These days, the term "customer service" might well be considered an oxymoron. Consumers constantly grumble about the quality of service they receive, and businesses often stare down the barrel of poor customer satisfaction ratings.
Consulting firm Bain & Company has found that as many as 80 percent of senior managers believe their companies provide excellent service but only 8 percent of their customers agree. Eric Clemons, professor of operations at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, states the obvious: "There are a lot of failures and breakdowns out there."
Horror stories abound. Callers get trapped in seemingly endless Interactive Voice Response (IVR) loops; they can't find phone numbers at Web sites; no one responds to their e-mail messages; and, if they manage to get through to a representative, they cannot get the problem resolved promptly.
Why do so many organizations say the right things about customer service but fail miserably to follow through? What does it take to get business processes aligned and employees in sync? And how can an organization keep costs down but ratings up?
There are no simple solutions. "Technology has allowed organizations to do things faster, cheaper and in a more automated way," says Richard B. Chase, professor of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. "But this doesn't always lead to better results. In many cases what's lacking is value for the customer."
Adds Frances Frei, professor of service management at Harvard Business School: "Customers are frustrated and executives are frustrated. Senior management knows it could solve these problems with more money, but it cannot afford to raise prices."
Keeping customers satisfied is a daunting task for businesses and their CIOs. As a company introduces new products and services--along with greater customization--the opportunity to boost revenues grows.
However, there's a downside, says Clemons. A more complex and demanding support model--and one that involves multiple channels--unfolds. Putting IT systems and processes in place to support dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of scenarios is an enormous challenge. Training customer support staff and others can stretch already thin resources and budgets.
That's only part of the problem. Many businesses overhype products and services and create unrealistic customer expectations. When a consumer opens a package or subscribes to a service, marketing and reality collide. Frustrated buyers reach out after they're unable to use the product as they had envisioned. And, often, they take their frustrations out on call center reprentatives. These individuals not only have to provide assistance but must also manage buyers' expectations.
On the other hand, Clemons says that there's frequently a huge gap between what an organization strives for and what it actually practices in the customer support arena. Waiters, cashiers, salespeople and others may not fully understand a product or service, or they may lack the time and resources to provide the desired customer experience. Of course, grumpy, burned-out workers aren't ideal ambassadors.
The upshot? Razor-thin margins have pushed CIOs to automate systems and embrace self-service tools. Many businesses are also turning to Twitter and other social media to appease discontented customers who spread ill will globally at the speed of light.
Everyone gains when Internet-based support is done right. However, the risk of problems, conflicts and breakdowns rises exponentially as a firm steers customers away from real people who solve real problems.
The result is a paradox of customer service. A company may cut costs and hit customer satisfaction metrics yet fail miserably, Frei explains. That's because a set of metrics may offer an incomplete or incorrect picture. For example, a business might see a spike in the resolution rate on an IVR or Web-based system but not measure whether customers are dissatisfied with the experience.
Likewise, customer satisfaction surveys frequently create a skewed picture. Many companies use self-serving questions--or fail to address key issues--such as whether the resolution process was handled efficiently. So, while the rep may have performed admirably and received the highest rating, the caller may remain frustrated by the length of time or effort it took to reach a rep or because the incident wasn't resolved in a satisfactory way.