anon: (archaic or literary)
- in a short time; soon

50:50 vision

80:20 insight

Pleasant surprises that shouldn’t be

Customer Services Surprise

Typical Customer Services experience

Customer service has been through a revolution over the last ten or fifteen years. Much of this has been driven by our increasing reliance on the internet for everything from household utilities to entertainment. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been a quiet revolution.

Quiet revolutions are not unheard of. The huge and generally beneficial social and economic changes in 1960s Quebec are referred to as ‘The Quiet Revolution’. The Harvard Business Review carried an article in March 2014 about the quiet revolution in corporate boardrooms. And if you search Google for “quiet revolution in environmental awareness articles”, you’ll find over two million links. But customer service hasn’t been so fortunate.

One major change has been the introduction of call centres. Although many organisations have their own staff manning (or should I say peopling) call centres, this is something which is frequently outsourced to global corporations like Sykes. And with increasing globalisation, companies such as BT try to save money by locating their call centres overseas. Notice my use of the word ‘try’.

While these changes may make economic sense on a company balance sheet, do they make sense for the customer? Often the answer is ‘No’. And this ‘No’ translates into poor customer retention and reduced sales.

The first and most important problem with call centres is the people no longer know or work in the business – they are at least one step removed from the supply of goods or services. Companies attempt to bridge this shortfall of knowledge and experience with computers and help desk applications. Having used and supported several of these, I know just how difficult it is to run a system which can answer more than about 60% of the questions.

Add into this equation the difficulties of communication where the customer service staff have a different first language and speak it with an unfamiliar accent. Modern technology has bridged the physical gap so we can now speak to people on the other side of the world, but it can’t help me understand what someone in Indonesia or India is saying.

The net result? The customer service function itself isn’t delivering what the customer needs – a quick and effective route to resolving their problem.

The final problem I’d like to highlight here is the reduced effectiveness of call centres from the customers’ point of view. Call centre staff have targets, such as how quickly calls are answered, how long it takes to ‘resolve’ a problem, and how often problems are not resolved at the first call. Staff are motivated (and paid) to perform well against their targets, rather than how happy the callers are with the outcome. We’ve all had occasions where the call centre sign the problem off as ‘resolved’ when we are still not satisfied with the outcome.

So, when we speak to or email a ‘customer service’ person and get a quick and helpful response which sorts out whatever the problem was, then it’s a pleasant and all too infrequent surprise. But it shouldn’t be either infrequent or a surprise.

Individually we won’t be able to convince the large organisations to change their practices. Together, if enough people vote with their feet, things will change. Watch out for the figures produced by the various industry regulators which show which companies get the most complaints, and choose your supplier accordingly.

You can, of course, change you own buying habits to give yourself a less stressful life. Smaller companies will often provide you with a better service, not least because they have to try harder when competing against the big corporations. Their support staff are also much closer to the operation of the business.

If you find a company with excellent service, stay with them even if they are a little more expensive – you get what you pay for. And when you find a company with excellent customer service, share your experiences on social media – it rewards them for being a good company, and helps the rest of us to find better customer service.

On that note, here are a few recommendations for great customer service:

Internet provider:
Gas provider:
Stationary provider:
Laser & inkjet printers & supplies:
Website hosting:

Quebec’s ‘Quiet Revolution’:
Harvard Business Review article: