It’s for you: Better telephone customer service

Cynthia CloskeyGeneral

Not sure why it’s important to have actual humans giving customer service over the telephone? Check out Get Human, “a consumer movement created to change the face of customer service.” An entire community has blossomed over ways to circumvent interactive voice response (IVR) systems, those automated phone answering systems that make you navigate a series of menus to find answers to your questions.
Ironically, guidelines for how companies should set up an automated telephone/voice response system are buried in the site. You can find them here.
The New York Times featured Get Human recently (“Your Call Should Be Important to Us, but It’s Not,” William C. Taylor, 2/26/2006, registration required):

Countless chief executives pledge to improve their company’s products and services by listening to the “voice of the customer.” Memo to the corner office: Answer the phone! How can companies listen to their customers if those customers have such a hard time reaching a human being when they call?

The obvious defense is that it’s prohibitively expensive to offer the personal touch to millions of curious, confused, angry (or even enthusiastic) callers. The trouble is, companies tend to be better at cutting costs than at identifying missed opportunities.

Richard Shapiro is president of the Center for Client Retention in Springfield, N.J., a business that dials out to customers who have dialed in to toll-free call centers and asks them to evaluate their experiences. He argues that customers who interact with human beings are more likely than other callers to volunteer useful information, try out a new product and come away with a strong sense of loyalty — positive outcomes that are eliminated by excessive automation.

“You create more value through a dialogue with a live agent,” Mr. Shapiro said. “A call is an opportunity to build a relationship, to encourage customers to stay with the brand. There can be a real return on this investment.”

For myself, I prefer to deal with an automated system a lot of the time; I also always search the company’s website for answers before resorting to talking to a customer service rep. This is partly because I don’t like navigating the menus any more than anyone else does, but it’s also because I find many CS reps to be slow on the uptake. The key basics for any great telephone customer service are to hire great people, train them to be excellent, compensate them so they don’t despise their jobs, and provide them with the tools and information to address queries and solve problems. Without that core of service, it won’t matter how quickly customers can get to talk to a human, because they won’t be satisfied anyway.