Largely because of the influence of social media as a customer service channel, today's consumer expects an instantaneous response to his questions or complaints. That sense of urgency has transferred to other channels, requiring companies to have the right staff, the right strategies, and the right technologies in place to respond to customers in a matter of minutes, if not sooner, no matter what the contact medium might be.
Customers who use the phone, of course, expect an immediate response. They have no patience for waiting 20 minutes to speak to a contact center agent or for navigating a never-ending sea of interactive voice response (IVR) system prompts. The endless drone of Muzak can really get under their skin.
Despite contact centers' best efforts, hold times are an inevitable part of the customer service experience, especially when call volumes are abnormally high.
An early thought might be to hire more contact center agents or offload the excess call volume to a contact center outsourcer. Either option will result in additional and ongoing costs and the loss of valuable time spent hiring and training these new agents.
British telephone carrier EE is exploring another option—concierged customer service, which it launched in August under the Priority Answer moniker. With Priority Answer, some customers pay a little extra to get through to customer service representatives a little faster.
In essence, the carrier is creating a two-tiered customer service system. The first tier is for ordinary customers who are required to wait the usual amount of time—anywhere from a few seconds to two or three minutes, depending on the time of day—to speak with an agent. The second is for customers who agree to pay an extra 50 pence (or 80 cents) to be fast-tracked to speak to the next available agent instead of having to wait in the queue.
EE has stated publicly that it intends to answer all customer calls as quickly as possible.
EE isn't the first phone company to offer customers the option to pay for priority service. In the United States, AT&T in 2012 introduced a similar program, called AT&T Plus, but ended it in March 2013 after a year-long pilot in several states. Sprint and Verizon piloted similar programs, which they, too, have since discontinued.
Airlines, financial services firms, utilities, and technology companies have introduced similar programs—all with mixed results and various degrees of acceptance.
"The American egalitarian ideal would have many people...chafing at being charged to be treated specially," observes Ian Jacobs, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "We like to see customer service as something built into the price of the product or service we're buying. Many Americans would avoid a company that charged for special service."
EE maintained in a statement that its aim is to set a new standard in customer service. Customers, however, weren't buying it. Many took to social media almost immediately to voice their outrage at the service offering, which they stated gives some customers an unfair preference over others.
It's a valid complaint. "Every customer is important and has the right to speak to an agent," says Bruce Pollock, vice president of strategic growth and planning at West Interactive, a provider of contact center solutions and services.
"Showing favoritism to folks who pay more is always a bad idea, even if it is a small amount," Dan Miller, founder and principal analyst at Opus Research, says.
Keith Dawson, practice leader of Ovum's customer interaction team, states EE's foray into this area is more of "a marketing gimmick," one that is "not designed to have much impact on service, but is designed to get attention."
And at the equivalent of 80 cents per call, "it's not likely to generate much revenue or mitigate the costs of a service call," he adds.
The program is also going to be tough to manage, particularly as more callers become aware of it, according to Miller. "EE might find it difficult to assure callers that they can save time," he says, "because it is very hard to predict how many people might want to jump to the front of the queue at the same time or how long the person who is currently in touch with an agent is going to stay on the line."
Dawson has similar concerns: "Let's say it becomes really popular," he says. "Then they've managed to unbalance their ability to forecast volume [and] schedule reps, and they likely will have to spend as much to compensate [the agents] as they reap from the service fee."
An additional concern when offering such a program is that the level of service must be such that customers will pay extra for it. Charging