Customer Service Gone Wrong

I have recently been reading Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business.

It is not the first book to talk about how customer service can be used to gain competitive advantage.

But the contrasts between the best practices recommended in the book and my recent dealings with one particularly dysfunctional customer service function could not be starker.

I guess I’ve been lucky, but my experiences with call centers have mostly been positive. Until now.

The company responsible for blemishing this track record is one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies — to spare the innocent, it will remain nameless. It spends millions of euros on sponsorship and advertising to woo customers away from rival operators.

Like many of its rivals, it has largely abandoned a direct High Street presence in favor of virtual channels such as call centers and web-based customer self service. It has also recently added intelligent agent technology to its website, which is used to let customers configure their internet router themselves, for example.

Unfortunately for me, the intelligent agent technology is limited to technical problems. So when I typed into the chat window “I’m moving home. What do I need to do?”, the chat bot responded with “please call our call center”. And that is when the troubles began.

I don’t know how many customers change address each day, but as the company concerned has 300m customers around the world, it presumably is not an uncommon event.

My first engagement with the call center was promising enough. The customer support representative, although speaking from a far-off land and using an IP phone connection of abysmal quality, grasped that we were planning to move home. No problem, she said. We could keep our existing number and the transition would only take a couple of weeks.

Neither promise was kept and the ensuing five weeks were marked by a sense of frustration and growing anger as I battled in vain, first, to get a new number and a new line installed in the new home and, then, to stop paying for the telephone service I had at the old address.

I’ll spare readers the blow-by-blow account of my time in Call Centre Script Hell. What is important, I think, is the perception that I acquired that the company, or rather its customer service representatives (CSR), simply did not care whether my problem was resolved or not. Each time I called, I had to repeat the particulars of the case to a new CSR. Half the time, it was clear they were not really listening to what I was saying but waiting for me to utter a keyword – “phone bill”, “complaint”, “new line” – which would allow them to pull up the appropriate script or refer me to another agent if the problem fell outside their remit. If the right person was not available, I was promised that they would call me back but not once did I receive a call.

That’s not exactly true. I was often called back — but by a recorded message not by a person. The recording asked me to “rate my degree of satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10” after each call I made to the call center.

When you have called three times in one day and each time you are asked to complete the same survey, the temptation to scream back at the recorded message is very strong indeed. Presumably, it cannot be that difficult to design a more humane call center system that can identify customers who are having a bad experience and to flag them as worthy of more individualized treatment.

For example, how about giving them a “case number” that they key in and so circumvent the tiresome IVR systems that establish their identity and purpose of their call each time they call. How about letting them speak to a CSR they have previously dealt with so they do not have to repeat the details to a different person each time? And how about a web site that lets a customer see their history of dealings with the call center along with the actions that the CSR said would be taken after each call?

It is well known in the customer service industry that it costs from five to ten times more to acquire a new customer than it does to retain an existing one.

Yet after my five weeks trying to get a line installed, I was left with the over-riding impression that the company simply did not care whether this customer of fifteen years stayed or not. And so I chose to go. I am officially now an ex-customer.

The moral of the story is simple; Businesses have long complained of the high cost of call centers, but today there are a growing range of more cost-effective virtual channels including intelligent agent technology, social networks and web-based self-service. Use them!

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