and setting up a fee structure to incent customers to use the self-service (or rather dis-incent them from using real people), their sales “inexplicably” dropped, significantly. In trying to find out the root cause, they realized that human interaction was actually resulting in cross-selling that was now not happening. End result – they stopped driving people to self-service, and simply offered it as one of many options for interaction. So two lessons I learned: one, it is possible to measure, and ill effects will find their way into your results one way or another. And two, you need to measure – and continuously measure – and you might have to be creative in how you get to the measures you need.… Read more »
Bill Clarke
Guest
Bill Clarke
15 years 4 months ago
I don’t think the culprit is the automated systems; it is the management philosophy and practice behind the systems. If a company believes in the need to provide effective customer service, they will put the customer first in the development, installation and management of the systems. For instance, I think L.L. Bean and Lands’ End have a great empathy for the needs of their customers and their systems reflect their philosophy. Unfortunately, today the management philosophy in many giant companies is on monthly financial performance and expense reduction, not on what is best for the customer. It is unlikely that any major changes will happen because management is isolated from the customer. All they see is the final cost and summaries of inquiries. Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus once said that he got more out of spending an hour on the sales floor with customers than he did from attending dozens of staff meetings. Perhaps, if the executives who installed the automated systems had to spend their purgatory listening directly to the dissatisfied customers, then… Read more »
Tony Orlando
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
This is the most important discussion, since I’ve subscribed to RetailWire. Customer service is a joke… Nobody gives a damn in the mall stores and especially the big mass merchandisers. Price is all that matters to most people, and it will only get worse. I run a small independent supermarket in a poor area, with prices that are incredible. Our service is top notch, and quality is never an issue….. But price is the ugly 7 headed monster that prevents any real growth around here. I know some of the BrainTrust and honored panelists will disagree, or say that I should stop whining, but it’s not about that. Wal-Mart Supercenters do not spend one dime of local advertising, and yet pack their stores every week. The “perception of value” is overwhelming and the only way you can change that is through aggressive perishable promotions, and real honest to goodness customer service. I am picking up full-fledged customers one at a time. Just a reminder, that if every independent picked up one stock up shopper per… Read more »
Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
15 years 4 months ago

Everyone has horror stories and everyone knows who is at fault. What no one is trying to do is fix the problem! I would suggest that someone start a web site where short, rational stories about a company’s customer service can be posted. Along with this “bitch
list” would be posted the contact information for the chairman of the board, CEO, CFO and three Wall Street analysts (email info also).

You could post your experience and send it to the officers of the company and to the analyst who follow and rate its stock. Can we take down HP first? Apple should get a gold star for the best customer service on earth!

Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 4 months ago
Unfortunately, when all things are equal, all things are equal. The consumer voice speaks with one fork and eats with another. The fact is, we, as consumers, have spoken with our wallets differently than we speak with our mouths when it comes to customer service. We expect it, yet place no value to it. It’s quite ironic. It becomes even more difficult to accept in the more ‘monopoly’ type businesses, but it’s fairly equal across the board. Technology, in many ways, has helped us. I’ll be the first to rave over many of the improvements. However, in many ways, it’s harmed us as a society and a culture. We move at warp speed yet produce less. We’re more efficient, yet produce less and employ fewer, it seems. There’s something quite ironic to it all it seems to me. We accept these experiences that we have all had because they have yet to become unacceptable. We accept them because there is in many cases not an acceptable alternative. Thus, when all things are equal, all things… Read more »
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