Is Technology Killing Customer Service?

Reply Sun 20 Feb, 2022 11:01 am
Is Technology Killing Customer Service?

Dana Brownlee -December 1, 2016

Recently, I was shopping online late at night buying some clothes for my kids and a discount advertised on their website wasn’t being applied to my order for some reason. Fortunately (or so I thought) a live chat prompt popped up, so even though I’d never used live chat before, I decided to try it. I typed out my question and waited, waited, and waited for a response. It seemed to take a lot of back and forth to explain the issue and eventually, the live chat rep told me they weren’t able to answer my specific question and advised me to call customer service. I couldn’t help but think – This was a complete waste of time. I’m back to square 1.”

The experience also made me reflect on a few other technology frustrations – IVR systems with poor voice recognition causing me to repeat information multiple times, complicated phone trees that often don’t get me to the right department, receiving canned email responses to customer service questions that don’t address the question asked, being asked to input my account number (sometimes more than once) only to be asked to repeat said information when the agent picks up the call, etc. Most will agree that technology is great, but it’s not necessarily a panacea and can sometimes even make situations worse.

I can’t help but start to think that that may be the case when it comes to customer service. I’m sure technology brings many operational efficiencies and cost savings that companies are eager to realize, but from the customer’s perspective, has it really helped or hurt the overall customer service experience?

Particularly intrigued by the area of customer service both personally and as a corporate trainer, I decided to launch my own informal — non industry funded, non scientific, non company specific — survey. Very simply my goal was to develop a simple straightforward survey targeted to real customers (not paid respondents) to find out What Customers Really Want!!! (See the 2016 Professionalism Matters What Customers Really Want Survey for additional detail.) The findings in many ways confirmed my hypothesis that in many ways the extensive, systemic implementation of technology in the customer service realm has had a deleterious impact on the overall customer service experience:

The survey results clearly revealed that most customers (49%) prefer phone to other communication options (e.g. text/chat, email, face to face). Text/IM came in a distant second at only 19%. While it seems that many companies are rapidly moving towards technology alternatives to traditional customer service by phone, customers seem to prefer discussing their customer service issues by phone to a live agent.

This doesn’t mean that alternate communication options are bad – just the opposite – ideally companies would provide multiple communication options to suit a wide range of customer preferences and/or customer service situations. However, eliminating or significantly minimizing phone options and replacing those with email/text/social media options exclusively will likely only frustrate customers and make the resolution process more difficult and protracted in many cases.

When survey respondents were asked to share their customer service frustrations, they complained vociferously about phone trees/phone automation systems. In short, THEY HATE THEM! How many comedy skits have been written about those pull your hair out phone trees with the monotone voice saying “Please press 1 for service… I’m sorry I didn’t understand that, please repeat your address…” In order to get you to the right representative, I need to understand a bit more about your problem. Press 1 for billing…”?

My sense is that most customers understand that some automation (maybe 1 or 2 questions) might be a necessary evil for some companies, but anything beyond that begins to feel infuriating. What’s more infuriating is that so often after you spend so much time answering the automated questions, the representative just asks you to provide the same information once they take the call. Why doesn’t the “technology” provide them that information on their screen once they’re assigned the call?

Many companies have moved toward social media, email etc. as the preferred alternative for customers to submit customer service concerns, but customer service issues inherently are often fairly complicated and require quite a bit of back and forth to be fully understood and resolved. While these more technically advanced options might seem like a better option, they oftentimes don’t provide a better customer service experience and instead can make the communication much more difficult and protracted, not to mention sterile and impersonal.

Admittedly, technology may increase efficiency, but it doesn’t necessarily improve effectiveness. While companies look for ways to reduce costs and gain process efficiencies, they shouldn’t do so at the expense of the overall customer service experience and ultimate customer satisfaction. Companies must realize that customers are individuals, with varying appetite/tolerance for technology.

To draw a parallel from the banking industry — while ATMs were introduced decades ago, many customers still prefer to walk into their neighborhood bank teller to make deposits (and exchange pleasantries). And while ATMs are great for simple transactions where there are no questions involved, I can’t imagine trying to troubleshoot a banking problem via ATM. Similarly, at the airport I am fine using the kiosk to print my boarding pass, but as soon as there is an issue or concern, I want to speak to a live agent!

Indeed, even customers like me who prefer email or social media for other types of communication, may not gravitate to those forms of communication to discuss complicated and sometimes emotionally charged customer service issues. In so many ways it seems the customer service community is radically shifting towards technology while customers are clearly screaming for personalized interaction. My guess is that the most successful companies will be the ones who listen.

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Reply Sun 20 Feb, 2022 01:01 pm
@Real Music,
I imagine a lot of the problem is unrealistic KPIs (key performance indicators)/understaffing.

Let's say a customer service rep works 8 hours per day on the clock (we're not counting lunch). That's 480 minutes. But let's say they're also required to complete 240 calls per day.

At that rate, they have 2 minutes per customer unless they stay late. If the company won't pay time and a half for overtime, or maybe won't pay for overtime at all, how do they get their work done? They meet the KPI by giving everyone the bum's rush.

And the only thing the company does for them is bring in AI. The idea, in theory, is that the AI will allow the CSRs (or maybe their supervisor) to better triage calls. Hence the customer gets a person who has the knowledge. And if it's a simple question, they get someone who's junior, even though the senior person could also answer that. This is because the senior person is busy putting out fires and doing other advanced stuff.

If we move the KPI down to 160 calls/day, then they get 3 minutes per customer. 120 calls? 4 minutes. 96 calls? 5 minutes.

And so on, you can run a calculator as well as I can.

None of these are a lot of time, particularly if a customer is chatty or the problem is truly complex. A call that takes 15 minutes to complete will mean somewhere between 3 and 8 people (per the above numbers) will get less than the allotted time so the CSR can go home on time.

Of course the remedies are either to hire more CSRs or lower the KPIs. Another remedy is to make the website better. If I'm calling (by calling I mean communicating with a chatbot), say, a movie theater, I want to know what's playing when. I probably also want to know if it's sold out, what the rating is, and why the film got the rating it did. I might also want to know the names of the stars and even see a short synopsis of the plot or a review. If I can buy tickets on that same screen, then it's perfect.

If the website can provide me with all that information, and it can do so in a way that is easy to get to, then I never need to call the theater. I would only call in case of something really off the wall, like someone is trashing the place, or the projectionist quit in the middle of the film, etc. None of that stuff can be handled via AI anyway.


What if I'm blind? Or elderly? Or I'm otherwise not very computer savvy? Or English isn't my first language, and the website isn't translating well? Or I don't have internet access? Or I don't have a credit card or PayPal (or the like, such as Venmo) where I can pay online? Or I prefer paying cash? If that's the case, then the website probably can't help me or I won't be able to understand how to use it. Right now, this percentage of the population is shrinking, but they're never going to be completely gone.

For those folks, AI can only go so far. And most of those are going to be problems which junior people will pass up the chain, because they're not straightforward.

What I suspect is coming is a real housecleaning of junior people. If AI gets better (as in, it fulfills its promise of better triaging), then 1 junior person might be able to do the work of 5. And if the system triages well enough to hand over the hard stuff directly to the senior person, then the junior person has one less longer call to take.

But KPIs also have to be realistic for the senior people. If the only calls that go through to a human are the hard ones, then they are going to have to get 10-15 minutes or more for every single call, so they can look things up or talk people off the ledge.

It would mean far fewer CSR jobs although better training for CSRs. And in a way, it's a shame, as junior CSR is one of the few semi-skilled jobs you can 100% do from home.
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Reply Mon 21 Feb, 2022 08:30 am
@Real Music,
I cannot stand the robo call customer service where you call and they ask you a series of questions where you press numbers or even saying what your issue is. In most cases I call because the issue is complicated and can not be answered by a simple press 1 or 2. I end up screaming into the phone customer service rep or Human being over and over so by the time I get a poor sap on the phone I am already irate as it has taken me 10 or more minutes for robot voice to tell me they cannot resolve it and I need a customer service rep.......sorry Barry ...not the reps fault

I have found more recently though once I receive a rep they are very patient and helpful ...maybe I have just been lucky or maybe the reps are better trained or maybe I have learned to take a breath and not take out my irritation on them.

I do find, in most cases, the online chat helpful...the one you get a person on and not the one where you get a robot answering ... I sometimes find it more helpful because there are so many customer service reps with heavy accents this takes away the issue of asking them to repeat what they are saying ... Either way...due to the different accents...to be honest it takes more work on my side to listen much more closely when speaking with a rep with a heavy accent...laziness on my part. I find the chat a bit more clearer for me so in this situation the technology helps.
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