The death of customer service


“The customer is always right”. How quaint. I’m not sure it was ever sincere, but it did at least point to the idea that service and product providers had an awareness of the source of their prosperity.

There are two principles that make this real:

  • The accessibility of the person giving the service – can you actually talk to them?
  • The individuality of the service provided – do they listen and respond to what you actually want?

Let’s talk about accessibility. Can you actually talk to someone? Well in these days of online 24/7 “service” there is of course no need to talk to anyone. You can find answers to most questions on our website. Which means we can employ fewer people, which cuts costs and boosts profits. As long as enough people stay with it, we’ll keep reducing the chances of ever having to actually deal with you.

OK – those pesky people that still want to talk to someone. We’ll give them a telephone number. And dozens of options. Press [1] for this, press [2] for that, press [3] for the other and press [4] for a myriad of yet more options. They actually pay people to create “decision trees” that cover almost every eventuality to send callers through to pre-recorded ‘answers’. I say almost, because even the greediest company has to leave that final option for the determined person that had held on for 20 minutes plus – to finally speak with someone.

And who do they get? Some sap thousands of miles away. Sitting with a script at a cost of 20% of their UK counterpart. It’s easy to justify in cost terms, which overrides any consideration of the customer experience, as well as passing the burden of complaints over to the offshore workers to get it in the ear.

The public sector isn’t much better. I went as usual to Charles Dickens Festival in Rochester recently. I had my change ready for the car park. This of course is because they replaced staff many years ago with machines to take your money and issue tickets. Well – they discovered that you still have to pay someone a wage to go and empty the machines. So instead, you now have to register for the app and pay online.

Fine for me, as I punched in the details. But the bewildered look on the faces of senior citizens who stood with their coins next to the three ‘out of service’ ticket machines spoke volumes. Intriguingly enough, Medway Council were still able to employ wardens to issue penalty notices…

The point is – put as much distance as you can between you and your customers. If you can, remove the accessibility altogether. Make is so hard for them to contact you, that they just give up. And if you are a sole provider of a service and they can’t go anywhere else, well you’ve got it made. As long as the numbers stack up with profit, that’s all you need.

Next – individuality of service. If accessibility has loosened the ties, then this is where customer service has been completely killed off. We are in fact, not customers. We are consumers. We are to be plugged into a churning mush of outputs that are designed to meet our lowest expectations and be grateful.

The consumer is expected to adapt their taste and wishes to what is on offer. Not what they want. One sadly silly instance I recall was watching a Burger King ad in America. A very macho voice was growling You’re the boss, You’re in charge – because you could choose whether to have onions in your burger. I felt so empowered.

The rigidity of service and products – and the accompany script for the staff to use to sell them – charts the course of decision-making to what the company wants you to buy. It is never about what you may actually want. Some might say t’was ever thus. But I’m not so sure.

I hear people nervously working in sales continually using the word ‘obviously’. Listen out next time you go to buy something. It’s a pejorative word that is designed to shut down any dissent. When they say ‘obviously’ they mean that this is not open for discussion. I will not offer any variation. I have my script and I am sticking to it. You will not win. You will take what you are offered and be grateful. Obviously.

When I call people out on this, their eyes narrow. They look at me as a blatant trouble maker. How dare I challenge their right to sell me what they want me to buy instead of what I actually want. Their training has taught them how to manage sales and ‘difficult’ customers and they become very tetchy if I do not play along. Good. I’m spending my money and I expect some individual consideration.

So – what’s to be done? Shall we lie down and accept the inevitable victory of the providers versus the brow-beaten consumers? Or shall we make a fight of it and score the occasional victory ourselves?

I am an optimist. I see hope where others often see none. Personally, I do as much business as I can with small companies. Those that know their livelihood really does depend on that person walking back through the door again. Those who know they have to fight to gain a customer and keep them. Being local helps. Both from the point of view of accessibility (see above) but also that you will knock on their door if you are not completely happy.

For some things, we have no alternative than to use the big corporates, or public service providers. That my friends is where we must fight the good fight for those occasional victories. There is a distinct joy in finding a rebel in the big chain, corporate or council who with a nod and a wink, will bend or ignore the script to give a great service.

On which note, there may be some life in customer service yet. And as a customer, I’m usually right…

[PS – I’m no Luddite. The genius of the internet and the devices that bring it to us are awesome! Like everything, it’s how you choose to use it that matters…]

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