Customer Service: The Human Touch

Discussion
Jan 16, 2006
George Anderson

By George Anderson


Consumers today are all too familiar with the seemingly endless gauntlet of phone prompts one must go through to get an actual customer service representative on the line. Many, if not most, do not care for it very much.


Ed Eger, executive vice president for Citi Cards, put it simply. “People are busy. They don’t really have the time to go through the computerized systems when they know they need to talk to a person,” he said.


The desire to talk to a person is behind an advertising campaign for Citigroup’s new Simplicity credit card.


According to a report in The Boston Globe, Citigroup polled consumers and found they wanted to be able to speak directly with account representatives when they had a question or problem with their card.


The desire for human interaction has many companies rethinking their prompt systems. Southwest Airlines, Bose, and L.L. Bean direct incoming calls to human representatives or provide a prompt to reach a person first.


Speaking to a person, however, raises the cost of doing a business. Estimates peg the cost of personal contact at $5 to $10 for a customer service representative to handle a call compared to 50 cents when a computer does it.


Robert Shapiro, president of the Center for Client Retention said, “Instead of viewing the call as an expense, companies should look at the interaction with their customers as
a tremendous opportunity to solve the customer’s problem, build better relationships, and secure their business for a long period of time.”


Moderator’s Comment: What is the mood of consumers when it comes to dealing with phone prompts? How do companies balance the costs and opportunities
of having a customer service representative handle a call versus using a phone prompt system?


Last night, walking through the living room, I heard my wife giggle and then say these words: “That’s my life. Spending every day I have off trying to speak
with a person to fix a problem with (names of companies).”


She had just watched a commercial for the Simplicity card where the man trying to reach a person finally gets them on his cell phone and promptly loses
the signal as the train he is traveling on goes into a tunnel.

George Anderson – Moderator

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16 Comments on "Customer Service: The Human Touch"


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Ian Percy
Guest
15 years 1 month ago
This really is not rocket science – but we’ll try to turn it into that. Our cultural tendency to compartmentalize everything in our lives is just about as stupid as it comes. Nothing in this universe can be put into its own container as though it’s independent of everything else. The flap of a butterfly wing and all that. I say this because we approach cost containment in this way. A bank client of mine issued a “20% across the board cost reduction” directive. That meant 20% fewer tellers. Well guess what the #1 reason for customers leaving the bank is. Yup – long lines of angry people waiting for a teller to help them. So they “saved” their 20% and lost 10X that in disappearing customers. No inkling to look at the flow of the entire picture. So we “save” 7 or 8 bucks in taking the call of a customer who wants a relationship with us. Finally some companies are waking up to the reality that it is FAR more likely that a… Read more »
Marc Drizin
Guest
Marc Drizin
15 years 1 month ago
Shapiro has it right when he says that “companies should look at the interaction with their customers as a tremendous opportunity to solve the customer’s problem, build better relationships, and secure their business for a long period of time.” Citigroup did the unthinkable…they actually asked their customers what they would like, instead of forcing the customer into a pre-designed product. There is no “cost” in providing excellent customer service; it’s an investment in customer satisfaction and repeat business. Perhaps one of the reasons so few companies are willing to make this investment is the fact that they don’t train their customer service representatives well enough to provide world-class service. Giving customers access to a live person is a dual edged sword: Do it well and be rewarded with increased customer retention, do it poorly and customers will drop you like hot potato. Where companies have made a mistake is going to an “all or none” IVR type system, instead of looking for those opportunities to differentiate their services. If a card-holder has a question on… Read more »
Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 1 month ago
I may be going out on a limb here – and apologise to Rick, George, Santi and Al if I am out of order soliciting in their space – but I have a window of opportunity this spring and would love to do the following research. Get as broad a demographically and geographically group of consumers as you possibly can and ask them the following questions: (a)are you OK with punching buttons and dealing with an automated customer service department (b)would you prefer to deal with a human being even if that person doesn’t, and hasn’t ever, lived in your country of residence OR (c)would you remain far more willing to shop at a store where calling customer service immediately connected you with a live person who has lived in the same country as you and therefore understands not only your words but their meaning and implications bearing in mind that your answer will make the difference in price for that store vary from cheap to moderate to reasonable or even a little bit expensive.… Read more »
Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 1 month ago

Great question, and great responses. I can add little, except to say that I personally have been lost, and made loyal, based on phone prompts vs. a person. And I don’t care a whit if the customer service rep is in India (as it usually is with American Express.) If it’s a courteous warm body, who knows answers (that doesn’t come easy), I’m a very happy customer who will reward the company with strong loyalty. It truly does make a big difference.

Dave Allen
Guest
Dave Allen
15 years 1 month ago

I think Jeff has it right. Too often, companies make the “silver bullet” assumption that the automated phone answering is all things to all customers. Dividing and conquering the needs and questions of the consumers is the key, but this takes involved management that wishes to deliver those answers, not just save money. It could just be the communication between the management and those who deliver these technologies needs work. Opportunities abound for each company who figures out the right answer for their mistakes and their customers.

Karen McNeely
Guest
15 years 1 month ago
From my view point, automated phone service, when properly executed, can be a huge time saver for busy people for the right situations. The key is to have a well organized system that allows the customer to get done what they need to efficiently and without frustration. My local paper has a number for calling in ads and another one for calling in service issues, and yet when you call the one for service issues the first prompts is asking you if you want to place an ad. Huh? Reporting non-delivery of the paper comes late in list of prompts. This always irks me because I’m already irked about not getting my paper. Another pet peeve is when you are asked to provide your account number, but this information is not ever used. You get to a person and they ask for it again. It seems like they are just having you key in information as a stall tactic, but all it does is get the customer upset. Bottom line, have an automated system that… Read more »
Race Cowgill
Guest
Race Cowgill
15 years 1 month ago
Warren, thank you for your interest and your courtesy. We have data on about 400 companies on this question as the result of in-depth exploration, some of it interviews and some of it process analysis. This data sample proved to be large enough so that we can generalize our findings to the entire business world. Here are those generalized findings: 98% of businesses believe their service levels are “above average” or higher. 63% of these have no data for this claim. The other 37% have data that is either highly filtered or skewed to show “what executives want to see,” according to the opinions of technical people who have been pressured to skew and filter. Executives do not get valid information, but they get COMFORTABLE information. Most of them do not know this. (The data shows that ) companies operate in an environment where their competitors have roughly the same service levels as those companies. So the clearest signs of service failures — financial — do not exist. Customers have no where to go where… Read more »
M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 1 month ago

The phone prompt that astounds me is the one that says, “For English, press one.” Shouldn’t the default position assume that the caller is English-speaking? Why should an English-speaker in the U.S. have to press a language button?

Years ago — before call screening, caller ID, and email — workers grumbled about having to spend so much time on the phone that they couldn’t get their work done. A phrase that I absolutely love was born then: “When the phone rings, it’s your job calling.” This love has been expanded to include Citigroup’s new advertising campaign emphasizing the availability of a real person to whom one can speak.

But personal contact can also go awry: customer representatives have given me bad information or lied to me outright on several occasions, experiences many of us share. As other comments have stressed, there’s a middle ground that should be sought. With, I hope, this imprimatur: When the phone rings, it’s your job calling.

Don Delzell
Guest
Don Delzell
15 years 1 month ago
The inevitable “lemming” effect took place with computerized call response programs. Initially touted as better for the consumer (more efficient, faster, less waiting time, rapid control over menu choices, etc.) they were actually adopted as a significant reduction in expenses. There really are customer service situations that lend themselves to computerized response programs. My suggestion here, before we categorically reject this tool, is to determine the characteristics of a customer service situation which would still provide appropriate need fulfillment and be possible within the computer response paradigm. In other words, let’s be reasonable. If the issue is complex, does not lend itself to categorized responses, requires a significant number of choice filters to get to a probable appropriate domain…then you may want to look at people rather than computers. Other variables of interest might be the cost of costumer retention or acquisition, the rate of repeat purchase or the after-market value of the consumer. Let’s be analytical about this, and maybe, just maybe, give the community some insight they can work with, rather than a… Read more »
Race Cowgill
Guest
Race Cowgill
15 years 1 month ago
If the disadvantages of poor service are really so obvious, everyone, and the benefits so clear, then why are almost no companies following the ideas we propound over and over in these discussions? I’m wondering if I don’t hear a bit of frustration about this in our comments. I think there may be more we can do than review again how short-sighted poor service is or insult those we wish to reach by implying they are stupid. Why not look more deeply into why organizations continue to make these decisions to cut costs and not see customer service as an investment? Why not look more deeply into why we seem to have so little influence in these areas? Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think we are really getting anywhere on this topic. Can’t we process more ideas that are more useful? In my view, I think we also could have a more productive discussion, and develop more interest in what we have to say, if we could maybe focus more on the ideas and… Read more »
Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 1 month ago
OK, I’ll be the voice of dissent here. Sure there are opportunities to create loyalty and happy customers by using real people instead of voice prompts, in an ideal world. In the real world, however, customer service reps can be just as frustrating as computers and the return on investment isn’t always there. Using people makes it even more important to contain costs, and also makes it imperative to use the opportunity to up sell and cross sell. Reps who can do the latter are often more on the ball, but then comes the hard sell when you just want some help. Reps who cost less, provide lesser experiences to customers. IMHO, the right path is down the middle. IVR systems can be effective if used correctly. The easiest way to tick me off, for example, is to ask me to enter my account number for faster service, and then have a rep ask me for it again as soon as they get on the phone. Proper use of an IVR system can quickly weed… Read more »
Edward Herrera
Guest
Edward Herrera
15 years 1 month ago

You have to evaluate the expense and the efficiency. Some questions can be answered by voice response quickly and efficiently but the reality is, if needed, a quality human must be easily accessible. The human must also be knowledgeable and able to focus on each individual circumstance. Also, the wait on hold to talk human must not be forever. The business model must encourage voice response but offer quick, quality, courteous human if needed.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 1 month ago

Race, your comments were really interesting, on target, and I respect the thought behind them. So, okay, I like the ideas about dividing up calls that can be handled by a person and by a computer, as obviously there are opportunities for both. How about a computer response that says something like, “You’ve reached X company. To speak with a customer service rep, the expected wait time will be X minutes. Push 0 for this option. If you wish balance info, push 1; if you have a question about an order, press 2,” etc. Back to Race — I checked out your profile, and would love to hear your input on this question, based on your background. I believe it would be insightful.

Bob Negen
Guest
Bob Negen
15 years 1 month ago

I work with mostly with small, independent retailers and have had to take a couple of them to task for installing (and being very proud of) new prompt systems.

They want to give up a critical competitive advantage – the ability to develop a genuine personal connection with a customer or prospect – to emulate bigger companies with the incorrect assumption that because a company is bigger, it’s smarter.

It just ain’t the case!

There is a time and a place for prompt systems, but until a company absolutely needs one the smart money goes with hiring and training real live people to give great service.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 1 month ago
Bernice’s suggestion has important implications: some businesses have margins too low for certain levels of customer service. If eBay, at its startup, encouraged telephone interaction with its American staff, its service charges would’ve been an obstacle to the creation of a central marketplace. Race’s research makes another important point: that many executives don’t put themselves in the shoes of their customers. They break the golden rule of customer relations: treat everyone the way they’d like to be treated. Abraham & Straus, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Wal-Mart, and many other retail chains used to require future executives to work in the stores first, even if only a few days. Craig Newmark of Craig’s list works in customer service. Maybe it’s time to require all retail executives to work a few days a year answering customer phone calls and e-mails, as well as working in the stores and the warehouse. Furthermore, when customers are served better up front, businesses don’t need to receive so many problem-solving phone calls. Many businesses aren’t solving the root cause of their customers’ problems,… Read more »
Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
15 years 1 month ago

I think that a human on the other end of the phone, using good phone and customer service skills, could defuse a situation relating to a complaint much better than ‘routing’ voice mail systems. As the customer spends too much time for the convenience of the company – and not the customer – with a phone mail system, the frustration level builds. It would be entirely impossible to win back an upset customer, or even think of selling some other service.

I had an interesting situation just last evening with my Diners Club card. I got a human on the phone pretty quickly, and when I explained my problem, before it was even determined whether it was the company’s or my fault, the operator apologized for the situation. That’s pro-active phone customer service.

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