If brands don’t serve us, we’ll just help ourselves

Brands’ promises of ‘customer service’ often mean ‘anonymous call centres’. This isn’t acceptable, says Robert Dwek – when we interact, we’re individuals

We are moving ever further into an era of self-service and away from good old-fashioned customer service. The move is driven by technology, and when it works it is a wonder to behold. But technology is also raising the competitive stakes, which leads to cost-cutting in human terms. Customer-facing staff tend either to be insufficiently trained or to be done away with altogether. Things are polarising, and companies must be more aware of this.

An example of self-service culture: I now have four bank accounts, where until recently I had only one. No, I haven’t just won the lottery; I’m a regular Joe in this respect. I made my anti-Apartheid stand as a student in the Eighties and switched from Barclays to Lloyds (pre-TSB), where I have remained faithfully (ish) ever since. All the while, I was benefiting from periodic upgrades until finally I was granted top-tier status.

One of the main perks – perhaps the most important – was the promise of my own personal bank manager, permanently on hand to make all my banking wishes come true. In fact, this was the same manager who had attended to my needs over the previous few years without being packaged as anything special. Where previously she had been just a friendly, familiar voice at the end of the line, she was now reinvented as a piece of added value.

In reality, soon after this status change, I found myself being automatically forwarded to a call centre, and subjected to tedious script-reading interlocutors. They all began by issuing a word-perfect apology for the absence of my personal manager but then proceeded to treat me as an unknown quantity. This meant, for instance, issuing all the now-standard demands for passwords and other identifying paraphernalia.

I may not be the world’s most patient soul, but this kind of thing suits me about as much as Chinese water torture. What can possibly be added-value about it? Which is why I found myself more carefully scrutinising the bundled goodies provided me by Lloyds TSB.

It has been a protracted process, but I have now unbundled my Lloyds TSB account and reduced it to a shadow of its former glory, keeping just enough in it to benefit from certain goodies such as free travel insurance and AA membership.

Now, however, I use an internet-only account (Cahoot) as my main one, thanks to its ease of use and high interest rates; an internet-accessed account (Nationwide FlexAccount) for its competition-beating low charges on foreign currency transactions; and yet another account (Citibank) for its unique ability to hold foreign currencies long-term. That too is accessed solely via the Web.

So my behaviour is a variant on the old adage about our being more likely to get divorced than to switch bank. I have decided not to divorce my original bank (not yet, at least), just to become, as it were, polygamous. I should add that Lloyds TSB is a particularly good bank to access online, so I have no complaints there.

My point is that self-service is becoming so much more preferable to self-serving corporate rhetoric. It is no longer enough for companies to offer a thin veneer of VIP service but then fail miserably to put this into action.

British Airways is another classic example of the chasm between rhetoric and reality. Beset by problems, BA has been aggressive in using the Web as a primary interface with its customers. That is a worthy and logical thing to do. What is unacceptable, however, is then to treat all customers as equals, in a lowest-common-denominator way. Anecdotal evidence from a number of frustrated long-term business travellers suggests this is the case.

In order for a customer to feel like a VIP, there must be an X-factor: a magic ingredient to elicit a warm glow and prompt thoughts such as: “This company really appreciates my custom, remembers my past dealings with it and, basically, knows me.” How many companies today, excluding those that cater to the super-rich, can claim to inspire such feelings? A rapidly decreasing number, I’d wager.

The UK’s call centre culture quickly became a victim of its own success, with quantity taking precedence over quality. Now that much of this activity has been outsourced yet again – mainly to India – the potential for customers to feel alienated and under-appreciated is even greater. The answer, of course, is blindingly obvious: customers want simplicity. And the more valued they are supposed to be, the more simplicity they want. The most pertinent analogy for the 21st-century VIP consumer is the 19th-century gentleman with his trusty valet, or the lady with her maid. A horribly iniquitous situation, of course; but these faithful servants knew almost instinctively what their master and mistress wanted.

We hope this new century’s technology will take us “back to the future”, but in the meantime, too many companies are floundering in a limbo between yesterday’s customer service and today’s self-service. Whether you use a human or non-human interface, make sure you do it with excellence and passion. And above all, keep it simple.

dwek@journalist.co.uk

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