Rethinking Customer Service

I had an unfortunate incident recently where I had to contact customer service of a major ISP with some service issues. It took, on average, two to three minutes to get someone on the line. In that period, I had to enter multiple pieces of information, went through layers upon layers of menus, and still did not get connected to the person who could really help me. I was transferred from one person in one department to another person in another department so many times I lost count and track of people, their names, and their departments. Even with all the technology we have available, we are not able to utilize it to determine what the customer needs and how to handle said need.

This is why we have to go back to the drawing board. Of course, automated systems help reduce cost, increase customer satisfaction for common problems, and allow better quality control of the service. But the main sticking point I noticed was that there is no one person or point of contact for a customer to speak with until the matter is resolved. How difficult or expensive is it to assign an “owner” for an issue and let the customer deal with that “owner” while the “owner” resolves the matter? This workflow is especially required when either the customer or the business does something out of the ordinary. In such situations the onus is put squarely on the customer to wade through unknown rules, procedures, and people to have their issue resolved. If the customer had one point of contact, their satisfaction would increase manifold simply because they know there is this one person taking care of them.

How expensive would this be? I don’t know. The reason for departments and phone menus is that a large organization has such breadth of existence that it’s not easy to collect it all under one umbrella. To a customer, following is the (simplified) daunting task facing them:

         ---------> Sales
         |
customer ---------> Billing
         |
         ---------> Technical Support

It’s not necessary that if a customer is having technical issues that it’s not somehow related to billing. So the technical person will have to first troubleshoot the problem and advise the customer that they really need to talk to billing. So the customer is transferred to billing (if it’s during business hours, that is) and now billing asks the same questions again. It then decides that something weird has happened and they are not able to take care of the issue. The customer really needs to go to sales and is thus transferred again. Sales takes a look at the issue and can’t really decide if they are really the ones to handle this situation. This continues until the customer gives up for today and vows to try again tomorrow.

With some fundamental changes, this could be resolved very easily. There are no menus (except maybe for language selection) when a customer (Isabelle) calls and is asked to provide identification information (phone number, account number, address, etc.) by just talking and recording a voice message and then to describe the issue she’s having. Isabelle is put on hold while an “owner” is determined by the system. Let’s say the system chooses Brian to be the owner of this call. He listens to Isabelle’s problem (recorded message) and contacts the appropriate department. Meanwhile, he also takes Isabelle out of the queue and talks to her, letting her know what actions he is taking and asking any questions he may have. He also gives Isabelle a reference number so that the next time she calls, she can mention it during the message-recording phase (so a person listening then can determine who the assigned “owner” is for the issue). Brian doesn’t even need to keep Isabelle on hold for too long once he has all the information he needs. After Isabelle hangs up, Brian is now her advocate within the organization. He contacts whoever needs to be contacted, escalates the issue to whoever it needs to be escalated. He can call Isabelle if he needs more information or someone (Ruth) in some other department has any questions. Brian stays on the line while Isabelle and Ruth sort out whatever needs to be sorted out.

                              ---------> Sales
                              |
Customer  <-----> Issue Owner ---------> Billing
                              |
                              ---------> Technical Support

All this needs to work in almost all organizations today is to add a single layer of human intervention between the customer and the organization. All the other structures of departments, and responsibilities, etc. remain in place. Except that Issue Owner now works on behalf of the customer while the customer knows that they are not just an account number but someone the company cares about. This could increase cost of giving support but whoever does support better does better financially as increased customer satisfaction means increased revenue.

Of course, now the company doesn’t need to publish different toll-free numbers for different issues. Just one number and the customer is taken care of. The same can be implemented in web-based support (email or chat). For a particular issue, the customer can either call, email, or chat, and it will always be with the same person. For Isabelle, Brian is the face of the company and if Brian can solve the problem, the company solved her problem. With a human touch. Thus customer service is transformed into customer care. If you take care of me because I am a customer, I will make sure my hard-earned money goes to you for services you provide.

The problem, however, is inertia and monopoly. In the ISP business, there aren’t many options available to customers. So the ISP can pretty much do whatever it wants. So this whole post will very well be ignored simply because it can be ignored. I’m not saying everyone has to do things this way. But if customers like me get a real person to deal with, no matter how the system is implemented, I’ll be one happy customer.

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