Some things never really change. As far as I can tell people still like to be treated well. We all like it when people go out of their way to make our lives easier or try to make us feel better about ourselves. It's a very basic instinct, but some executives don't understand it. That's why there's so much lousy customer service around. Many businesses are so concerned about their own well-being they forget that without satisfied customers they won't be in business very long. I would almost characterize what is happening as a war. On one side are the "good guys" who are trying to make sure customers are coddled and all their problems are quickly solved. On the opposite side are the corporate number-crunchers who foolishly sacrifice quality customer service in an attempt to save a few bucks.
In the current issue of Communication Briefings, published by Alexandria, Va.-based Capitol Publications, there's a provocative article on customer service titled "Hanging Up on Voice Response," by Jack Gillespie, the publication's editor, and Joe McGavin, its managing editor. The information in the article should wake up a lot of people. For instance, according to studies by Brit Beemer, a consumer-behavior researcher and author of Predatory Marketing, the number of Americans who either dislike or hate voice mail has risen in the past five years to 40% from 20%. That's a significant change. Anyone in the business of satisfying customers should be alarmed.
According to a study of some 400 voice-response systems conducted by Enterprise Integration Group, a consulting firm in San Ramon, Calif., many consumers either dislike such systems or find them very frustrating. The firm's findings show lots of customers react negatively as soon as they hear an automated answering system. Many simply hang up. To me, the thought of a customer hanging up out of frustration is sickening.
Authors Gillespie and McGavin believe many organizations take a shortsighted, cost-cutting view when they adopt voice-mail systems. They see it as a way to either reduce staff or give workers more time to perform certain tasks management views as more important than answering customer calls. But what's more important than answering customer calls? Absolutely nothing! The authors suggest that before a company embraces voice mail, management should first determine how the technology will simplify and improve customer service. The organization also needs to know how customers will react to the new system.
The authors point out that some companies are in such a rush to take advantage of new technology they don't really examine the system they have in place to determine what should be automated. One simple solution would be to find out why customers call. What kind of information do they ask for? Is an automated system the right tool for the task? Another problem involves systems that use long messages, complex menus and options that don't really relate to callers' problems. They only make life more difficult for time-pressured customers. Add to this a frustratingly long wait to get in touch with a live person and you can understand why so many people hate voice mail.
Automated systems employed properly can be helpful to an organization. They can be quite effective when they're assigned simple tasks. But customer service shouldn't be one of them.
Charles S. Lauer