• May 19, 2023
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Customer Service Woes? Don’t Tell Me

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In this month’s Reality Check column, longtime contact center industry expert Donna Fluss rightly points to a trend that I’ve been noticing for quite some time now: She acknowledges that customer service quality is in decline while frustration continues to grow. Companies, she says, seemingly have given up on delivering satisfying service experiences, and rather than fixing the problems, they have shifted focus to self-service.

COVID-19 caught companies off guard, and they scrambled very quickly to rework their customer service operations to tackle the disruption that the pandemic caused. It was a herculean and admirable effort, and it paid off early on.

Now that the worst of the pandemic is finally behind us, though, it’s time to stop fooling ourselves: Customer service at many companies today is worse than at any other time that I can remember. From what I’ve experienced, many—though certainly not all—contact center agents, store associates, delivery drivers, field service technicians, and other front-line, customer-facing employees just don’t seem to care anymore. They get paid the same whether they help me or not. They seem unwilling to make decisions, take ownership of interactions, or put in any effort to make interactions pleasant.

Whether it was the sales associate at my now-former cell phone carrier’s retail store who refused to answer a simple question because I arrived at the store two minutes after the posted closing time, the contact center agent at the insurance company who hung up mid-conversation because 5 p.m. quitting time rolled around, or the government employee who couldn’t be bothered looking up my mother’s account information to answer a simple question about her Medicare coverage, the number of frustrating customer service interactions I’ve had in just the past few months have far exceeded the good ones. And I am not alone.

Before writing this column, I did an informal poll of some of my friends and co-workers, and most reported similar bad experiences. There seems to be an increasing number of customer service complaints across industries.

While my survey was obviously not scientific, Customer Care Management and Consulting reached the same conclusion. It found that 63 percent of U.S. consumers admit feeling rage during a recent customer service interaction.

So what’s causing this? I suspect that there is a lot more quiet quitting in customer service today than companies would care to admit. Employees get paid the same whether they resolve my issue with a smile or not, so why should they put in the extra effort? They’re comfortable doing just the bare minimum, and companies let them get away with it because employees are hard to find, and good ones are even harder to find and retain these days. (The fact that many of these workers are underpaid and under-inspired surely doesn’t help matters.)

I also suspect that companies are having a much harder time keeping tabs on employees who are working remotely.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, therefore, that I’ve recently had to adjust my position on automation. While I enthusiastically looked forward to talking to real-life contact center agents during the pandemic, now I find myself gravitating toward their bot counterparts. If I can take care of what I need to do without needless aggravation, I’m a lot more willing to give automated solutions a shot. The one knock on bots all along has been their inability to express empathy and human compassion, but if I’m not getting much of that from humans either, what’s the difference?

Companies, though, should be careful in how they deploy automation. In the lead article in this month’s Insight section, Forrester warns against deploying bots just for the heck of it. “Many customer service teams will be seduced by the containment potential of generative bots and will spend significant time, energy, and resources to be first to this party despite the many risks this technology holds for consumer-facing use cases,” it says in a recent report.

“The consequences of a thoughtless deployment of generative AI are much higher. Generative models bring their own risks, as they are prone to hallucinations and inherited bias,” Forrester says further.

Hopefully, contact center automation doesn’t also become prone to the same robotic, just-going-through-the-motions mind-set that seems to have taken over many of its human agent analogues.

Leonard Klie is the editor of the CRM magazine. He can be reached at lkie@infotoday.com.

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