When you really needed customer service, there wasn’t any
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When you really needed customer service, there wasn’t any

Customer service is in trouble: when you really needed it, you probably got “a labyrinth of FAQ’s, message boxes and if you are lucky, a mail address. Sometimes you’d be entangled in a myriad of voice response sequences. Never a real-life person.” When companies could have proven they cared about their customers, they didn't.

Ever tried to reach out to your hotel booker lately or wanted to reroute a travel scheme? In normal times this might create some hassle, in COVID-19 times it’s a disaster. Getting a sensible person on the line was nearly impossible. And if your local language is a bit exotic, like my language Dutch, it might have taken you days. Multiple mails, in-app messages and calls were necessary to sort things out. Either with or without a voucher.

For many industries hit by COVID-19 like travel, leisure and entertainment the state of customer service was very poor in 2020. Okay, everybody understood the spikes and I am not even talking about the immediate early surge from March till April, when things were getting astray. No, still now, in August and September customer service of most providers and platforms hit was appalling. So, what really happened?

The whole idea on which consumers have been relying on the past few decades was the trade off: "I am offering you my money and you should treat me accordingly". Marketeers on the other hand, knew it costs a hell of lot more to attract new customers than to keep satisfied ones. Customers even relied on the idea that they were “special”, because of their loyalty. Enter the RFM bible, welcome in the church of “customer centricity”.

When COVID-19 hit back in March, Tethr (an AI based conversation intelligence platform) ventured in a study on the state of customer service and it seemed that it is one of the hardest-hit departments in the organisation. The analysis is troubling. The study found out that the spikes in volumes were just one part of the problem. A big contributor was the absence of infra structure for agents working at home. I would have really thought that this would be history by now, the era of most interfaces being web-based. And I’ve been reading for years now on block chain technology and what it could add to customer service. Alas.

It’s not that nobody had seen this coming. Companies could have invested in great and outstanding customer service during the last 10 years. We’ve been through Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption disturbing air travel back in 2010. Earlier in 2001 9/11 could have been a wakeup call; key business processes could come to a complete stand still. So why not prepare?

My personal experiences certainly underpin this. A few weeks ago, I was trying to change a travel itinerary. I had an agent on the line, clearly doing his call from a remote place. I could hear kids playing and dogs barking, not the usual call center rumble. In the conversation I had with him he certainly didn’t follow the standard script. Just the other week I had a very weak connection calling with an agent on another issue. The call, which could have been finished in couple of minutes took almost half an hour, clearly from a very remote place. Other experiences concerned complex voucher mails from a leading international airline, which apparently came straight out of an old DOS computer. Or a booking agent, initially keen to book my hotel rooms, now answering: “you need to sort this out yourself, directly with the hotel”.

It really gave me the impression that in normal times all the platforms were okay to service me. But when I really needed them, they just weren't there.

Another study found that the larger a company is, the less it cares about customer service. For decades large scale businesses have been cost cutting customer service by outsourcing to low cost countries. Getting a person on the line is quite impossible for most of us. As you’ve probably experienced yourself, there is a labyrinth of FAQ’s, message boxes and if you are lucky, a mail address. Sometimes you'd be entangled in a myriad of voice response sequences. Never a real-life person.

Harvard Business Review concludes that there three tactics which every customer centric organisation should follow:

  1. Try to give agents and reps more responsibility, so that they don’t need to hide behind “company policy” and that they need less redirects to more senior people (“please hold the line, while I’ll need to check out some things”).
  2. Integrated coaching of service reps improves team performance and it can even be done virtually, using video conferencing. This proves to be far more effective than old school directive coaching at the beginning of a shift.
  3. Increase the use of collaboration tools between reps. They know far better than management what works or not.

But this all relies on the concept that organisations would manage customer service with agents, with persons…..

I am not so sure about the future, when people want to book a hotel or a flight again. They might remember the inaccessibility and unkindness of the platforms. They would probably consider new alternatives. So much for churn. Next time book direct?

My experience was based on interactions with Kiwi.com, Booking, Expedia, Flight Network etc