Future Shock? Or Not?
Is frustrating customer service inevitable?
For the rest of the November 2012 issue of CRM magazine please click here

"The future will just be more annoying."

Although it may seem odd to quote oneself, this little catchphrase of mine has been much on my mind lately. I developed it as a response to a question I am often asked by friends, relatives, and others who learn that I am a technology analyst: How will technology alter our future? While my stock answer is admittedly a little too flip, people—and the companies made up of those people—are far too susceptible to using a new technology simply because they can. And unthinking use of technology often leads to more annoyance. A refrigerator that tracks your usage of specific products and creates shopping lists based on your usage? Sounds great, except for the need to scan the bar codes on items as they go in and out of your fridge, and for the fact that some of us actually use a lot of fresh items that have no bar code.

That shortsightedness about the actual realistic use cases of technology is the sort of exasperating reaction I generally expect. But I fear the same will be true for customer service. Companies will annoy consumers even more than they do today, often with the best of intentions. The situation today can already sometimes seem comically annoying. Here, it is time to break out the obligatory personal travel story.

I was scheduled for a morning flight from the West Coast to the East Coast. My cell phone rang at 3 a.m. It has been a long time since I was enough of a night owl for a 3 a.m. phone call to be anything but completely extraordinary. But in this case, the call was from my airline's outbound self-service system, telling me my flight had been cancelled. The recording then asked me to dial the toll-free number of the contact center to rebook on another flight. After I did that, I checked my email. I had received an email with the same information.

This interaction was annoying across several dimensions. Three a.m.? Really? The airline apparently has no business rules that say, "Do not call in the middle of the night." Contacting me across multiple channels? Also, a clear annoyance. These should be minor issues, however. The airline does have some preference settings for users that allow a degree of customization for notifications, but those settings are difficult to find and are not granular enough. At heart, the airline placed itself, rather than the customer, at the center of the interaction. It was trying to be proactive and help me reduce the chances of not getting from point A to point B. But it did so on its terms, not mine. As the number of contact channels expands, this type of annoyance will only increase, unfortunately.

Also, did I mention that there was no option to transfer to a live agent? Providing information to customers seems like it should be a great benefit, but without giving them a way to act on that information, it turns into an annoyance.

So how could the airline short-circuit my aphorism and make the future less annoying? Create a customer hub with simple-to-use preferences, essentially business rules for dealing with the customer as an individual. Even more useful would be a central customer profile that an individual creates that can then be applied to multiple business relationships. After all, if I don't want phone calls between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. from an airline, I am also unlikely to want calls at those times from a bank, an insurance company, or a hotel. This centralized profile would allow consumers to provide contact information once and set policies and preferences for how they like to do business once, and then have all that propagate out to all the companies with which those consumers interact.

But such a change would require companies and consumers to radically rethink their relationship, and such tectonic shifts do not happen quickly. Until then, the future will just be more annoying.

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst on Ovum’s Enterprise team. He can be reached at Ian.Jacobs@ovum.com.

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