The attempt to automate systems is fraught with other land mines. Although some self-service systems (such as airport kiosks and automated parking attendants) have changed customer service for the better, others (such as hotel kiosks and retail self-checkout stations) have failed miserably. The reason? The process is too confusing, or there's no upside for customers with more than a few items in a cart, Chase says. If confusion ensues or bar codes don't scan correctly, checkout will take longer than full service.
Successful self-service systems, including Web-based offerings, make ordering or customer support into an entirely seamless experience. Consider Netflix, which consistently tops customer satisfaction ratings. Subscribers peruse descriptions of films, select movies they wish to view, arrange and rearrange them in a queue, and rate films they've watched. As the system tabulates feedback, it suggests other films that are likely to appeal to the subscriber. Netflix backs this up with the ability to click a box if there's a problem with a rental disk and automatically receive a replacement. It also offers phone support if the problem cannot be resolved online.
Other companies have garnered high marks by breaking the mold. Apple, for instance, sends out a replacement iPhone to customers who encounter a problem with a device under warranty. As long as the customer sends a broken phone back within 10 days, there's no charge to a credit card.
Online retailer Orvis simply sends out a replacement if a guaranteed item is damaged or fails. There's no need to return the original item. If a customer abuses the policy, it's possible to flag the account.
What pains many organizations, Clemons says, is that they apply a general template to all customers or penalize 99 percent of their customer base because of the bad behavior of 1 percent. "Today, companies have sophisticated CRM and analytics tools at their disposal," he says. "There's no excuse for not understanding what's taking place."
Stepping out of the morass is no simple task. Andy Fromm, CEO of Service Management Group, which measures customer satisfaction levels, says that one of the biggest problems for organizations is the inability to differentiate their business and charge enough of a premium for a product or service to provide superior customer service.
Making matters worse, many companies believe that loyalty programs boost customer satisfaction. However, customers are frequently unable to differentiate between programs and, as a result, they become just another form of currency, Fromm says. "They provide a discount because points are easily converted to dollars. But you cannot buy loyalty," he says.
As things become more complex, some organizations are looking to adopt a simpler, more consolidated sales and support model for everything from booking hotel rooms to configuring products online. As Clemons points out: "Reducing options and price points creates less confusion and simplifies support."
Others, such as airlines, have turned to tiered support based on spending levels. Still others are attempting to refocus training, incentives and compensation to align with customer support and organizational goals.
Some CIOs are also re-evaluating outsourcing. Although it may slash costs and eliminate an IT headaches, farming out customer service frequently leads to customer defections. Clemons says language issues may play a role, but cultural factors also enter the equation: "A particular country may be a better fit--even if it isn't the least expensive option." Yet, even if support is outsourced to a U.S.-based firm, "the company might not project a company's values as effectively as a well-trained employee," he adds.
Frei says that when a company establishes the right set of metrics, puts sound technology and processes in place, manages customer and employee expectations honestly, and learns to confront the "physics" of business--that it's impossible to excel at everything and it's essential to decide where to focus resources--customer satisfaction typically spikes.
"There are always trade-offs," she says. "Recognizing this fact is the quickest path to service excellence."