Is Technology Success Killing Customer Service?

Web automation is allowing retailers to hide from their customers and it's also allowing unhappy customers to be hidden from the retailer. Is this becoming the classic lose-lose situation?

When recently touted its Web technology as the reason it was no longer going to tell customers its phone number, it raised eyebrows. That move followed severely limiting access to its customer service phone number.

But the problem of retailers relying too much on technology and cutting off customer feedback is only half the problem. Customer service outsource companies are finding it quite easy now to interpret policies however they want and to then hide unhappy customers from their retail clients.

Y'see, retailers, cutting off phone contact with customers doesn't only prevent them from bugging your people and taking up their time. It also prevents your people from hearing what your customers are trying to tell you.

I recently was doing business with a company and they shipped an item that had never been ordered. The company, which shall remain nameless, said its policy was to not pay for return shipping for such unordered deliveries. A call to that company's headquarters quickly established that policy was indeed to pay for such return shipping. But that didn't convince the outsourced customer service people, who resolutely stuck to their interpretation of policy. No requests for escalation could get this matter to the attention of corporate (without my calling them directly, which is cheating).

Makes one wonder how many of these calls have happened without the company's management being made aware.

Another good technology advancement that is often undermining customer service: Instant Chat. In theory, chat is an efficient and wonderful way to avoid long hold waits and to get matters quickly resolved.

But when reps are handling several IM conversations at once and are reflexively cutting-and-pasting canned responses to heartfelt questions, the customer service element seems to have gotten lost.

The heart of the problem seems to be the 90-10 customer service split. The instant messages and the automated Web programs are fine for dealing with about 90 percent of the customer service problems. That is a huge load reduction for customer service. The problem is with the remaining ten percent, whose problems are not so cookie-cutter and often involve systems that are not functioning as they are supposed to.

If there was an easy way for that 10 percent to automatically be moved to a senior customer service person, this wouldn't be nearly as much of a problem as it is. But retailers are getting greedy.

Anand Chopra is the senior director of marketing for a customer service firm called Talisma and he sees the problem as more a rush of technology.

"Retailers have adopted these channels and they don't quite know how to handle them," Chopra said. "Retailers need to take a step back and look at this at a more strategic level. Not every customer should chat with an agent."

The lack of trustworthy data getting back to the retail headquarters isn't helped much by those customer service surveys, "which are disproportionately filled out by those who are happy," said Rob Booher, Talisma's director of product management. "People who are unhappy with the service tend to internalize it. They get so irritated with the vendor or service, they don't want to take the time discuss it with them."

From the retail perspective, they think everything is going wonderfully. The automated systems have allowed them to have far fewer customer service people and complaints are at a minimal. Who in retail is so brave that they're going to want to rock that boat?

Best for them to be silent and then profess ignorance when sales start to fall. Better yet, when the revenues plummet, just blame technology glitches. This time, though, they'll be right.