Customer Service In The Era Of The Internet


I despise talking to customer service. Most of the companies I have had to call either for information, to report a problem, ask for a refund, get an RMA, or anything related to service, have resulted in horrible experiences. The customer service reps have been rude, they have lacked product knowledge, they have been less than attentive and willing to listen and have made no efforts in trying to find a solution that worked; to make matters worse US based reps can barely speak intelligent English. To the above equation you need to add reps not based on the US. It is not the accent that bothers me – mine is so thick you can cut it with a knife – but the lack of a customer centric culture. The accent just gets further in the way and aggravates the situation.

There are two companies where the experience is 180 degrees in the other direction: USAA and LaCie.

To call USAA’s customer service exceptional is to not do them justice. They are superb. I am not sure how the reps are trained, but I am yet to talk to a rep on the phone and not gotten the help I needed. What impresses me is that when a rep does not know the information, they freely admit it and they are not exactly apologetic. However, they know where to go get the information and who to hand you over to. The hand over from one rep to another is also fantastic. The first rep introduces you to the second. The second greets you and the first one asks the second if he/she has you. If the answer is positive, the first bids you good bye and now you are talking to the second rep, who had been fully briefed before you started talking, thus, not having to repeat yourself. Of the few times I had to call USAA – they have a great track record – and in those few times the experience has been consistent: Great customer service every time I call.

The experience with LaCie was completely different. I called to complain about an order I had placed where one of the items was back-ordered. My complaint was that I had been charged for the back-ordered item even though it had not been delivered, or so it seemed. The customer service rep, although I was very short, was nice, cordial, composed and quickly turned the situation around by being understanding of how I viewed the situation. He very quickly changed the mood and tone of the call and resulted on a happy customer. I am not sure if that is the experience I will get next time. Regardless, it was a pleasant one. The most important part of this experience was that even though I was in “the wrong”, I was never made to feel that I was wrong.

Few other experiences rival LaCie’s. So few that I can count them with one hand and have change. By at large, my experiences are really crappy and frustrating. The worst experiences are the in-store experiences. Two companies are notorious in my book: CompUSA and Fry’s Electronics. I will not go into details of these experiences because there is nothing to learn from them and in all honesty, I would waste your time describing them. But let’s just say that the reps where less than intelligent; their knowledge of what the products they carry is near nil; their interest in taking care of you is non-existent; their personal hygiene and presentation also lacking. And their vocabulary … well … let’s just say that my children have a better vocabulary than the people I encountered have.

I completely understand that the opportunities for education these people have had are not, to any degree, comparable to mine or my children’s. And I do not blame them for their lacks. I will, on the other hand, make them responsible for it. Who I really blame is the store managers (who probably also do not know any better) or regional managers. I blame people all the way to the top. They are the ones that lack customer focused service and since they lack it, they can not expect their chain of subordinates to react any different than they currently do.

A while back I was recommended I read a book called “Raving Fans” by Blanchard and Bowles. This book is a good example of why USAA and the CS Rep at LaCie are so effective in providing exemplary customer service. I recommend you read it. To think of it, the person that recommended it should read it again. His organization’s customer service is beyond lacking to the point that Fry’s and CompUSA’s in comparison are not too bad.

The customer service landscape today is, based on my experiences, a minefield with a few safe havens. But it needs not to be such a disaster. Traditionally customer service had information issues. In other words, a customer service rep lacked complete and accurate information. And when the data was available, it was hardly ever integrated and presented in such a way that helped the rep. Once upon a time I used to work for Prudential Group Insurance, West Coast Operations. My main responsibilities were to provide technical assistance to customer service reps (CSRs) and help them navigate a series of disconnected mainframe based systems. This was in 1994, ages ago in internet times.

Fast forward to today. CSRs’ operations are no longer, for the most part, mainframe based, and most system have been integrated in such a way that the information is presented in a series of screens that make life much easier to find. To make matters better for CSRs, many of the system offer key-word search to assist finding information more efficiently. A clear example of some of these advances is banking. When you call your bank, in many cases (BofA Credit Card Services for example), you are connected to CSR in India, The Philippines, and other. The rep has access to a great deal more of information regarding your account and transaction history.

Putting the cultural and language elements aside, the first issue starts with security. Some person in some country half across the world has access to some of your most important financial information. But that would not change if the CSR was located here in the US, or for Europe in Europe or however local. What would change is the ability to do background checks. Secondly, what level of encryption in maintained for the connection between the outfit in India, for example, and the data repository in Colorado, again for example? If it was local, then there are regulations that need to be observed and regulatory bodies that conduct audits. Although these regulatory bodies extend their scrutiny to vendors and providers, I am not sure of the level of efficiency and transparency rendered in the above mentioned audits.

However, security, technolgy and data/information even though paramount, the problem remains with my chief complaint: Lack of customer focus on the part of the CSRs. And with the information they have at their disposal and the installed systems providing the information, I am utterly surprised service is still lacking.

4 Comments

Filed under Business, Thoughts

4 responses to “Customer Service In The Era Of The Internet

  1. It is shocking how some companies pay so little attention to their customer service. The people that are calling you are people who want to use your services but can’t for some reason. How can you afford NOT to have someone intelligent and well trained talking to your customers on your behalf.

    I was just reading another good blog post about this that I thought you’d like too:
    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/04/who-answers-t-1.html

    -Dave

  2. The problem is that you need commitment to good CS from the TOP. If it does not come from the top, then you have a situation like we had at Pictage, where Ariel really tried to provide exceptional service but never got the commitment from Jason. So, RT ended up being blamed for the CS factor; while all along the problem was the lack of resource allocation to finish up what we had started.

    Last I heard, SalesForce was not doing a much better job and costed a great deal more.

    I will read the blog you pointed me to. Thank you.

  3. Jeff U

    We all have our telephonic experiences from ‘hell’, both as a caller, and on the receiving end. Everyone is dissatisfied with something or someone (often both). Everyone else is “the” problem; and, never/not us. We forget that pointing the finger at someone means that we are pointing 2 back at ourselves. Just like intimate personal relationships (e.g., marital, teenager, etc.) people are more successful when both sides feel heard; e.g., the complainer (bad name, I know) at least FEELS that their point of view (their horrible, awful, painful, not necessary, wasteful, etc.ad nauseum experience) is understood by the receiver. This builds trust, and then from there, the specific ‘how to fix it’ tactics come into play.

  4. Excellent article as always, thank you for posting all this informative content on a regular basis.

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