Are Your Customers Being Served?

Jan. 1, 2001
Technology can be a wonderful thing, unless it puts a wall between you and your customer.

Are Your Customers Being Served?

Technology can be a wonderful thing. It can free people from all types of onerous tasks, enabling employees and customers to be "do-it-yourselfers," freeing their creativity to increase their contributions to the corporate bottom line.

But the wrong application of technology will be costly to your business. For example, some executives take technology’s do-it-yourself enabling a little too far. There are corporate functions that should not be done without people.

Customer service is one of those important functions. Unless, of course, those executives consider serving the customer insignificant. Working through the order entry process of several on-line Web sites recently, makes me wonder just what some executives do think.

Making it easier and faster to place an order does not really seem to be one of their concerns. I fail to see how spending a half-hour or more is better than taking two minutes on the phone with a real, live person. The same goes for finding help. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to contact a knowledgeable person.

Here’s a scenario close to home. Imagine your conveyor system suddenly shuts down in the middle of the Christmas fulfillment season. You contact your conveyor system vendor only to find the help desk is automated. For a few minutes you’ll go through the instructions that promise to connect you with a person soon. Imagine, though, how you would feel after waiting 45 minutes.

I’ve been there. The hunt for real life in customer service land is getting stranger and stranger. I love being told to leave a voice message and "someone will call me back as soon as the next available representative is free." Or to call back during business hours when I’m calling during business hours. Or to be told to leave an e-mail for prompt attention.

Yeah, right.

Despite all the e-commerce automation implementations, there are still far too many stories of people leaving Web sites in disgust.

Some sites have reinstalled the call centers they eliminated during their automation. Their problem, though, is that they are understaffed and help takes far too long to arrive. Technology is not so enthralling that customers will stick around. When they need help, they need it immediately.

So why do executives risk customer wrath with inadequate service? For the same reasons many were caught with their proverbial pants down last holiday season when their distribution systems failed to meet unforeseen demand: They’re ignorant, in that they don’t understand how to match technology to need. They don’t value customer service. Or, they’re cheap and consider the expenses of salaries and benefits something to eliminate from the bottom line.

Automating some parts of customer handling, just as automating material handling, can be a good idea. But so far, nothing is an adequate substitute for a knowledgeable, skilled employee who’s valued and rewarded for making and keeping the customer happy. It’s an indirect expense, not easily tracked or measured, but it’s a crucial one.

In the new economy, where both/and solutions handle many problems better than either/or solutions, it will take both automation and people to manage order taking as well as order fulfillment.

So if your company has automated its customer-service operations, what’s the on-line ordering process like? Are your customers truly being served? If not, it’s time to bring back the human touch, before another customer decides to go where service is better.

Leslie Langnau

senior technical editor

[email protected]

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