Reinventing customer service

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Two customer service experiences have lured me away from my authorial blog and back to these pages after a long absence. The first was with American Airlines and the second with Vodafone. What they had in common was that I started out as a relatively happy customer and by the end I was baying for blood, creating a one woman Twitter storm and vowing never to use them again. I am now with O2 after many years with Vodafone. In the case of American –  I flew with them twice this year – in both cases through circumstances beyond my control and had been pleasantly surprised. All I wanted to do with Vodafone was to upgrade and with American to request refund of an overpayment I’d made to upgrade to business on one leg of my flight. Should be simple?

I won’t go into the ins and outs of my experiences – but in both cases I had multiple attempts to get through to a sentient being capable of dealing with my issue.

With American the only calls they accept are to sell tickets – everything else is via the website – but I couldn’t make their options work – and  none of  their online forms would submit (after ages filling them in – and trying multiple times). They asked for numbers I didn’t have or documents with names I didn’t understand – “please supply your document number” – WHAT document number? The drop-downs on the website didn’t help and I kept getting the Resubmit Form message. When I felt I was trapped inside an endless loop of customer service hell I took to Twitter. Problem solved – at last I got through to a human being – thanks Twitter!

With Vodafone I made a total of 13 inbound calls, on 3 of which I was cut off without explanation. Each time the Inbound Call system offered options that were not relevant to my problem – I wanted a PAC code – even after one of the assistants told me the numbers to press I still had to be manually transferred “Sorry we don’t give out PAC codes here“. In between I was on hold so long that I now know all the words to “I’m a Man” – not a convincing choice of music to play as I was by then mostly talking to machines. Again I took to Twitter but I’d got my PAC Code before anyone from @Vodafone UK replied – and then the link they sent me to get PAC codes just told me to dial 191 again – something I’d been doing till my fingers were bleeding!

The point of all this is not to have a moan (I do love a good moan!) but to suggest that customer service is well overdue for reinvention. The vast majority of large companies appear to have designed their customer service systems to keep their customers out. I have yet to meet anyone who likes listening to an automated voice and being offered options none of which fit the situation – or use corporate terminology that we customers don’t get.

The constant repetition of lies (Your call is important to us; we are receiving an unusually high number of calls) or truisms (We are currently very busy – so what – aren’t we all!) and then being forced to listen to the same song over and over again while on hold, is alienating. The only reason they get away with it is that they all do it – so as a customer we have no choice. In banking, First Direct is an exception – but they can afford to be different as they are niche – and the others are reliant on customer inertia and the sheer stress of trying to switch your business.

I’d like to imagine a world where things are different. A world where service means service. Where customers are valued. Where humans answer telephones.

Lesson 1 – don’t expect customers to understand your internal jargon – too many acronyms and obscure names for documents and procedures are used.

Lesson 2 – calculate the real cost of a customer contact – when people have to keep ringing back, talking to a series of people unable to deal with the problem it adds significant cost.

Lesson 3 – ill will and reputational damage goes beyond the customer in question. When Vodafone didn’t reply to my tweets I started retweeting other people’s complaints too. Hash tags make this so easy

There must be a case for re-thinking the whole approach. The rationale for use of automated inbound call systems was probably pretty convincing at the time from a financial standpoint – but the only real winners have been the companies who designed and installed them. They are no longer serving the companies who use them and they are certainly not serving customers. For too long technology and dubious measures of productivity have taken precedence over human contact and proper SERVICE. The hidden costs are not calculated.

The time has come for a rethink and a revolution. Force the people who design and buy these systems to spend a day each month calling their own inbound lines with specific example “missions” and see how quickly they see things in a different way. Meanwhile – find me on Twitter at @clarefly – I’m not always ranting!

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