1/17/2005

Customer Service 101

I’ve just spent a week in the hellish realm that is modern customer service. Several electronic gadgets pooped out at the same time, including my wireless router. That annoyance was cured Sunday when a service manager at my CompUSA let me swap out a defective unit even though the company’s normal return period had expired. Blessings upon the empowered clerk who untethered me from an ill-situated cable modem! My release makes me think about the customer service challenges that will face Internet media businesses -- especially those with a prosumer focus. The rationale of these businesses will be to aggregate thousands and millions of small transactions into big revenue streams. This does not always go swimmingly. A cursory search revealed an article on VeriSign’s problem in assigning domain names. Iin starting this blog, I had problems and questions which I dispatched to Blogger help. Their non-answers came back too late to be of use. This is not a complaint, because the software is remarkably robust and costs me nothing. But it makes me wonder how people would react to glitches if they were paying even modest fees for services or goods. In the brick-and-mortar economy customer service suffers because it is seen first and foremost as a cost center, says John T. Self, a professor at California Polytechnic University at Pomona, speaking of the hotel and restaurant world. “When consistent service takes place, whether excellent or horrible, it takes a relatively long time to take effect and produce results. This time delay makes it difficult to measure. Since most companies are still much more short term oriented than long term, service often takes a back seat. Pity.” The Internet is hyper-competitive. Transactions are smaller and alternatives a click away. Conventional wisdom touts customer service in high-tech. “Rising businesses aiming to excel in the real time arena have as their goal ubiquitous, non-stop and transparent service,” said tech icon Regis McKenna at one point. Okay, so why are call centers migrating offshore? I don't know how to deliver excellent customer service to large numbers at low cost. At least not yet. But I suspect Internet media firms will invent those systems, or perish. Meanwhile, I did find an ISO standard for handling customer complaints that must offer useful guidance. (I learned another thing from my quick perusal of the ISO site. The name "International Organization for Standardization" was derived from the Greek isos, meaning "equal,” so as not to offend national sensibilities outside the English-speaking nations – an interesting parable for any business that thinks global.) Tom Abate

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