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Don’t Employ Tech Tools Solely to Cut Costs

chatI’ve been involved in customer service for all my 40 years in business. For four decades, I’ve been trying to improve the customer experience for organizations in a variety of industries and diverse geographic locations. Having a knowledgeable, well-trained professional customer service representative (CSR) is table stakes for any business, be it B2B, B2C or B2B2C. Yet, daily I’m disappointed by how little progress we’ve made as a profession at moving us toward a better experience by investing in our people.

In recent months, I’ve been stunned at the lack of progress we’ve made at using customer service to create a better customer experience. Recently, I’ve interacted with several well-known brands in different industries only to end up frustrated at the lack of effective resolution to my inquiry and the substantial waste of my time. I’ve encountered interactive response units that didn’t work; CSRs that were improperly trained; simple requests that took multiple transfers to resolve; chat bots that didn’t have a clue why I was contacting the organization; and websites that were unresponsive or lacked the information I needed to complete my task online.

Years ago, we valued the face-to-face relationships that our frontline employees had with our customers. We didn’t pursue transactions; we valued relationships. We knew the best kind of customer was loyal, and that loyalty was measured by continually buying from us and recommending us to their friends and family.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that short-term cost savings outweighed the long-term value a customer could bring to our organization. We turned away from one-to-one relationships in exchange for large, consolidated contact centers. Customers became account numbers rather than names and CSR’s followed detailed scripts. The centers focused on adhering to average handle time targets and the processing of orders and inquiries as quickly as possible. We near-shored, off-shored, outsourced, and right-sourced our way around the world seeking the next best place to lower our costs. We gave customers interactive response units with endless call trees so we could route their call to the proper department, only to have them repeat all the information they gave us again.

We saw the emergence of email as a new communication channel to further reduce customer service costs. Instead of finding the root cause of why customers were calling us in the first place, we convinced them to use email for expedited service. We developed automated responses to their emails that didn’t answer their questions and gave them estimated response times measured in days and weeks instead of hours or minutes.

As social media exploded, we scrambled to establish processes to respond to adverse tweets and posts. We put customers who called us on hold while we immediately responded to an unfavorable tweet or post to “get it out of the public domain”. Next, we ran to the new chat technology as if it was going to further reduce our costs. We implemented chatboxes that obnoxiously followed our mouse around our computer screens, asked CSRs to manage multiple chats, and assured customers that chatting with us would result in a more effective resolution than calling us. And once again, we fumbled the opportunity to deliver a better experience.

Now it’s all about bots and AI. They can be effective if we wait for them to “learn” and gain knowledge so they can better answer our inquiry. In the meantime, customers spend much of their time trying to solve our issues. Do we think this will make us easier to do business with as an organization?

I am not trying to critique the use of technology, only the use of technology and other tools for the sole purpose of cutting costs while proclaiming to customers that we’re giving them a better experience.

Call me old fashioned, but maybe it’s time for us to:

  • Start viewing our customer service organizations as profit centers, and not overhead costs.
  • Walk in our customers’ shoes and see what we put them through when they try to buy from us or resolve an issue we’ve caused.
  • Invest in our people with better hiring, training, and onboarding processes.
  • Fix our broken processes and monitor them regularly to ensure they don’t fail again.
  • Use technology to enhance the experience rather than minimize it.
  • Reward and recognize our front-line employees with better wages, fair performance metrics, and motivating incentives.
  • Give the authority to the people closest to the interaction to help customers quickly and efficiently.

It’s simple. As consumers, the best message we can send organizations that fail to understand our expectations is to stop buying from them. As leaders and professionals in customer service, let’s remember that we are consumers, too.

If we create a better overall experience, then the need to cut costs will be obsolete. Instead, more customers will be acquired, and current customers will be retained. That’s what a great customer experience can do for our organizations.