"Absurd Customer Service" - Part 2, Suggestions

I am not one to balk when it comes to writing rants and leaving it at that. However, when publishing rants, I think it is worthwhile to also think about the problems and try to figure out whether there is some solution to the problems that one is ranting about. Often, there is no such solution. If an easy solution did exist, there would be no need to find catharsis through the process of writing a rant. In the case of the Absurd Customer Service problem though, there are some solutions. Some of these are practical and can be adopted in our daily lives. While others are absurd; for the absurdity of the solution must mirror the absurdity of the problem.

(This is the second post in a 2-part series about absurd customer service experiences. You can read the first part here.)

Customer Service Agents Are People. Empower Them To Make Decisions.

As an example of good service, I will cite Amazon. Okay, I know. Amazon is an example of how capitalism has gone terribly wrong because their treatment of warehouse workers is questionable and they are openly opposed to unions. But I will cite Amazon’s Customer Service anyway because there is an important aspect of customer service which has been bulldozed by technology.

When you contact Amazon’s customer care and explain your situation to the person on the other end of the phone line or the chat message, they are listening. This basic act of empathy and attention is rare, with customer service being staffed by poorly paid, unmotivated agents who are not being paid enough to care and are being forced to work inhumane hours. After listening to the situation that you have gotten yourself in, the customer service agent is able to make decisions. They can decide to issue a refund for your order. They can contact the seller and ask them to replace what you ordered. Their resolution depends on your situation, but all of this stems from the fact that they trust your version of events and the customer service experience is biased to be good for the customer and biased against the seller. (Sellers will definitely complain about this bias. If I were to become an Amazon seller, I would probably cite Amazon as an example of bad customer service.)

This organization-level trust in the customer service agent is crucial. If you don’t trust and empower the people in the trenches to make decisions, you will frustrate the customer. As an organization, you have the power to strong-arm shady suppliers. The customer does not have this power. Customer retention can not be the reason you choose to have great customer service. Amazon does not provide good customer service because they are afraid of their customers going away. (You are going to a go to a store to buy a USB charging cable? What, are you crazy or something?) This move to provide good customer service must be driven by a profound desire to offer good service.

Customer Service Via Email

Most companies have moved away from the helpline number which can be called to talk to someone. This is okay. This is not the problem. If you have a customer support email with a median turn-around-time of 2 hours, it does not even matter whether you have a helpline number or not. Everyone wants to explain their situation to someone and be heard. If you give them a single email address and respond reliably to your customer’s queries, they will still remain overwhelmingly happy with your service. Do not rule out the phone: What can be explained in a 10 minute phone call can take up 100s of lines of text. Nevertheless, moving away from the phone is okay. Moving away from providing useful service is not.

Many companies have also taken to using chat bots. I think this is a bad move. Chat bots and chat with customer service agents gives the illusion of real time communication. But most people reaching out to customer service are probably not in standard situations which can be listed up and supplied as input to a chat bot software, or can be resolved quickly by an agent. It will probably take time to understand the situation, make a decision, get approvals for the decision, and communicate it to the user. All of this can not be completed in a 5-minute chat session in which you can not move away from your screen. And hopefully, you won’t close the tab that has the open chat with customer support.

Stay Away From The Absurd. Stay Away From The Shiny New Thing.

Historically, old-school capitalists were known for their conservative beliefs and their deep suspicion of the “new thing on the block.” Now, the equation is reversed. Capitalists want to employ the shiny new thing, as soon as it comes out. Everyone abandoned e-mail for Slack and helplines for SalesForce. Where are we now? 100s of unread threads on Slack every Monday morning and customer service inquiries which never get answered despite having a “reference number” automatically generated by your ticketing software.

There is a semi-popular adage about technology: When any new technology comes out, don’t be an early adopter of it and don’t be the last person to adopt it either. You have to choose your time and start using the technology somewhere in the middle; at a point when it has gotten sufficient traction to be well-understood and sufficient time to mature into a cost-effective product.

Until a few months ago, I believed that this kind of cost-benefit analysis was built into our economy. After all, decision makers demand huge amounts of data, analysis, and well-built presentations before deciding to delve into something. Why, then, do we end up with bad systems? I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to the shiny new thing, the new thing is so shiny that many decision makers will look past the blemishes just under the shiny surface and claim to see the vision at the core of the technology.

This has reached cult-like levels with crypto-currency and decentralization:

Cryptocurrency and Web 3 are the shiny new things. Yes, they have some problems right now. But hey! It’s early days. We are heading towards a glorious decentralized future.

Re: Your Mobile Number. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Well, this is the hard one. For customers, don’t share your mobile number with the shops that you shop at. Why would you share your mobile number with a random cashier when you would think long and hard before sharing it with a potential mate? What is the value addition for you? Why do you want to give this information to a shop? How do you know the shop is not selling the database that it has built up of names and phone numbers to some sales agency? Our mobile numbers are the most direct ways to reach us; there is no filter. Do Not Disturb services offered by operators are famously bad. I think that we would love being in a world in which every email and every phone call we get is actually something that we are interested in. With email, we have methods to filter out the ones that we don’t want. Unfortunately, these mechanisms do not exist for mobile phones right now.

The nature of mobile telephony also makes it very hard to switch your phone easily. You would almost certainly have to spend several hours changing your phone number at the places that matter to you (banks, security services, online 2-Factor Authentication). We want to avoid doing this as much as possible. And the simplest way to do this is to simply not share your number.

Another possible method that I have heard of is to have some sort of a throwaway number which you can use everywhere that you don’t want to give your main phone number. But I think this is more cumbersome and fiscally wasteful. Now, you have two phone numbers to keep track of and there is no way to know when you will need which number. So, you have to carry both numbers along all the time. That is suboptimal.

I understand that organizations and businesses want to track their customers. They want to find out who is a loyal customer and give them deals or maybe they want to entice them to come back by sending them a message perilously close to their birthday or Valentine’s Day. In these cases, they do need some method of tracking customers and their purchases. But I think that this can be based on the points-based reward system. A basic point system would award you points based on your purchase, which can be kept track of preferably using some sort of paper card. You get extra points for your birthday, etc.

This system works very well. I can say this from my experience in Japan. Perhaps due to restrictions on the storage and sharing of personal information, most shops in Japan will ask you if you want a point card whenever you purchase something there. If you say no, they leave you be. (They will ask you the next time you shop there.) If you say yes, they will give you a small piece of paper or a coupon which can be used on your next purchase there. This is surprisingly effective. I have point cards from some of the chains that I use regularly for furniture, electronics, coffee beans. And I specifically look for these shops when I have to make some kind of purchase. This is the perfect situation for a customer; they are able to enjoy the benefits of being loyal to a chain of stores without divulging any personal information to the chain.

Technology Is Not A Silver Bullet

I think everyone needs to repeat this to themselves at least once a day. That is not hyperbole; it is a real suggestion for people who are making decisions about the adoption of new tools. Most cities in India have watchmen standing at the gates of apartment buildings. This has been a fixture of apartment buildings of all sizes since the early 2000s. In this landscape, there is hardly any security threat which the watchmen can’t identify or act on. Yet, a business such as this one is able to thrive. Why is that? Why should someone who has come to your apartment building to deliver a package to your house have to be approved on a mobile application before they can deliver the package that is addressed to you? This redundant verification is futile. It assumes that the watchman who is standing at the gate will not be able to make a judgment about whether the person and the package are legitimate. It is interesting to note that most buildings which introduce this application do not actually cut costs by getting rid of the watchmen who are guarding the building at the gate. This kind of application is introduced simply because technology is the solution. No one has noticed that there is a problem yet.

There is no simple way to convince people that the introduction of new technology is always a bad idea when it does not solve an existing problem. There are some people who want to venture out into the unpaved land and explore new ideas. I certainly do not want to try new technology simply because it exists. It is a waste of my time. And it is a waste of yours too. So, before you adopt the latest technology in customer service, ask yourself if you are solving a problem with it or whether you are indulging your desire to be known as a cutting edge organization. *No matter what technologies you introduce, the core requirement for good customer service will always be empathy; not a computer screen or a case reference.*