The unintended consequence of so much high-quality customer service automation is that by the time your customers get to a real person, they are already enraged and their problems are mercilessly complex.
Yes, customer service is getting worse. Companies treat customer service as a cost – and as Zeynep Ton has explained over and over, the outcome is predictable. Because the hourly cost of a live person is easy to measure, companies do everything in their power to avoid having such a person tend to their living, breathing customers. In fact, there is industry-speak for this – it’s called “containment.” It represents “the percentage of users who engage with an automated system and end their interaction without transferring to a voice or live chat agent. The goal is to prevent you from ever contacting a person, and companies have gotten very smart about this.
Customers, of course, just hate having to fight their way past the robots to have their problems solved. The feeling goes beyond just irritation, as human interface designer Walter Rolandi points out. “Consumers who encounter problems with automated systems are like rats in a science lab trained to press a bar for food that suddenly stops working. The next time he wants a piece of food, and nothing happens he’ll sort of look around funny, then he’ll hit the bar again, then he’ll hit it again and again and again. And eventually, he might attack the bar!” Like that lab rat, we’re all part of a great experiment in the corporate art of non-services, non-solutions and non-communication.
Which brings me to a service experience I had that involved Verizon, its automated systems, its human help desk and eventually its retail store. I’m not picking on Verizon, they just happened to have provided a handy and recent example. I could have chosen any number of other worthy entities. My job-to-be-done involved shutting down a home-based FIOS / Television / phone setup and closing down a mobile phone that I didn’t happen to be on the account for.
First robot problem: Since I wasn’t on the account, I had no way of determining whether any money was owed to the company, and no way of contacting anyone to find out. The accounts were signed up to be auto-paid, but the bank accounts on the other end of the auto-payment had been closed. Eventually, I found out that both accounts were in arrears and were suspended. I bounced around between the robot at the “prevent me from dropping my subscription” location, to technical services, and eventually to customer service. Eventually, I was told by a real person that I would have to go to a physical Verizon store. She even made me an appointment. I asked her whether I should bring all the no-longer-needed FIOS equipment with me and she said I definitely should.
So earlier today, I dutifully turned up at the store, box in hand, only to find a line of other people also dutifully waiting in a socially-distanced line outside the store. I assumed, since I had an actual appointment, that the clouds would part and I’d be ushered inside. No such luck. Spying my box, my first interaction was with the store manager, let’s call him Ted, who looked at my box and said, “you can’t return those here.” After I clarified that my mission was to close a wireless account and that I had an appointment, Ted said they were exceptionally busy and I’d have to wait. After about 20 minutes, he ushered me into the store and let me sit at a little table so I could put my box down.
What I saw next was fascinating. There were three technicians in the store and about 6 customers. But hoo boy, did servicing those customers take time. One technician literally had another person at Verizon on a speakerphone, shouting at each other as he said, “I’m WITH a customer!” to his colleague. Another customer had a very complex problem involving SIM cards, phone cover cases, an authorization which had to come by email (not text or phone) from her husband because – wait for it – she wasn’t on the account! Another person needed something technically switched around with his iCloud account. A nice-looking elderly couple looked as though they had settled in for the duration of the day.
I’m not ranting just to vent (well, maybe a little). This interplay was a living example of something companies seem not to realize. The better your automated service options, the more customers will solve their simple problems for themselves. By the time they need your help, they’ve tried everything, they’re enraged and – the thing companies don’t appreciate – the nature of their problems is so complex that an automated system can’t solve it. So the interactions that do occur are going to take time, patience and know-how on the part of the service provider. As Dixon, Ponomareff, Turner and DeLisi point out, that means your problem solvers need to be different. Rather than sympathy, customers want someone who can just get it done and get them out of there.
Back to Ted. Maybe in other walks of life, he’s a cupcake, but today in that store he was what Dixon et al call a “controller.” For the agent getting yelled at, he intervened and said, “look, call this other number and see if we can crack it that way.” For the lady with the problematic account, he showed her how he could get the email permission she needed, figured out her SIM card problem, brought her a shipping box, backed up her data and even spent time gluing a protective cover on a phone. And as for me, he kept me informed of how many people were in front of me, thanked me for my patience and when it came time to shut down the account said to the gent helping me, “look, she got the wrong instructions from the call center and I didn’t want her to have to come back.” Problem solved (well, partly – I still have to return a box of gear, although Ted helpfully gave me some pointers).
All of this gets at a growing problem that I don’t think corporate types factor into their customer service equation. It’s easy to figure out that a typical service encounter costs $5. What is a lot harder to measure is the upside of providing excellent service (not to mention the upside of not turning up in slightly snarky articles penned by business school professors).
Back to Zeynep’s work – she’s found tremendous revenue benefits when companies provide good jobs, and by extension, good service. By the time you need a Ted type to fix things, your systems are breaking under complexity. The robots aren’t going to help you. Well trained, well paid, accessible humans just might.