It is a familiar scenario for many of us. You call up the customer support number displayed boldly in the product manual to seek support, and you find yourself in an endless web of IVR menu. You already have all the information that the IVR can offer you, and to speak to an actual human, who may offer the answers you seek, you need to patiently sit through all the menu options only to realise it is always the last one.
In all likelihood, by now you very well remember the IVR options for your mobile operator (everyone is sick of them, no?) yet pressing those buttons directly won’t help you much, as it requires you to still hear through the menu options before choosing one. This is often followed by a long wait which, if you are lucky, would only be 5-6 minutes. You finally connect with an operator who refuses to acknowledge your problem and suggests seemingly dumb solutions like restarting the phone or checking the signal, and by the time you actually reach a point where you hope for a resolution, the call drops. You utter some cuss words under your breath, dial the number again but disconnect quickly after hearing the same “Press one for ….” phrase. You decide that the issue isn’t big enough to waste so much time and mental space on it and, a bit disappointed with your mobile operator, you get on with your life.
This is a tale common for countless customers worldwide and yet, has continued to be more or less the same over the years. Even after people reach customer support and are offered a resolution, the general consensus is that over three quarters of complaining customers are not satisfied with the resolution offered to them.
Consumers consistently perceive that customer service is generally bad, and even, possibly becoming worse. Despite companies making bold promises to treat people well, customers don’t seem to be buying it. This is rather odd considering how ‘customer at the centre of our experience’ like phrases are often included in marketing material.
With a few exceptions, customer supports are structured to minimise the financial impact of addressing a grievance. Whether it is by placing lousy hires at level one support or with an infinite IVR that sends you back in the same loop over and over again, the objective is to keep a check on the redressal a customer can seek or the financial impact an aggravated customer can have.
Most of the customer support centres are structured in two levels where level one will be left without any powers. While Amazon allowed the customer support reps over chat or call to do a lot, including issue refunds, reschedule or initiate replacement orders, in the early days when it was growing, you are likely to be turned away disappointed by the first level chat or call support if you try the same today. Any serious resolution to your complaint would come from a level two associate or a long chain of emails now. And Amazon is not the only one.
Customer supports are generally structured to minimise human intervention, or even when required, restrict to lower-cost human resources. Typically, you will find the access to level two of support representatives tougher, made so by limited hours, different time zone or another communication channel. While different people will draw different lines for how much loss they are willing to take, there is no denying that a lot of people will let go of the potential redressal because of the additional steps involved. A refund on 100 rupees, “screw it, I have better things to do with my time than be on call with them for 30 minutes.”
And yes, there are arguments and data to support the statement that poor customer service will cost a company in the long run. In fact, surveys indicate that almost 3/5th people are okay spending more with a company that ensures good customer service. However, the relevance of this keeps on reducing over time as companies grow in scale and market share. In addition to that, brands in industries where there are limited options with higher barriers to entry for new players have a more casual attitude towards their customer service irrespective of what they claim. Airlines, railways, telecom, internet. Vodafone customer support, anyone? GoAir phone support? IRCTC contact page? You got the idea, right?
The same story continues where customers are engaged in a long-term buying cycle, and there is a significant cost to switch, television or internet services for instance. There is typically a non-refundable fixed cost involved that may serve as a deterrent for the majority of people. I curse my DTH provider every time I try to manage the subscription using their app or website, yet despite lot of yelling and cursing, I am still with the same provider because switching would require me to spend almost six months’ worth of rental for new equipment and deal with the hassle of strangers visiting my home to install. And what if despite that, it turns out to be just as bad, or maybe even half? I am not willing to take that gamble, and neither are countless other people.
The scenario changes the moment you eliminate this friction in transition.
Look at the insurance brokers for instance. While there is a long term, annually recurring buying cycle involved, there is absolutely no friction involved in the transition. If I buy a policy from an insurance broker this year, they know that if they cause trouble, I can go to countless other such brokers or even the insurance provider directly for the next year with a simple Google search. There is a similar experience shared by the users of various legal service platforms. In such a case, the representatives are as much a sales executive as they are support agents, and you can’t have lousy salesmen, can you?
And while we are at the topic of happy customers, maybe at this point, ask yourself a question. How many times have you gone to TripAdvisor and posted a positive review for a hotel? And how many times a negative?
Or maybe even skip TripAdvisor or Google Local Guides altogether because of them being gamified systems where one is being encouraged with virtual currency (points, badges, labels) to contribute. Look at your Twitter and Facebook to see how many times have you praised a brand against the number of times you have cursed one.
Some surveys indicate that a quarter of people are likely to say something good about your brand when they get good service while more than 65% are likely to speak about their bad experience with a brand. One way to look at it is that it is important to avoid giving customers a bad experience to avoid hate from those 65% customers. Yet, another angle is that even if you are doing a great job, it won’t earn you many kudos. This points to a perspective that in the broader sense, we are a bit thankless. We immediately jump to Twitter to bash a brand the moment something goes wrong, yet don’t do the same on enough occasions when it does things right. So, is even worth it for a brand to incur the incremental cost for pleasing every customer?
Of course, we can’t get away with just painting all brands in a dull tone. Another reason brands add hierarchy and barriers in their customer support is because not all of us are exactly very honest. As customers, a lot of us are, for the lack of a better word, freeloaders.
It isn’t uncommon for customers to try and get a little more than what they have paid for, and they don’t mind making false claims or accusations to get their way. A brand can’t be assigning costlier resources or go on offering compensations to people in such cases to please them. And don’t forget that data indicates that we will still be thankless. Creating a complicated web of voice menus on phone support, and level one support representatives will filter out a large fraction of the false claims without making a significant financial impact.
So, the next time you are disappointed by a brand, remember that it is a whole web playing its tricks on you. And while we highly encourage you to hold brands accountable for what you have paid for, this puts some light on the fact that turning around customer support isn’t as simple as it seems.
Crafted with brevity for select stories to make certain you see what others don't; sent every Friday
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