Technology is No Substitute for Customer Love

By David Strom

My cable modem went down one morning last week. So I went to pick up the phone to call my provider (the lovely Charter Communications, kept afloat by Paul Allen’s largesse), and then realized the sad fact that since I have an IP Vonage phone, I wasn’t going to be making any calls. On to my cell, and the customer service number was busy. Busy! I guess this means I am not the only one without Internet service. Or else a lot of people aren’t getting TV service, either. Luckily, I was back in business in about an hour.


Skype’s customer service didn’t fare any better last week either. Seems like it was the target of a phish attack, and because so many people clicked on the bogus links– or because the attackers used bogus email addresses, its email system crashed. And how do you think you get a hold of Skype customer service? By email, of course! Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just, I don’t know, CALL them on the PHONE and talk to a real person?

Both of these episodes point out that you need multiple communications paths for your customer service department, if you want to have adequate customer service. You can’t just have an 800 number, if anyone can actually get through to it and not wait forever and a day on hold. You can’t just have email, if anyone’s job is to actually to answer it within a few hours of receipt. You need Instant Messaging connections, Web click-to-call, and what about those people who take the time to send you an actual postal letter, before they go postal on you? Yes, yes, and yes. Do it all.

It doesn’t take much, particularly in this era of reduced expectations, to rise above the mediocre level that most of us have experienced. Is this because of off-shoring? Because of corporate cut-backs? Because no one gives a hoot about their customers? All of the above! Plus, it is how we have come to think of the customer. My favorite anecdote: what does the telecom industry call their connection to the customer? The last mile. Hah! News flash: we are the first darn mile, and don’t forget it.


Sprint is finding this out first hand. Their new CEO, Dan Hesse, put his email address in the new ads, saying that Sprint will now actually listen to their customers, the few of them that haven’t yet switched to Verizon or AT&T. Yet, Dan (I feel like we should be on a first name basis) readily admits that he doesn’t actually have time to READ all these emails that he is supposedly getting – he gets a summarized (and presumably sanitized) update once a day. Once a day! I guess the world’s biggest all-fiber optic network that operates at the speed of light (or whatever their current marketing pitch is) doesn’t have to move that fast. Yes, Dan is making some progress, empowering all of his line managers to be more responsive to customers, as opposed to just pissing them off. But they still have a long way to go – a friend of mine, who has been a Sprint customer with five, count ‘em, five phones is about ready to bolt, because she can’t get a correct bill from them and has to call every month to fight the over charges. How many more times does she have to call before just being another one of their churn statistics?

It isn’t just the computer companies. For the last two months, I have been trying to get my health insurance provider, Anthem Blue Cross, to correct my birth date on my health policy. I have tried faxing. I have tried calling. I have tried begging my doctors to just change my real birth date to the one that Anthem has listed so I can get treatment and not go through the song and dance with their billing departments. I got someone to help me and they promised it will be fixed by next week. Yeah, I have heard this tune before.


As I have said in the past, those companies that don’t provide decent customer service won’t have their customers much longer. If you are in charge of your department, think about ways that you touch your customers and make a pledge to do something small to improve what you do, and that you will provide some incentives to your crew so that they actually follow through with it. Sometimes, all it takes is for the customer service rep to listen to the complaint, apologize, and make some small token of appeasement


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