I recently came across a new book titled The Best Service Is No Service by Bill Price. Price argues that customer service operations only exist because of organizational dysfunction, and the longer customer service exists the more it perpetuates the problem. He predicts customers will soon be serving themselves—allowing the organization to optimize its processes and end the dysfunction-and-silo era. Some may argue that Price’s vision is utopian and not realistic; I simply prefer to point out that he misses the whole point of customer service.
I do agree with Price that today’s customer service is burdened by having to cover up for organizational dysfunction, broken processes, and ill-conceived offers imposed on customers. But fixing those issues—which both Price and I believe is essential—will not bring about the end of customer service. The self-service model Price advocates—and which many organizations seek so desperately—bears some major flaws.
Self-service is the ultimate commodity accelerator. By shifting to self-service, a company literally invites customers to serve themselves. As a result, those customers see a diminishing value provided by the company and inevitably turn to price as a main selection criterion. Additionally, in Web-based self-service, all competitors are perceived to be equal in size: the size of the customer’s screen. They all look the same and feel the same.
Self-service is primarily a process-delivery mechanism. As such, no company can deliver a uniquely different service offering. All competitors are using the same process—advancing commoditization even further.
And self-service limits an organization’s ability to solve the exceptions that each human customer inevitably has—and, worse, forces customers to fit themselves into the redesign process. Last, and most important, self-service cannot deliver passion. (Your CFO’s celebration over the cost savings doesn’t count. She clearly doesn’t know the price being paid in damaged loyalty.) It cannot be considered emotionally engaging when the customer is only engaged with himself.
Customer service shouldn’t be the Band-Aid for dysfunction. In an increasingly commoditized world, customer service has a newly emerging role: the differentiator. In a dehumanized self-service world, true customer service can deliver the emotional engagement so critical to customer experience and loyalty.
The future of customer service is in the world of exception, focusing on the ability to tailor, customize, and personalize solutions. Customer service should apply creativity and empowerment with a dollop of caring and sincerity to solve those exceptions. Additionally, customer service should focus on exceeding customer expectations, mastering the art of exceptional delivery that creates true loyalty. Just as Continental Airlines differentiates itself as the airline that still serves meals, true customer service can differentiate itself based on the human touch and exceptional service. As customers are forced to minimize contact with your company, such contact becomes so much more appreciated.
Some people will disagree. “Customers want self-service,” they say. For me, this claim is equivalent to suggesting that customers are in a rush to sacrifice their humanity. Do you think customers favor self-service over high-touch, high-quality service? Let me put it in simple terms: That’s the equivalent of claiming that people prefer making love to themselves rather than with a partner. The joint experience is much better than the single experience. The only question is, do you have a great partner?
Back to customer service: To command premium price and customer loyalty, we must create an amazing experience worth the asking price. Don’t count on the customers to do it for themselves. Show your passion, reach out, and deliver exceptional value. Self-service is only a tool—passionate customer service is the complete, engaging solution. The choice is yours. Whatever your decision, customers will pay you accordingly.
Lior Arussy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder and president of Strativity Group (www.strativity.com). He is the author of several books, including Excellence Every Day (Information Today, Inc., 2008), his most recent, an excerpt of which appeared in CRM’s May 2008 issue. To learn more about customer strategies, sign up for his newsletter at Strativity Group's homepage.
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