Over the years I have read, written and otherwise published any number of stories and viewpoints tracking the evolution, success and failure of customer service strategies. From the early days of customer relationship management platforms to the present fixation on data integration and the 360-degree view, there has been no end to advances meant to garner the loyalty and expendable income of the all-important consumer.The automation continues unabated on the Internet and in other channels. I am pitched weekly with new solutions for interactive voice recognition (IVR), and more recently, for monitoring software that detects stress or picks up keywords that tip a customer rep or manager that a caller is unhappy or upset. To the extent that this works - and I am told it gets more accurate every day - monitoring dissatisfaction is really code for measuring expected failure. Though companies do measure successful resolution, it is usually against the cost of the service and often doesn't see the customers who give up and move on. With so much money on the table we approach the challenge with more automation that tries to read the customer's mind - and even think for them. That's awfully convenient when you think about it.

It's a simple question: How do businesses measure the tradeoff of costs and benefits between speedy resolution versus the lesser costs of amelioration (we're here, we care) and the temptations of marketing tie-ins? For all the CRM books that have been written, I have yet to find a simple expression of this ratio. Where service tickets are mounting up, the strategy seems to be more about containment than resolution.

From a customer's point of view, satisfaction isn't customer data integration, low average call time or a set of business rules. It's a one-time interaction with a company you've spent or plan to spend money with. It is a singular moment to fix a problem and build a relationship with someone who isn't wondering whether he or she is low value or high.

Here's my true example. My home office printer/fax/copier recently conked out, its display and internal software fried by an electrical storm. There could never be a good time for this to happen, but I was especially consternated to think about deadlines I was going to miss. The machine was pretty new, my second from a huge brand name manufacturer (whose name I won't mention since circumstances didn't allow me to speak to their front office). Somewhat frazzled, I looked the manufacturer up and sent an email, product and serial number to their service department. Within an hour I received a reply with a suggested way to reset the software along with a phone number in case it remained broken. The fix didn't work, I replied, and another email arrived in minutes suggesting one more fix that also did not work. Without being asked, I found the receipt for the machine, went next door, scanned it and emailed it to the same contact center asking for a replacement. An hour later I received a reply that a new unit was on the way and it was at my door within 48 hours - along with return postage in case I wanted them to dispose of the dead printer.

I never spoke to an individual at that company and was never asked for a bit of personal information I didn't offer. I never registered the unit and wasn't in their database. I never heard from the manufacturer again, but I did feel inclined to write and thank them for their service. They don't know that I might be an influencer of buying with my peers and within my company. They don't know they made a lifetime customer because of how they handled my problem.

Measured by today's standards of customer relationship management, you could say this was a huge failure for that manufacturer. If I couldn't be measured, how could I be managed? Granted, a printer is different to service than is a portfolio of financial services, but overall customer satisfaction is - or ought to be - the ultimate arbiter in either case. Measured by my personal metric, I am going to send that company more business and the influence I have that they don't know about will work for them in the future.

Asaf Zentler and Neet Shah of management consultancy FischerJordan believe large companies are doing a better job at service - especially for big-ticket items - than in the past. The pair recently authored a paper though that warned of the pitfalls of missing the consequences of poor service and the customers that abandon a business for just that reason. Zentler was not surprised that my own experience did not include a follow-up survey and says poor service detection is a real problem. "In reality businesses probably survey 2 to 3 percent of all customers who reach customer service and there's no way they are going to know what happened to every customer."

But we have seen several documentations of the lingering poor state of call centers. Zentler says it's hard to give the appropriate incentives to reps to escalate problems. "Probably half of the complaints are about the rep and not about the company, so finding the right incentives is pretty hard and this is what is causing them to turn to automation."

At the same time, some businesses are de-automating the process by trying to attract more skills to a traditional poor-paying position. FischerJordan has also released papers on the rise of home-based service reps, people who commonly have greater qualifications and are attracted by the virtual and geographic flexibility of the job. Until Shah told me, I wasn't aware that Jet Blue has no call centers, but rather does all of their reservation work using home-based agents. "There are challenges to security, people have access to sensitive data and you can't control if their kid or dog comes in and starts making noise, but net/net service levels do go up."

If customer service is a competitive differentiator, then service levels will have to be at the top of the list when it comes to contact strategies. Ask yourself, is it better to have a very happy customer like me, or is it better to have a lot of data on a customer like me? The answer is probably both, but not to the degree that automation, poor processes, and obsessive data collection leave a customer with a problem abandoned.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Information Management content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access