Contact Center Solutions Featured Article

Customer Experiences - Self-Service vs. Agent-based Service

July 10, 2012

I posit for your consideration the following question: What is worse from a customer experience perspective, not being able to talk to a human being when you have a problem, or actually engaging in conversation with someone who does not have the knowledge or authority required to provide satisfaction? This is not meant to be a poll, but a call to action. 

We rightly hear from the vendors of contact center solutions these days that 360 degree touch —as enabled by the accelerating pace of such things as speech analytics, mobile apps that let you have an agent call you who is armed with your context, and social media — is poised to transform how businesses of all shapes and sizes can have more intimate and rewarding relationships with all of us. 

Furthermore, we are also constantly bombarded on the CRM side of things and the big data folks with how breaking down the silos of data that exist in enterprises will empower those involved with touching customers and ecosystem partners with the tools they need to be more responsive, more productive and capable of instilling loyalty in an increasingly disloyal world. We also know from many sources that the customer experience is not only a top business concern as a competitive differentiator but that as a result more and more companies are creating C-level positions with customer experience in the title. 

This is all good news with a big HOWEVER!

Catching up with the Times

Please don’t call me

The HOWEVER came into sharp focus in the last few days based on not one but two articles in of all places The New York Times. An item by Amy O’Leary, “Tech Companies Leave Phone Calls Behind,” struck a chord. The writer documented the confounding fact that most of today’s social media enterprises cannot be reached by telephone if you are a customer. This includes Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (News - Alert) just to name a few. It did muse that if are an advertiser, no problem.

I get the point that users of social media number in the hundreds of millions and setting up a contact center with live agents would potentially be a logistical nightmare with the perception of little upside value. After all, if I have a Facebook problem that cannot be resolved under FAQs and cannot speak to them about it, what am I supposed to do? Please don’t say try Google (News - Alert)+ because it is equally hopeless. 

And, as the item points out, what’s the big deal since many of the users of social media are digitally adept, and are “socialized.” This is an odd use of the term since the target audience tends to communicate mostly online and via non-voice means. In addition, even when in your physical presence does not make eye contact because it is a distraction from looking at a screen. In other words, the behavior has all of the characteristics of what used to be deemed antisocial behavior, something social scientists are worried about. 

But I digress and probably am showing my age. From a business perspective, who really wants to pay for staff to deal with irate customers? The costs are big as are the challenges of finding and keeping good people. It is why (see below) we get so frustrated when confronted with customer service reps who lack product or service understanding (this goes not just for outsourced contact centers but ones based in your country of residence). In my experience it created a majority of instances where the word “supervisor” must be uttered — maybe more than once and with more than one person. 

My only wish was that Ms. O’Leary should have expanded her field of vision. It is not just social media who are culprits in not wanting to talk with you. Try getting phone support from Intuit (News - Alert), any PC vendor, or a host of other tech companies on the phone? Try speaking to a knowledgeable person with the authority to resolve a problem. 

The answer has been self-service. It can be helpful if done correctly. The emphasis is on correctly. Ask cellular service providers how that is working out for them. Studies have shown that customers don’t’ trust that FAQs are correct. And, the number of new smartphones that get returned within days of purchase because of the inability of the customer to activate them is in double digits. Customers also hate being asked to send an email to support. Anyone who has ever had a problem and has been asked to email support knows that a timely response it unlikely, if there is a response at all. 

The article concluded that self-service maybe great for cost avoidance and profits but there is a certain irony in the fact that customers increasingly cannot communicate in a way that meets their expectations with the companies that are supposedly making their lives easier and more fulfilling.

Can we talk?

 The second article is something I am sure all of us have encountered. David Segal submitted a beauty entitled, “Theater of the Absurd? No, Just Customer Service.” For those unfamiliar, Mr. Segal has a column called The Haggler. Think of him as the “voice of the customer.”  I won’t spoil the fun except to quote my favorite lines of an dialog famed actor Alan Alda provided concerning his interactions with McAfee: “I am now in the land of Kafka.” Actually, he was in the land of Joseph Heller’s famous book, Catch 22. All Mr. Alda wanted was to close out an account he was being billed for but did not have or use. McAfee said he could not do so without a validated current account. Yikes!

Let’s just say, McAfee was embarrassed that its phone support could not provide Mr. Alda satisfaction and that appearing in a column on poor customer service was not their idea of good publicity.

What’s the point?

Glad you asked. As U.S. radio shock-jock Don Imus likes to say, “That made my hair hurt!” Bad customer experiences whether of the self-service variety or via verbal interactions are bad customer experiences. In a world of social media they can have devastating impacts, which is why monitoring social media has become critical. They happen to be avoidable. 

There is nothing better than leading by example. That is way the disdain by many tech companies to provide decent customer service, especially dependable and responsive phone support, is deplorable.

This reminded me of the time when I called Microsoft (News - Alert) support because of a problem with an upgrade to Windows. I paid for phone support since my business depended on my PC and the Internet. After two hours on the phone, I went from a minor hiccup to the blue screen of death by following the advice of support. I was then told I had a hard drive failure. When I inquired as to whether Bill Gates was going to pay for the destruction of my computer, I was told it was not company policy. The agent then asked if there was anything else Microsoft might be able to help me with. I responded that I would like their business development people to call so I too could have a business that sold me faulty products, made me pay to find out how to fix them, broke them permanently so I had to buy new ones, and would not pay for the damages inflicted. They hung up. I never did get a call back on that one. I did replace the PC. It did not run Windows.  

The call for action mentioned at the top is a plea for companies of all shapes and sizes to talk with trusted partners who can make sure that you have the tools, people and processes in place to actually improve customer service rather than make it a checklist item. This is serious business. The truth is that if C-levels spent more time learning about how customers actually experience their brand, and less time finding a cheap fix, we’d all be better served. 

The technology exists, and it ought to be used. This is not about technology in search of a problem; it is about solutions in search of the ready, willing and able. It is about commitment, having a plan and executing flawlessly. I really don’t care if I have to do it yourself (DIY) or talk to somebody. We all have questions and want answers and BTW we also want respect. Note to the tech industry, please wake up! When the cobbler’s children have no shoes, eventually the cobbler has no business. 

This is about having a holistic approach that works best for you, your products and services and your people. It is not about paying lip service. All we ask is that you get it right, and doing so quickly would be helpful. It is time to walk the talk.

Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend ITEXPO West 2012, taking place Oct. 2-5, in Austin, TX. ITEXPO (News - Alert) offers an educational program to help corporate decision makers select the right IP-based voice, video, fax and unified communications solutions to improve their operations. It's also where service providers learn how to profitably roll out the services their subscribers are clamoring for – and where resellers can learn about new growth opportunities. For more information on registering for ITEXPO click here.

Stay in touch with everything happening at ITEXPO. Follow us on Twitter.

Edited by Allison Boccamazzo

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