The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why customer service is so horrible... and likely to get worse

Under the Theory of Competitive Advantage, it is advantageous for companies to encourage the idea that all "customer service" is slow, unresponsive, aggravating, and generally BAD. Why?

Because customer service after the sale is a net loss to the company's profits. The whole profit aspect of producing a widget is in how much you can cut costs to get the raw materials and intermediate goods to make your thingy as cheaply as possible, then selling it at a price that brings in the biggest profit possible.

Customer service drains money away from these profits. Ideally, a company would like to make a product, sell it, and never hear from you again unless you're either buying another product from them or recommending that someone else does. Paying for customer service staff (even the offshore kind making a buck a day) is a complete and total loss, and is generally seen as a "cost of doing business" which would rather be eliminated any way it can to boost those ever-important dividends.

Used to be, companies thought they could get a competitive advantage by offering GREAT customer service. Thus, you had repairmen show up at your home (at no additional cost), gas-station attendants who filled you up, wiped your windshield and checked your tires, and could actually talk to a human being on the phone when you called with a problem. Then some nameless, faceless person with a "bright idea" (as seen from the corporate boardroom) realized that if you made customer service a universally unpleasant experience for people, the very term "customer service" would develop a negative connotation and most people would avoid it... and thus you could cut costs in that very money-sucking area.

So in the last 30 years or so we've seen company after company giving "lousy" customer service. Coincidence? Maybe. But If You Think Like A Corporate Executive it makes perfect sense: if everyone has lousy customer service, customers won't bother using it and we won't have to spend any of our dividend checks paying for it. If it becomes the national (or global) paradigm that customer service is worthless, then corporations get to cut even further back on the quality of that service until they are left with the most limited legal limits of it (essentially, to offer a refund or replacement if the product is not functional upon delivery... everything else is pretty much a "too bad" scenario).

Sure, people will still demand their problems be fixed if something is badly wrong... but this new mindset being imposed on consumers is one of "oh heck, why bother, just go buy another one, it's easier than going through the hassle of customer service". And, of course, unless people buy a different brand (which is often owned by the same company anyway), they end up giving the corporations a double-purchase... a double-win for the company.

And with many retail stores now restricting purchase returns to 30 days... sometimes even 14 or as little as 7... this means that if you buy it and it messes up within a couple weeks, you're screwed. The retail store is no longer the convenient "No problem, we'll take it back if it breaks" solution for consumers. In fact, corporate manufacturers are making this harder on retailers, so it's not even the stores' fault... many stores are changing their returns policy precisely because manufacturers and distributors and tightening them up.

Think this isn't something that goes through the minds of corporate executives daily? Call customer service about your newest electronic gadget and get a wake-up call. Then ask grandma what it was like when the TV technician showed up at her house... for free, always polite and helpful... to fix her console. THEN you will understand how much has changed in the last few decades. And how much we need to develop a sense of "customer SERVICE" back into the corporate world... in other words, if they have crappy service, DON'T BUY THEIR STUFF.

1 comment:

Saturnmavi said...

I'm not sure I agree. Having worked on the inside, I feel it's more the doing of bean counters who have decided that customer service technicians don't need training in said customer service beyond a 5-minute video given shortly after hiring. People are also not rewarded for their hard work with reasonable job benefits so the attitude is, "Why should I give my all for a company that doesn't care about me as a person?" There is a very prevalent feeling that customer service technicians are easily replaceable and are treated as such by the company in many ways.

Customer service techs also have to put up with the general public every day. The general public, as you may know, isn't exactly kind to those who they feel are beneath them. Most people in customer service are included in that "beneath" category, if you needed clarification. Repairpersons, the person you talk to when your bank's computer messes something up, all those folks. It appears to me that you feel the problem only goes one way, but I'm sure if you've ever worked those jobs you've seen how even the best at what they do get treated like trash.

This is a "You Get What You Give" situation. If companies don't require better training for their staff (regardless of cost), if consumers don't start treating service persons like people, then the whole thing will keep perpetuating itself. Team effort, in other words, is needed to correct the stigma of customer service