Press "3" If Automation Is Making You Crazy

Please excuse me if I seem underwhelmed by the latest innovation in customer service.

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal reported that more and more companies have begun to worry that their automated call centers have left their customers frustrated, dissatisfied, even angry. We've all had the same mind-numbing experience: You dial a toll-free number looking for answers to a question about a home appliance, or a credit-card statement, or a banking problem, and you get one of those computer-generated voice prompts: "Press 1 for product information, press 2 to check on an order, press 3..." You make your choice, get another computer-generated voice prompt, and so it goes for 10 or 20 minutes. The process is inhuman by design, and often ineffective when it comes to solving simple problems.

In a slow-growth environment, where, one presumes, satisfying every customer is more important than ever, how are companies responding to the limits of these automated lines? According to the Journal, by changing the tone of voice on the recorded prompts, to make the lines sound kinder and gentler!

Aflac, for example, the insurance company with the duck ads, replaced its automated voice in July with that of a middle-aged actress meant to lower the stress levels of callers. "It's a stereotype," an Aflac executive said, "but if you think of a woman with a Midwestern voice, you think family."

Lots of other executives think this way too. "Companies say nicer and more-competent sounding voices can prompt fewer callers to speak to a live agent, saving money on staffing," the Journal noted. "It's also an inexpensive bid to boost corporate image, and reflects the kind of tweaks some companies are making while still cautious on big investments."

I'm as big a fan of technology as the next business thinker, but really...I travel far and wide visiting companies as I research books or give talks. And time and again, when I sit down with executives, they assure me that they are improving their products and services by "listening to the voice of the customer." So here's an idea: Why not answer the phone when they call you? Why shove sterile technology between you and the people with whom you do business, even if you try to make that technology less sterile by infusing it with gentler tones?

The answer, not surprisingly, involves money. According to the Journal, it costs somewhere between $3 and $9 per call when a customer inquiry reaches an agent. It costs five to seven cents to handle an automated call. Of course, those cost figures ignore the other side of the business equation: How much more loyal and enthusiastic is a customer whose problem was solved quickly and affably by a real human being? How many more products will that customer buy from you over his or her lifetime? How many potential customers will they talk to about their positive experience? Likewise, if you are willing to spend just a nickel to interact with a customer with a problem, why do you expect them to spend a nickel more with you in the future?

It's worth noting that some of the most successful, advanced, cutting-edge consumer brands I've gotten to know over the last few years explicitly reject the idea that that customer service is a cost to be cut rather than an strategic advantage to be honed. The best-known case is Zappos, which hires thousands of real, live, entertaining human beings to answer questions and encourages customers to interact with them over the telephone.

"We want to talk to our customers," CEO Tony Hsieh told me. "We encourage them to call. I speak at branding conferences and there's always lots of debate: Consumers are being bombarded by thousands of marketing messages, how do you get yours to stand out? Well, as unsexy and low-tech as it sounds, the telephone is really powerful. Most companies look at the telephone as an expense. We look at it as one of the best branding devices out there. You have your customer's undivided attention. If you get the interaction right, if you focus not on 'closing the sale' but on doing exactly what's best for that customer, it's something they'll remember and tell their friends and family about."

The same attitude infuses customer service at ING Direct, the Internet-based savings bank, which has built its competitive advantage around technology. But ING Direct, like Zappos, insists on answering telephone inquiries with live human beings, making the strategic bet that spending more to strengthen bonds is smarter than using automation to cut costs.

COO Jim Kelly explains it this way: "If you call us and you talk to one of our people, chances are you're going to find that just to be so refreshing not just in financial services, but in customer service anywhere. And you are going to talk about that to other people and you are going to just be wowed by that. And it's going to work to our advantage. "

Indeed, to signal his commitment to this philosophy, CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann actually relocated his office for a period of time from the executive floor to the call center, the better for him to be close to callers. "The customers who are right for you, they love you, they become evangelists," CEO Kuhlmann told me. And it's worth spending a few bucks per telephone call to create an army of evangelists.

So the next time you're trying to figure out how best to interact with customers, don't just focus on clever ways to cut costs. Focus instead on smart investments to strengthen bonds. That way, the next voice you hear might be one of your evangelists talking up your company, rather than an angry customer slamming down the phone in disgust.

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. His next book is Practically Radical. Follow him at twitter.com/practicallyrad.

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