There was a time long ago when customer service was actually service. That is, there were offices where to public could walk in and talk with an actual live person who there in the same room. Of course this was long before the internet and cell phone service. There were no voice activated answering devices that kept customers at bay as if they were the Mongol hoards at the moat. If one wanted to engage telephone service or pay a water bill, one could go to one of the many service centers and do so. Some retailers often were contracted to take payments on behalf of a local utility company since this was a very convenient way of paying one’s bills. I remember that the local telephone company and electric and gas services usually had a customer service office in small towns and in the larger towns and cities one could find many centers placed for the convenience of the customer. It was considered good customer relations in a time when utility companies were looked upon with a certain amount of dissatisfaction. When you are a monopoly, legal or not, you tend to gather a certain adverse opinion of the public.
Now if one had billing problems or thought the billing was incorrect or unjust, one could go to the service center that handled your account and talk face to face with a representative and even a supervisor. True, you might have to wait in a line for the next available representative but unless you arrived five minutes before closing time you could conclude your business. The system worked very well and complaints were handled efficiently. Customers could pay their bills, get an extension of the payments when economic difficulties were incurred, and get some redress for their problems. Generally most individual customers were satisfied with their experiences. Good customer service was expected by the Public Utility Commissions are a results of granting physical monopolies. For retailers, the larger stores had specific areas in each store to deal with that part of customer service not offered at the cash register. My goodness, cash register is becoming an old fashioned term in this day of credit and debit cards. One of Walmart’s best moves was the reintroduction of buying on lay-away. That old fashioned idea that one did not need a credit card to make payments for a good, one simply took the idem one wanted to buy to the customer service center and signed an agreement to place a minimum amount of money down and make the number of payments needed to obtain ownership of that good. The good was stored in the store until the payments were complete. No need of a financing company or bill collector.
But as technology loves to tell us, it makes the good life possible. So technology found ways to queue calls to service lines and thus have a faceless staff of representatives answering those calls for service. That was all right since one could always travel to the service center or store front. But real employees are an expense that must have paid benefits and pensions. If a company could reduce that expense then its profits might stay on a level plane. Utilities were assured a certain percentage of profit on the services they provided. But this was not automatic for they had to prove that they were managing their business competently. Any wasteful spending and the shareholders ate that loss, the public would be protected. The invention of the answering machine, one that would receive a customer’s call and a recorded voice would deliver a message and take a short message boosted service to a certain effect. The person or office you called at least got your message and normally would reply to your question or request. Of course that technology was open to abuse. But then the answering machine was developed to the point where it could offer choices. First a general number instead of a number of specific numbers could funnel all the service calls to one or more machines. Then a choice of options was made available by pressing the push-button on your handset. One could not do that with a rotary dial telephone set. Thus the answering machine could direct your call to the right person or department for further handling. This is where the concept of exception handling came about. Rather than waste the time of a human employee who cost far more to keep busy, one could direct the service call to a category that would efficiently handle the request. If not, then stay on line for a human operator.
Then came the interactive voice recognition answering computers. Since cell phone service often interfered with the call direction service, that is, the digit pressed may not always be processed successfully. Having the customer activate a decision tree menu by repeating certain words and thus direct the inquiry or problem to another computer that could look up various records and action options meant that very few human employees were needed. This lowered the cost of doing business for the business providing service. But these systems must be designed and thoroughly tested. John Townsend who was head of Avis Rent-a-Car was an advocate of “calling yourself up”. That is, if you as the CEO, EVP, or any manager really wanted to know just how well your frontline employees were handling the business, then call and make your own reservations, go to the counter and do not reveal that you are one of the big-wigs. He said that the results would surprise you. Using the service yourself and having to go through all the interactions will tell you about the level of training and thus the level of service provided.
And now we have the web page that is suppose to make everything wonderful. That is until you have an exception to process. I find that very few web designers really test their creations thoroughly. I often wonder if when using another company’s webpage do they never encounter any problems? Back when service was face to face one could always speak to a supervisor and draw attention to the problem of an exception that was not foreseen. That would mean some instant training and correction since memos were circulated indicating the problems and solutions. But that is not an option in our internet age of service encounters. One of the precepts that I always heard in business, particularly retail business, is that one only hears about one out of ten complaints of dissatisfaction with the business, product, or service. That nine out of ten customers make the decision not to buy, use, or otherwise interact with your business and never inform you of that decision. Only one out of ten will tell you why they won’t do return business. I suspect that in this internet age that percentage is closer to one percent. And I suspect that it may come a lot closer to one thousandth percent in the future. For me, I dread using the internet for any problem resolutions, and I really detest the voice maze from hell I have to use by telephone service. My expectation is that your service, your exceptional handling will work competently. I worked as a telephone repairman for ten years and service was my most important concern. I worked long hours and in any kind of weather to insure that you, as the customer, had the best level of service possible. Even though you could not change service providers, your service was important to me, I took it personally. When was the last time a cable or satellite television service took that kind of interest in your service? When was the last time you received that kind of commitment from your cell phone provider? Lack of service, lack of customer care has become the standard for the developed world economies. Everyone talks about delighting the customer but few make it their business, literally.