A History Of Customer Service

Customer service Thisissamstown

Customer service is dead!

Or maybe not but at a time when CRMs, data, tools would allow to provide flawless, fast and responsive service, it does seem that the quality of service has never been any lower.

It is not even needed to look at – or just think about – the “garçons” calling names on the terraces of Paris. Any random shop around can now offer this kind of terrible quality and lack of respect and still for a more than expensive price.

So what ? Do companies not understand that quality is definitely an asset and a serious means to make a difference ?

It does currently look like people have gotten accustomed to cheaper prices, customisation, fast availability and/or shipping even from the furthest lands. But as much as the wares are available and new brands popping everyday, very little of these do make any difference.

Launching some “exciting” urban clothing range is easy. Get a funky name, send a few dollars to a random Chinese factory, get the clothes, send some to a few urban “artists” and sell them for a premium. Wether you are hip hop or hop hip, never mind, this will be short-lived, money certainly made and customers so daft that they pay a premium for some random street sh*t certainly not worth respecting.

Bear with me, I am giving you a business model, free of charge.

Values what ?

Values is the word. Respect also works.

Offering services, selling goods or any other work in which something is delivered to customers should imply quality and respect.

Failures are acceptable and accepted. sh*tty goods are not. We are currently living in an era of speed-consumption. People buy, a lot, very often, discard, very often and buy again. And everybody hates defects but who should care. Employees are employees, chains are chains, production goes through half a dozen countries and, in the end, no one is responsible. So no one cares.

That is until there is very very serious trouble (think healthcare or car makers).

Bring fantasy figures to kids for a premium and you will be rich and safe.

The circle of customer service ?

Just a look at an old enemy. The customer support department. The most hated one… At least a great picture of the changes and evolutions of the customer service overall.

Years ago, in the previous century, customer support could still be reached by phone, sometimes for free and we could speak to people actually speaking the same language and basically having a clue about what they were doing there. On top of that, these people were basically customers themselves and could go lengths to assist with an issue.

Some years later, these dinosaurs disappeared and a great migration happened. Cheap happened. Those support services were sent in countries such as Morocco, India, Philippines and so on. And the experience definitely changed. The evolution of customer service did create a new kind of experience. Raging customers facing an impersonation of uselessness.

After hours queuing on the phone people mumbling what would be supposed to be your local language would read a script telling you what to do with your microwave when you would actually call for the Internet… . Oh happy days.

In recent years, the trend has seen some changes. We could see various brands in the UK advertise about their local call centres, implying people speaking the language and some kind of quality certification. Fair enough, a step towards this vintage trend ? Quality.

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Are we at a crossroad ?

Recent experience, mine indeed, tends to show that kind of trend.

Customer service and support has evolved. Social networks have changed the face of support and given companies a new option to let customers “speak” to people in writing. Easy – and rather easier – when it comes to handling unhappy customers.

However, new tools or not, the basics remain the same. Understanding the needs and willing – or not – to deliver quality.

My recent experiences with the likes of HSBC, Skype, Ergon or even Dodo have definitely been great if not amazing.

On the other hand some companies have not changed at all and still use the same old templates for their customer support. Mobile and Internet companies in France I am looking at you as service has never shown any sign of getting near acceptable (with an exception for Orange, I must admit).

In any case, coming back to delivering service, be it for external customers or internal customers, the very foundation is to be willing to actually deliver service and quality. This goes through empowering the people who will be delivering it and leaving room outside the scripts and all the (stupid) rules for actually providing help.

And regardless of who you are (“chief” or company), whatever your expertise is, do not pretend to even think you know the tools and can write the processes to make your service “social”.

My recent test of that : having to contact support for a password issue. No problem. Get on the site where there is a menu for support. Click. Enter support page and define I have a problem. Click. Now define type of problem. Click. Now go to standard issues page. Click. No answer matching. Click. Need to contact support… really ? Click. Chat option is preferred. Ok, click. Chat will open, fill question. Type and click. Wait a bit. Ok, click. And… can not connect to server, chat failed.

Repeat above process. Same error. Close browser. Clean. Try again, same error.

Look for phone number. Can not find it. Google. Ask people. Get one. Call, reach South Africa, speak with support (on the second day…) and be told after 15 minutes that they can not help. Yay!

Finally find another U.S. number and get to… India maybe. Expose problem and get told that it is chat only. But the process I read said that if the chat is down, we are allowed to call. Yes but chat only. Yes but process… .

Let us get to the end of it. After about half an hour of arguing (for, basically, no valid reason), waiting for two “check with manager” and definitely seriously considering every kind of option from alcohol to drug to manage to keep as calm as possible, I finally managed to get my case closed successfully, e.g. get the help I needed.

Disrupting the service

Disruption is used a bit too much these days but it may be the right word anyway.

Customer service needs disruption. And startups are actually disrupting it even without saying it. Most startups are useful in this regard because although they tend to “disrupt” markets – or at least view their business as a market disruption – most of them do not really reinvent anything. They just change or add features but the main disruption is in the service provided.

Startups do know about customer service. And most tend to take an oath about quality.

That is where the disruption is. Doing vintage business like a century ago when quality was key and the only kind of customer would be a happy customer.

Lost in (poor) quality

Thisissamstown.Lost in (poor) quality

Be it for startups or more “settled” companies, quality, in general, is a key component or should be, at least. However, this seems to be long lost for most businesses and definitely not improving.

Let us look into this matter and the move over the years and industries.

Let me play my old geezer part for a second.

As per my grandmother, when she did buy a fridge or a washing machine in her younger days, the latter would last for 20 or 30 years without facing any major issue.

How long gone is that ? Her recent experience with fridges reads as this :

Brand new fridge number 1 (bought after dinosaur fridge finally died) lasted 2 years. Brand new fridge 2 lasted 6 months before major breakdown which, once fixed, allowed it to survive for another 2 to 3 years. Now on to brand new fridge 3 which has managed a 3+ years so far.

Expect a sudden death any day.

Well, this is history of product quality.

Now, in my regards, when it comes to a company, quality lies not in the products (well, not necessarily) but mainly in the service – and that means the people and processes. Or the people regardless of whatever ‘bullshit’ processes have been implemented.

From the early days of my professional life I had the chance to be in touch and work with great people and entrepreneurs. Those people made a strong difference in their job not by offering anything different than their colleagues or competitors but by providing quality (service, advice or just availability) which helps building trust and improves the overall perception of the offering, be it products or services.

I can even say that the most important lessons I have learned about customer service, about thriving to achieve the highest levels of quality in any action, were actually learned not in startups or actual corporations but during a summer job in one of Gordon Ramsay‘s restaurants, Petrus, in London.

There I discovered some kind of new world, especially in a place boasting one Michelin star (at that time) and people showing such dedication to every task that it has remained with me since then.

I now am more like a pain in the a** for most people I work with since I want to see this search for perfection in every piece of work done.

Striving for quality should be in any entrepreneur’s mind, in any employee’s mind as this is where the real value is created. Not only the value for customers but also for people delivering it too. I recently read a bit by Dharmesh Shah on company/startup culture mentioning the fact that the culture (or values) is something needed for a company – or it does more or less will come anyway.

That was a good post. Yet, my take rather is instead of writing down some usual ‘bullshit’ taken from the Web’s best 7 or 10 values for companies, just write one down : Deliver quality. And keep improving (at least trying to improve).

Now, what did trigger this post on quality ? I am currently living an unsettling relationship with a French mobile phone carrier as I have taken a step towards changing from my current carrier to another sitting among the top 4 in France, SFR.

And I sadly have taken a step too far already by being bold enough to change from something working almost well to a world of trouble. Shall I mention the fact that I am not yet even a customer since my humble web request to maybe become a customer of theirs is still being verified.

Verified by a verification partner after a first online verification and another step by another partner and, and, and… .

So I find myself getting a couple of random emails, not coming from SFR, with no clue on what the next steps are going to be. This brings me to getting in touch with the company but, being a cheap Internet customer it does seem, all of a sudden, that I have no means to touch the real thing that customer service is.

Here I am now, battling through administrative processes which may have been borrowed from the French Government, not having a clue about where my order (and money) is going and almost unable to get in touch with a single human being on the SFR side (apart from a few recent tweets which shall be great material for an upcoming post on how (not) to handle customer service through Twitter).

With this recent experience, I have just had a look around and it is truly unsettling to see that the overall quality of whatever service or product offered (for purchase) not only has decreased over the years but seems to be hitting a bottom low.

There sure might be a France factor in my look at the market – call it the “garçon de café” syndrome – but I have sadly been able to experience that kind of low(er) quality service even when being abroad too. And so have friends, colleagues and others.

I call that a dangerous trend. Dangerous for society in general, where the standards tend to go down and dangerous for businesses too. No company is supreme nowadays. Whatever you are selling, tens or thousands are selling it too. Not only in one country but elsewhere. In my example the only differentiation between phone carriers is … the color of their logo, basically. Same prices, same phones, same options, etc … .

The X factor here is quality.

There is none; so in the end the choice is a default one (e.g. trying to find the one that sucks less). That should not even be offered as a choice.

This is my point to entrepreneurs and startups, be it for your company, for your employees or even just for your own self, strive to deliver the best overall customer experience.

That does not mean business only but that also means personal reward. Why building a startup if you can not take pride in what you have built, achieved and are still achieving ?

Picture from FlickR user Nicolacassa / Creative Commons – Share