Is this the real life,
is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality.
I don’t think that there’s a day that goes by in which my email inbox isn’t graced by the arrival of a dozen or so emails touting some new tool, technique or solution that promises to take the contact center to the pinnacle of the optimal customer experience. Invitations to download papers that promise to deliver the heretofore unknown three key ways to improve the customer experience. Invitations to webinars that will transform customers into lifelong loyalists. Want to know how artificial intelligence (AI) and speech analytics will change your customers’ lives forever? I’ll forward the emails to you.
Collectively, these emails and other fantastical tales would have you believe that customer service today is nothing short of a well-oiled machine, fueled by the latest technology and inspired by the minds of the brightest of industry pundits who take pride in their leading-edge pontifications and speculations. With AI-powered everything, customers should expect service today to be as easy as a walk in the park.
But then, there’s that thing called reality.
I recently had a customer service experience that was a stark reminder of the difference between real life and fantasy. This was with a very big company with revenues nearing $100 billion so one would naturally assume this big company would have a state-of-the-art customer service function at the very least.
Without going into a lot of detail, this is a company that I buy a lot of things from—everything from vitamins to blue jeans to computers. I’m what you would call a good, loyal customer. In this case, I did purchase a laptop computer from unnamed Big Company to the tune of about $900. When it arrived a couple of days later, they had sent me the wrong one, so I contacted them immediately, chatted with an agent who sent me a return label and assured me the computer I wanted was in stock and it would be sent right away.
The replacement computer was on the way to me as fast as the one I was returning was delivered to the UPS store. The new computer arrived, and it was the wrong one again! So, I went on Big Company website and downloaded a return label, with the reason for the return being “Wrong Item Sent.” This time a return label for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) was delivered via email so I packaged the laptop that I didn’t order and didn’t want back up and sent it off back to Big Company.
Then, as these perfect storm things go, the Post Office lost the laptop in transit. After two weeks, it had not been delivered to Big Company so I contacted them to let them know and to let them know of my concern that even if it was found, it would likely be past the 30-day window for returns. I was told not to worry about it and that it would be taken care of once the Post Office resolved the missing package issue.
One thing I’ve learned as a consumer is if there is a webchat option for customer service, always take it. The reason is, there is a record of the service conversation in the form of a transcript of the chat. History has taught me that’s a good thing to have.
Going through my business charges on my credit card a couple of weeks after the chat, I discovered a credit of $730 on the statement. It was from Big Company so once again, I contacted them via chat and asked what it was for. I was told it was for the computer return minus a restocking fee of $170 because it was returned outside of the 30-day return period.
Before we rush headlong into the adoption of AI in customer service, we might want to revisit the idea of using just plain common sense.
At this point, I was waiting for the AI or maybe some magical digital transformation stuff to kick in that would let this agent know that I’m a good, long-time customer and that a previous chat had already covered the return issue, and that I had reported the loss within two weeks of the box being mailed. You know, all the miraculous customer service stuff we read about every day.
All I got instead was scripted responses:
“Once an item is past the return window it does charge a restocking fee that we cannot waive.”
“I do apologize it does say returned 21st of February. This is a restocking fee that we cannot waive.”
“This is a restocking fee that comes with the item when it is returned. I am very sorry that this is not the response you were hoping for.”
“I do apologize for the inconvenience. I understand that you received the incorrect item. However, when you reached out to inform us of this it was past the return window.”
I offered to send her a copy of the transcript of the chat I had with her colleague at Big Company a month before but got no response. Finally, I suggested to her that since Big Company had sent me the wrong item in the first place, Big Company should be paying the restocking fee, not me. At that suggestion, she said she’d have to fill out a different form, send it to another group and they would “reach out” to me via email within 13 business days.
What was that I was saying about agent empowerment?
The whole issue was eventually resolved after I took to Twitter and started my brief rants about Big Company’s customer service. After receiving several replies to my tweets directing me to standard pages that I’d already been to on the Big Company website, I finally found someone who would take ownership of the problem and solve it.
Since that time, I’ve given a lot of thought to the issue of the chasm between the pundit world of customer service and the practitioner world of customer service, and I just couldn’t make sense of it, so I did some reaching out of my own to someone whose opinions I value and respect.
Mike Aoki is President of Reflective Keynotes (www.reflectivekeynotes.com), a sales and customer service training company in Toronto, Canada, that specializes in the contact center industry. I asked Mike what he thought of the chasm between the pundits and the practitioners.
“I am not surprised by the gap between customer experience ideals espoused by consultants and the reality customers face on a day-to-day basis,” Aoki told me. “Consultants talk about the ideal while operations leaders deal with limited budgets and staff bandwidth. So, what is obvious to consultants—and customers—may be lower on the list of priorities for a beleaguered contact center leader. In addition, some organizations choose not to invest in the latest contact center technology. So, operations leaders are stuck between what their customers want and what their C-suite will provide.
“There is also a problem when companies respond faster/better to social media escalations than they do to one-on-one phone calls,” Aoki continued. “That may indicate they care more about being publicly embarrassed than they do about poor one-on-one customer service. On the other hand, the most likely cause is social media agents in most companies tend to be more senior customer service people. They are also typically empowered with greater discretion to make exceptions to avoid a complaint going viral.”
As my personal customer service saga (this time) draws to a close, I wonder how far customer service has really come from the days of the plain old call center. As I look in my inbox at today’s collection of emails promoting everything from seamless connectivity to data-driven interactions to personalizing the customer journey, I wonder how much of this is really resonating with the customer service practitioners. If I may offer a suggestion; before we rush headlong into the adoption of AI in customer service, we might want to revisit the idea of using just plain common sense.