Creating a niche for being nice

The planning meeting for this week's section ran long. Reason? The words "customer service" triggered an avalanche of anecdotes.

Each was about some travesty that seemed to top the one before it. We sounded like the characters in the movie "Jaws" sitting around in the cabin of the shark-hunter's boat comparing scars.

It seems everybody's got issues these days with a troublesome tradesperson. Or a company whose automated switchboard sends callers into oblivion, one touch-tone menu option at a time.

It's a broad trend. But since we're talking about phones, consider a Federal Communications Commission report that says complaints about local-phone-company service shot up 82 percent for the first half of 1999 over the same period the year before.

Collectively we have a need for speed. Our patience is easily worn thin. Keynote Systems, a small outfit that tracks Internet reliability for Web clients, recently reported the average amount of time a Web surfer will wait for a page to download: eight seconds.

What may be needed, besides a deep breath, is a greater effort by hard-charging businesses to generate the friendliness and skills to serve "the Customer." You know, the person who was "always right" when firms had lofty mantras instead of dotcom divisions.

There are reasons for hope. AIG Life Insurance in Wilmington, Del., is installing technology by Rye, N.Y.-based Mobius Management Systems that lets customer-service reps call up images of checks while they're on the phone with the customers who sent them, saving hours.

That's one small step toward getting companies and those they serve on the same page.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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