Monday, October 3, 2011

Whatever Happened to Customer Service, Pt2

In general, alarmist rhetoric and reminiscing over days long gone rarely produce effective results. The alarmists keep being alarmed, regardless of what actions may be taken. Reminiscing tends to ignore the realities of the past and replaces them with a blurry happy landscape that would have been unrecognizable at the time. With this in mind, I looked over my last blog post and was a little disappointed in my choice of titles.

Customer service hasn’t taken a dramatic dip in recent years. In the last year alone, I have encountered multiple service staff that have gone the extra mile in resolving my issues. A firm but helpful account representative of Alachua General Hospital comes to mind. She dealt with a very frustrated patient who had been repeatedly ignored, shuffled from department to department, and cut off multiple times. She took the issues at hand, calmed the patient, and resolved three weeks of multiple contact attempts in ten minutes.

And, the customer service ethic of the past was not the shining beacon that our older population would have us believe. My father often argued with everyone from salesmen to insurance agents. I don’t think he was experiencing the joy of the good old days back in my good old days.

But, technology has allowed companies to put more distance between themselves and their customers. And, in the name of the bottom line, a number of them do so.

I won’t reiterate my distaste of phone trees here but I would like to share my experiences of the last few weeks.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Fall BICSI conference at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. While there, the staff of the MGM performed their duties admirably. At no time was there a moment when a staff member was not attending to a customer’s wishes. The staff answered all questions quickly and efficiently. In addition, after dealing with a customer’s immediate needs each staff member was quick to point out other services that they were ready to render.

I asked about the kiosks for printing out my boarding pass at the hotel itself (a wonderful amenity). Not only did the lovely woman at the desk point them out, she asked if I had secured transportation, pointed out the shuttle stops, and offered to have my bags delivered to the airport. For those suspicious of her as a suggestive sales technique, all services were bundled with the room and incurred no additional cost to me.

Following that, I found I needed a receipt for my stay. I am currently engaging in my third attempt to request a receipt from the MGM accounts receivable department. The MGM phone tree (no tree necessary to book a room) bounced me around to where I could leave them a message so I did so. I have e-mailed their friendly support address twice and today I will try calling again.

Technology cannot be the problem though. Technology has made communication easier than ever. Customer service levels should be at an all time high.

As a counter point to my experiences with the MGM Grand, I contacted Blizzard Entertainment at the World of Warcraft support lines. I had received an e-mail informing me that my new account was established and ready for use. I do not play WoW so I was concerned that someone was using my e-mail account for some nefarious purpose.

I submitted a trouble ticket through their online system. My ticket was acted upon and I was notified in less than an hour that there would be no difficulties with my e-mail address. I was impressed. At no point did I make direct contact with a person but Blizzard addressed my complaint quickly and efficiently. I spoke with friends that play WoW and the description of their customer service experience echoed mine.

So, technology has opened up methods of communication that were never available in the past. As organizations become larger, customer service agents become more specialized in order to better cater to the needs of their clientele. But, the general service agent has been replaced by technology that still isn’t mature enough to meet the needs of a customer base.

Companies know the weakness of these systems well. Salesmen will never be replaced by a web form or phone tree – a smart company will never let technology stand in the way of a customer given them money.

I can get a reservation with a hotel without sitting on hold.
I can buy a computer without sitting on hold.
I can get any cell phone service without sitting on hold.

But, Blizzard shows that technology alone doesn’t hinder a company’s ability to address customer demand. Blizzard handles millions of customers remotely year after year and never directly interacts with them. A Blizzard customer would be hard-pressed to tell you where the Blizzard offices are located.

The WoW business model relies on customers to maintain their monthly payments. WoW is not a product that customer requires and there are not long-term contracts. Customers with negative experiences can simply stop payment and walk away – and they have. Customer service requests to Blizzard reflect a customer’s inability to play the game and that is a direct threat to their business. Blizzard trains their staff to deal with problems quickly and directly. Any delay in addressing a customer complaint translates into an opportunity for that customer to break their addiction to the game.

So, we cannot blame advancing technology for any perceived change in customer service. Technology introduces a distance between a customer and the service representative that can adversely affect that relationship. But, tacit company approval is required before that relationship begins to suffer.

So, as always, if a company has poor customer service, the company is to blame. It just becomes more annoying when the company is so good at getting you in the door before they decide to ignore you.

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