• June 1, 2012
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Customers: Old Dog, New Trick?

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The last time you visited this page, I was spouting something about how repetition makes actions easy and natural. Well, either I forgot about that, or I'm doubling up on my inspirations again, because this month is going to hit a similar—though not identical, I promise—topic. It's the flip side of last month's argument: Getting comfy with a new way of doing things is great, but not everybody can or will do so.

While getting a vendor briefing the other day, I saw a bar chart of which channels customers are using most. Two of the highest ranking (and thus most oft-used) methods were trusty ol' email and phone.

The prevalence of these relatively old-school channels was no surprise, nor should it be. Yet some "visionaries" are predicting the end of email, with phone calls to customer service essentially a backup plan. I disagree. Phone and email will be with us for a long time, and those who say otherwise are probably selling a point solution for another channel.

To be clear, this isn't a direct reaction to the briefing. Both the vendor and the analyst firm they quoted are aware that forced abandonment of phone and/or email would be stupid. It's just that I occasionally hear somebody say email is dead, and social grace doesn't permit me to slap sense into them.

It has been the case for a long time that customers who aren't in your store will contact you via phone. We still dial the phone number (or have it on speed dial), even though the only phones with dials are in museums. When email became popular, businesses started to provide email-based contact options—but they didn’t declare that the phone was dead technology.

People are mostly capable of change. Some are excited by it, some dislike it, and some just accept it faster or slower, but we can all handle it. That said, we generally don't like it to be forced upon us, even if by some measure it is an improvement. I use the more modern, socially enabled channels often, but if I suddenly found myself without the option to call or email, I'd be pretty annoyed.

Imagine two businesses with one (highly unlikely and unreasonably reductive) difference: One adds social media and chat to its existing contact center capabilities, while the other decides to switch all its contact center operations to social media and chat. Which do you think will survive? Even if the latter company makes tons of friendly announcements, uses a phased changeover plan, and sets cutoff dates for reasonable points in the future, it is still doomed; nobody likes to be told how to conduct their business by an entity that's supposed to be competing for their dollar. If a company did that to me, I would switch to a competitor, even if I were already doing 100 percent of my interactions the way they wanted—I am the mighty customer, and I will not be dictated to.

On the other hand, shouldn't businesses do what makes economic sense, and create a working environment that benefits them and their customers? Well, of course, but not at the expense of the customers' convenience. The whole purpose of customer service is to—wait for it—serve the customer. Cutting a bunch of them off because they can't or won't use something new would suggest a fundamental lack of understanding of human nature. Even if the vast majority of customers were already in compliance with the new strategy, the act of forcing change down their throats would leave a bad taste in the public mouth (wow, there's an image for you) and tarnish the company's reputation.

If a customer wants to call you, email you, post to your Facebook page, or write you a letter in crayon, she should be able to do so and expect an adequate response. If you want to try to move that conversation to another format, you're welcome to, but there has to be an initial point of contact.

That's all I have to say on this for now. Fortunately, my preferred means of communicating—hyperbole—will never be phased out. Not in a zillion years.


Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, and can be reached in many ways. The preferred ones are email (marshall@3rd-idea.com) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/Lager), but you can find the rest at www.3rd-idea.com.

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