Customer Support Makes for Compelling Entertainment

It has been called the mundane made entertaining. CRM--specifically the customer support segment--has become fodder for entertainment, including a popular television show and a well-received stage play that has spawned a Web site and a music video. Customer support is typically not a topic that inspires humor and laughs, but it has become, arguably, compelling to watch as entertainment. Cable television network A&E airs a reality series, "Airline," which gives viewers a peek into the overall operations at Southwest Airlines, the world's fourth largest carrier. However, much of what we see is how the Southwest staff handles the problems, issues, and complaints of its passengers. The show, which has aired about 20 episodes, showcases the ups and downs of passengers who board Southwest flights at Los Angeles International and Chicago Midway airports. Everyone, including pilots, check-in staff, baggage handlers, and supervisors, is shown handling customer problems and often dealing with irate customers. The demands of some passengers are often beyond the normal scope of Southwest's policies, and sometimes require the carrier to make difficult support decisions. There is also "Alladeen," a stage production set in London, New York, and an international call center in Bangalore, India, which focuses on how Indian operators learn how to pass as Americans by watching American TV and suppressing their native accents. Two theater companies, the Builders Association in New York, and London's motiroti, produced "Alladeen," which just wrapped up a West Coast tour this weekend in Seattle and has been touring globally since 2003. The show is based on the rags-to-riches tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp, and plays off the be-careful-what-you-ask-for era of globalization, in which the transformative powers of technology touch many aspects of daily existence. The idea was inspired by a newspaper article about India's burgeoning international call-center industry. The show's creators traveled to India to interview the call center operators and found workers--mostly college graduates--that were upbeat and optimistic, rather than the oppressed workforce they had expected. So why has this concept of customer support been adopted as a topic to amuse audiences? Ian Jacobs, principal analyst for CRM at Current Analysis, says the answer is obvious: "Because every one of us has an experience, good and bad, with customer support. Everyone has their own stories, and they like to hear and see the stories of others to make a comparison. It is something that everyone can relate to." Another analyst agrees that its human nature, but claims that it is more about how society like to trivialize things that are important to us. "In America, people and things that are serious and important--or things that have a great deal of power in our lives--are trivialized or ridiculed, " says Denis Pombriant, managing principal at Beagle Research. Pombriant also says there is likely a growing undercurrent of anger at companies that are outsourcing jobs to other countries, and that there is much historical evidence that the public's feelings of dissatisfaction with specific corporations or business segments has resulted in an opportunity for entertainment shows like these. He recalled an early 1970's routine by comedian Godfrey Cambridge in which he riffed on mass anger towards then-telephone monopoly AT&T and its practice of using punch cards (they could not be bent, folded, spindled, or mutilated) as its billing method. Cambridge joked that before he returned the punch card with his check, he would walk on it while wearing golf spikes. One industry watcher expresses concern that CRM stories as entertainment will perpetuate it's current reputation for customer support as less than successful. "This is an ongoing trend that some companies dread, and very few will participate in," Lior Arussy, president of Strativity Group. "The service expected by customers today is so low that if you can actually demonstrate superiority, it is a huge differentiator that will make customers consider you and prefer you over the others." Robb Eklund, vice president of CRM marketing at Oracle, says, "The irony is that these organization are fundamentally about providing customer service, and satire is often found in failure. We all know that in the real world, bad CRM really isn't all that funny."
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