Consumers search for customer service with a human touch
Outsourcing and automated phone systems can make customers cranky. But some firms are trying to improve.
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Even when a customer-service representative abroad speaks excellent English, callers can face another challenge. Representatives often have no authority to make decisions.Skip to next paragraph
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"They aren't empowered to do what they need to do to satisfy the customer," Nunley says. "They don't dare deviate [from the script]. It counts against them in performance."
Andrea Nierenberg, a business training consultant in New York, says, "If they could be trained to be more spontaneous or improvise, that would improve service dramatically."
Consumer advocates say other changes need to occur in automated phone systems.
"The inability to get to a human is the top complaint," says Lorna Rankin, director of www.gethuman.com, part of a consumer movement to improve the quality of phone support in the US. "Additionally, when callers get to a person, they can't understand them. Either they speak too quickly or they have a thick accent.
"People want to be able to leave a message when they call after hours," she adds. "And it's respectful to consumers to let them know how long the wait will be."
The website's database of 500 companies gives numbers to press to bypass recordings.
Ms. Rankin emphasizes that she is not advocating that every call must be answered by a person at the outset. "We're definitely not against these phone systems. In many cases they save time. But they should be simple to use, and they should always have an option to get to a person." Human contact, she explains, "has a tremendous ability to level out or eliminate aggravation. It automatically reduces anxiety."
Among companies that do this well, with people answering phones, Rankin includes L.L. Bean, Land's End, and Hyatt.
She encourages people to communicate with companies. "When voice systems work well, compliment them. When they don't work well, let companies know they're going to lose your business."
Galbraith also suggests writing letters. Williams did just that after her experience with bereavement fares. When she complained about the poor customer service and her problems understanding agents' accents, the airline sent an apology letter and a travel coupon good for $75 off her next flight.
Elaine Bloom of Maplewood, N.J., sometimes goes to a company's website for a phone number – not an 800 number. When she recently had a problem at a Panera Bread bakery, she says, "I called a number and got to talk to someone in customer relations. That resulted in a callback from a district manager about the problem."
Nunley sees progress. More companies are conducting customer satisfaction surveys than in the past, he says. A few even tie customer satisfaction scores to senior management bonuses.
At the same time, he continues to be amazed when companies fail to take full advantage of the Web. Listing the 10 most frequently asked questions would reduce the number of calls.
When a knob broke on his 19-year-old washing machine, Nunley went to the company's website and plugged in the part number. "I ordered it, gave a credit- card number, and they shipped it. I had it in less than a week," he says.
Galbraith finds that for some top companies, among them Dell computers, there has been a reversal of the trend toward outsourcing. "When customers complain, they've brought customer service back to the US."
Among companies that outsource, John Bugh, North American president for Intelenet Global Services in Dallas, an India-based offshore company, sees progress.
"The training of agents is constantly reviewed and updated to ensure that the needs of client customers in the US are being met in the most consistent and effective manner possible," he says. "The reality is, you're never going to satisfy 100 percent of customers calling in."
As companies work to raise satisfaction levels, Galbraith offers a suggestion.
"I would like to see more organizations put the interest of the customer ahead of short-run profitability," he says. "In the long run, that's going to buy you customer loyalty. People remember those things and go to the [business] that has the best customer service."