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Customer Service in the New Millennium

  • June 01 2000, 1:00am EDT
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If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the family car driving across a small black rubber hose as you entered the local service station. They weren’t called gas stations back then, they were service stations. As you drove over the hose, you heard a ding as the front tires crossed, dong as the rear tires crossed. That was the sound that the mechanic heard as his customer rolled into the station. By the time you arrived at the pumps, the mechanic was right there. In our neighborhood it was Mr. Bakker. With a smile he’d ask, "What will it be?" The response was somewhere between $3 and $10. No one had the money to fill it up. While the gas was pumping, Mr. Bakker opened the hood to check the oil, water, battery and washed the windows; always timing it perfectly so that he was at the pump handle at the exact moment to click it off. Dad would hand him the money through the window, and Mr. Bakker would always say, "Thanks, and have a nice day." – and he meant it. During the great gas wars my mother collected sets of glasses and dishes from Mr. Bakker’s service station just for buying gas. If we rode our bike up the hill to the station, Mr. Bakker would lend us a tire gauge so we could get the right amount of free air in our tires. He'd usually warn us not to over fill the tires because they might explode.

I’m not really being nostalgic. I just wanted to get the point across that from the time the first Model T rolled off the assembly line until the late 1970s, that was the bar for service.

Today, we want to pull up to a self-service pump under a well-lit, heated canopy, swipe our debit card though the payment module on the gas pump and fill ‘er up ourselves. If the car is dirty, we’ll choose the wash option, have a numbered receipt print out and drive around to the car wash after we fill it up. The less people we have to deal with the better. We’re all in a hurry, and we don’t want to shove money though a hole in a Plexiglas window to a surly attendant who squawks at us over a scratchy intercom in a language we can’t understand. We can do it ourselves faster and better. That’s the new bar for customer service. I now avoid gas stations that don’t let me swipe my card.

Today’s consumers want it fast, easy and on their own terms. The gas station is a simple metaphor that is familiar to a lot of us. We’ve all seen the stations change from a Mr. Bakker’s service station to a gas station that wants to sell us tacos and Big Gulps.

The same changes are happening in every business today. The old Model T methods of providing customer service are no longer acceptable. In call centers the equivalent of the ding-dong is, "All operators are busy, please hold and your call will be answered in the order that it was received." The smiling voice that comes on the line, no matter how quickly, is not what customers want. They want the self-service station. They want a Web site or an IVR system that lets them fill up with the information they need quickly and easily without having to tell their story.

The Tower Group says 80 percent of all calls that come into call centers in financial institutions are for inquiry. Yet most call centers are using the Model T method – live people – forcing customers to interact with people. I’m not implying that interaction with people is a bad thing. After all, people are what makes our businesses run. The problems occur when other forces come into play such as trying to hire enough people, train them on the business and the systems, retain them in today’s market, and increase the number of customers and the levels of service at the same time. Those basic business problems, coupled with the changing expectations of the customer, are forcing call centers to rethink their basic approach.

Automation is the obvious path – offload the high percentage of calls that don’t require people to self- service Web sites and IVR systems. Let customers fill ‘er up themselves. If the answer is so obvious, then what’s the problem? The problem is the lack of easily accessible information. One of the reasons call centers utilize people is because only 17 percent of corporate information is readily available. The other 83 percent is people dependent. You need either highly trained people to navigate complex internal systems to get to the information that customers want, or you need highly trained programmers to build interfaces and transform the information into formats that lend themselves to customer self-service. The choke point is people. Can you afford to hire and train enough people to achieve your customer service goals? Can you do it as quickly as you'd like? Probably not.

In a day when customer service is the major differentiator of a successful company, it’s increasingly important to open the other 83 percent to the automated systems and significantly increase your service levels. The best way to do this is with a new technology called an e- data engine. E-data engines eliminate people dependency by allowing you to leapfrog the traditional technologies that require people and programmers, not to mention the time and money involved. An e-data engine quickly transforms all your corporate data into e-data – data that is readily available to virtually any application. It puts you in control of your information. An e-data engine does this without programmers, without new databases and without new hardware. Unlike traditional solutions with long implementation times, e-data solutions are implemented in a fraction of the time with a lot fewer resources. Translation: ROI at e-speed.

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