A recent article in DestinationCRM.com got me thinking about how customer service has evolved – or not evolved, as the case often is – in the last 20 or 30 years. Technology certainly has allowed us in the customer service industry to become more efficient, process more requests and calls than ever before, and even route calls to remote overseas call centers without sacrificing sound quality or time.
The article points out, however, that all the bells and whistles and whiz-bang technologies haven’t actually contributed to the ultimate goal of customer service, i.e., finding a solution to customer problems. The article reflected the conversations of a panel at the inaugural Customer Service Experience conference held last week in New York. It quotes Ian Jacobs, principal analyst at Ovum, as saying that technology “distracts people from providing good customer service, and gives them something else to take their attention away from their other goals.”
Jacobs makes a very valid point, and it’s something that I think a lot of companies – from the microentrepreneurs toiling away at his makeshift kitchen-based office to the CEOs of Fortune 500 enterprises – struggle with on a daily basis. The speed at which technology is changing, expanding, and providing us with a multitude of choices hasn’t always led us to a better quality of life, or a better quality of customer service. Executives and mid-level managers alike can easily become so bogged down with trying to keep up with the fast pace of technological change that they forget the whole purpose of even paying attention to all that change: make customers happy.
The rampant adoption of social media by consumers and the tendency to turn to social media to air one’s complaints about a company’s poor service or lack of response has caused yet even more distractions. Another article in CRMBuyer.com laments the trend towards prioritizing customer service on social media channels at the expense of traditional ones (e.g., phone and email). The idea behind that seems to be this perception of social media as being a bottomless source of potential PR disasters because of its visibility and virality, so – the thinking goes – companies should jump on even the smallest complaint published on Twitter or Yelp. Customer service then becomes less about serving the customer and more about conducting endless rounds of damage control, 24/7.
There’s no question that technology has given us not only tremendous cost-efficiencies but also improvements in customer service delivery. I wouldn’t ever want to go back to the days when customers had to endure interminable queues while on the phone with a company’s customer service center. Technology is a good thing – an amazing thing – and when harnessed appropriately to fulfill a higher goal, it can be a powerful engine of business growth.
But I would argue that the deployment of technology in a company, whether in a call center or in the depths of a global company’s server farms, should always and ultimately be in the service of that company’s customers with the objective of solving their problems. In this new era of transparency, rapid change, and razor’s-edge efficiency, maybe we should think beyond “customer service” (a phrase so overused now that for many it’s become almost meaningless) or “making customers happy.” One of the country’s leading happiness researchers, Dr. Martin Seligman, defines happiness in three parts: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. That’s a tough goal for call center agents to achieve in a single phone conversation with someone they know very little about!
Perhaps instead we should think of the call center’s (and the company’s) goal as this: providing solutions to customer problems. Unlike “customer service,” this goal is concrete, it’s measurable, it achieves that the customer wants, i.e., resolution to the issue they called about in the first place. Customer service can bog us down in metrics about length of calls, the number of times a person is routed around the network, whether or not a call is escalated, etc.
When you focus on finding solutions to a customer’s problem, however, the metric is simply that: solving the problem. When that becomes the goal, and not service for its own sake, it’s easier to achieve.
I welcome your thoughts and comments!