Last week I gave a talk on innovation at the Gartner conference in Chicago.
During the question and answer period, one of the audience members asked me if I thought customer service was heading downhill. It seemed to the questioner that all around him were examples of deteriorating customer service, and he wanted to know my opinion.
This is an excellent question, and I’ll wager that many of you out there would agree with this gentleman: customer service does seem to be declining in quality. After all, when was the last time you dialled some company’s customer service toll-free line and actually got to speak with a human being without jumping through a bunch of interactive voice response prompts first? And when the system first answered your phone call it probably asked you to key in your account number, but if you held on to talk to a live person, what was the very first question you were asked? Right. They wanted to know your account number again, correct?
Well, in answering this question I said it was my opinion that customer service has not, repeat not actually deteriorated in the last few years as much as we might think. In fact, it may actually have improved somewhat. Our expectations as customers, however, have advanced even more quickly. That is, every time you go to a Web site with great online service, your expectations of other Web sites increases. Every time any company treats you to great service on account of, say, the volume of business you’ve been doing with that firm, you expect other companies with which you do a large business to recognize you, also.
Everyone now is much more attuned to what decent customer service looks like. We are therefore, as consumers, much less forgiving of the slow or incompetent service person, the rigid and unfriendly company policy, or the corporate computer system that just doesn’t connect all the dots. It’s analogous to why we all think we have so little time today, when the truth of the matter is we each have way more time to do what we want than our parents or grandparents ever had. But there are now so many choices of things to do, it just seems like we have less time.
The higher-expectations theory of customer service is supported, also, by the fact that marketers and sales people, as a race, tend to be optimistic, and are often guilty of over-promising. I don’t think it’s any secret that most sales-and-marketing types are prone to hype – or, should I say, they are more prone to hype than IT people, engineers, or accountants are prone to hype. So customer expectations have been inflated not just by their experiences at a smattering of great service firms, but also by the tendency of marketers to suggest greater benefits than can actually be delivered.
This, of course, is only my theory. There is an alternative explanation for why we all seem to think that service has deteriorated. It is certainly possible that service actually has deteriorated. For real. Too many costs have been cut out of two many company offerings. Competitive pressure has focused on cost control rather than on value added. Whatever.
I’d really be interested to know what you think. Do you believe that customer service has really deteriorated in the last few years, or does it only seem that way? If you think service has actually regressed, can you give us any concrete examples?