IT can't save good customer service

Good customer service is something that can't be automated with IT.

My first visit to the U.S. was as a student in 1976. I went on a two-month backpacking tour, crisscrossing country on Greyhound buses. In those days, before ATMs and credit cards, my cash for this adventure was traveller's checks. The brand I chose was American Express. They offered to replace them if they were lost or stolen.

It was a prescient choice. I lost them twice on that trip. However, the speed and efficiency with which American Express replaced those traveller's checks greatly impressed me. I determined that any organization focusing so strongly on customer service was one I should continue to use. Later on this enticed me to obtain an American Express card.

I mention this because of a recent conversation with an IS executive. We were discussing the challenge of getting good customer service. He mentioned that recently, after 23 years as a member, he had cancelled his American Express card. In the two months since he hadn't received a single phone call or letter from the company to determine why he had done this.

I could well relate to his experience. Every time I try and call American Express I get directed to a call center in India. It seems a company that was once a byword for great customer service now sees this as something to be delivered as cheaply as possible.

Yet the irony is that in the years since 1976 the advances in IT should have made it much easier for organizations like American Express to deliver effective customer service. When I was replacing my traveller's checks all those years ago it's highly likely that the IT environment responding to my request was a mainframe batch system. The concept of a customer relationship management (CRM) system was unknown. Instead the company relied much more on its staff. As I now realize, it was their sensitivity to my needs that made the favorable impression on me.

CRM has been one of the IT industry's popular buzzwords for at least five years. However, this enthusiasm is perhaps a reflection of what is wrong with business today. Many of the biggest companies around fail to understand that you cannot automate good service. You can support front-line staff with effective IT applications, but the human component remains essential for applying the knowledge contained in these systems.

Nevertheless, in defense of those American Express staff in call centers in India, they have nearly always been polite and have usually solved my problems. However, an executive mind-set of cutting customer service costs must have some impact on the attitude and morale of staff, wherever they happen to be based. Eventually, the penny will drop for the Indian call center that their work can also be done more cheaply elsewhere. Insecure staff usually do not convey a positive and friendly attitude to the needs of clients.

Some airlines are a classic case in point. In the last month alone I have met three executives who are deliberately exhausting their frequent flyer points on a local airline. They are fed up with a dispirited staff and their grumpy attitude to service. All these people fly many thousands of miles a year. They are significant clients for this company. Yet they have come to see that schemes like frequent flyer programs have bred a belief that customers are locked in and good service is irrelevant.

I believe that CRM is indicative of the challenges we face in IT. Despite at least 40 years evidence to the contrary, many in business still see IT as something of a silver bullet. Yet technology is only as good as the people who drive it. If CRM is to succeed then organizations need to devote as much attention to the people who operate their systems as the equipment itself. When we achieve that, then perhaps consumers may rediscover the type of customer service that once typified many great companies.

This story, "IT can't save good customer service" was originally published by CIO Australia.

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