BOSTON (06/05/2000) - Customer service is supposed to be your defense against the big, bad world, the thing that stops your company from becoming completely psychotic when flooded with questions that must be answered.
You provide warm bodies and/ or an Interactive Voice Response System in an attempt to defuse the incoming problems as quickly as you can while providing the best customer impression possible.
But what happens when customer service becomes bureaucratic and exists simply to allow the representatives to switch off their brains? The answer is chaos.
CompUSA Inc. is a fine example of how not to treat customers and, for that matter, a fine example of chaos. The customer service people are never available and never know anything about whatever it is you're looking for.
Now, following my column "The end of civilization as we know it," reader Steve Claydon wrote with the following observation:
"I know a number of really good, efficient, helpful people at several phone companies. But the further away from the street you go the dumber and less caring they get. That is until you get to the poor people at the customer service and order departments who either obviously don't care, don't get anything at all - ever - or can't trust a single other person to follow through on anything. It all translates to bad management. It's a signal given down the line to protect your own ass and not rock the boat, while 'business as usual' becomes the rules of engagement, not 'serve the customer.'
"Did you ever call Land's End catalog service? If not, try it. Somebody there really gets it. Everyone on the phone is trained carefully. No boiler room answering/order taking. Your order gets to you, and they know how to do e-mail, fax and phone updates on orders. You can track your product delivery - just like the rest of the modern real world that will be the survivors of retail.
There is a chain of command. People go to nice school. The customer is always suspected of being right. Can you imagine Pac Bell being like this? No more belligerence, no more missing orders, no more missed installs while you burn your precious time sitting there for a whole day, waiting for someone who never shows.
"Someone has to care. Someone has to know how to inspire people. You do that on one hand by not being a complete jerk to your employees, and on the other hand by rewarding people for getting on the case and staying there. Yes, yes, I know, the union, benefits, hiring problems, etc. . . . But it is not inherently the destiny of every corporation to *&^% it up so badly. It's a choice."
Thanks Steve, never was a truer word spoken: "It is not inherently the destiny of every corporation to *&^% it up so badly. It's a choice."
Now why is it we use computers and automation in customer service, girls and boys? Correct! It is to be more efficient, to provide a better customer experience, and not to be too blunt, to save lots of money. But every layer of automation, every inhuman process that drives a human being, erodes the perceived value of customer service to the end user and ultimately to the company.
The time has/will come for us all to consider how far our customer service is from reality. Want to find out how your customer service appears? Call it up yourself and see. You may be driven crazy by what you find.
Service requests to nwcolumn @gibbs.com.