Are automated phonelines and self-service the tills the best we can do for customers?

Having been stood up for lunch by a media colleague, I have been musing on customer promises, and customers being let down by brands.

Secret Marketer

Back in the day, I can remember the rush towards new ways of doing things – allegedly on the basis of improved customer service, albeit the reality was often something different.

Let’s take centralisation. I started my life as a counter clerk in a high street bank. In those days, we had a ‘machine room’ upstairs where cheques were processed and out the back were the security and lending teams which made decisions on who to lend money to. Nowadays, that is all done in a central ‘factory’ somewhere. The customer spin is that it is a ‘centre of excellence’ made up of experts but the reality is that it has taken decision making away from the front-line into a credit scored, rule-driven environment.

Then there’s offshoring of call centres. In the 1990s, brands rushed to move their call centres to India or Poland. The customer argument was that it enabled brands to keep costs down; the reality was that language and cultural differences led to frustrated customers and brands repatriating operations.

Next came interactive voice response (IVR) – ‘press 1 for service, 2 for complaints or 3 for us to lose the call altogether’. Again, the argument was that it helped route the customer query to an expert to handle but in reality it led to customers going round in circles and hanging up in desperation.

In both cases, we’re seeing customer service champions, such as First Direct, making a virtue out of their UK call centres, and absence of IVR, which makes it so surprising to find grocery chains introducing automated check-outs. In theory, these machines allow you to be served quicker, but in reality the “please remove the item from the bagging area” and similar inane automated statements make it impossible to complete a transaction without human intervention.

As marketers, we should be treating customers as individuals, and with the technology that now exists, that shouldn’t be difficult.

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