Companies Don't Hate You… They Just Love Phone Trees More

Companies are slowly learning that those infuriating automated phone trees aren’t the answer to their customer service problems. Some experts even claim that automated systems anger customers. The New York Times decided to trace the history of the hated trees, while wondering if things will ever change.

It all started in the ’80s, when corporations birthed the phone tree out of a desire to cut costs and, understandably, gain some distance from their outlandishly outfitted customers. They took the need for space too far, even as America cleaned up its act, forgetting that bad customer service is a bad business decision.

“I’ve listened to thousands of people interacting with machines,” Mr. Rolandi said. “You hear sighs of resignation. You hear people swear. If businesses knew what I knew, they would not design them this way. Many people do not take into account the emotional state of the customer. When you call someone for customer service, you’ve got a problem and you’re probably in a bad mood. You hear someone telling you your call is so important that we won’t let you talk to a human. Then they slap people with too many options, and eventually, you’re in a fight with the system. When you do get a customer representative, you’re loaded for bear.”

The popular conception of outsourced call centers ruining our lives isn’t quite right. Fewer than 10% of call centers are based offshore. As Americans, we can all be proud of the more than 100,000 call centers we host, excluding telemarketers.

The Times thinks the tide is slowly turning in our favor.

For the first time, American corporations are acknowledging “customer service as something worth paying for rather than just red ink,” said [Jon Anton, director of benchmark research at the Center for Customer Driven Quality at Purdue,] who looks at call centers worldwide and, using a number of criteria, compares how well they work. “If you can satisfy customers and keep them buying, it’s as important as marketing.”

He said that in the last year or so some large companies have been creating a chief customer executive, whose success is measured not on profit, but on customer retention.

Another reason for this change is that the very technology that is driving us crazy is helping people fight back.

Consumers are posting their experiences with customer service online and warning people away from businesses that do not offer a good follow-up with customers. Secondly, there are Web sites that tell customers how to get around an automated system.

The Times cites Netflix as one example of an enlightened company switching its emphasis from automated support to well-trained, empowered call centers. We’ve lauded Netflix before, but don’t know of many other companies that are cutting down phone trees in favor of quality support.

What do you think? Are companies slowly improving their service, or are consumers just getting better at biting back?

Far From Always Being Right, the Customer Is on Hold [NYT]
(Photo: Getty)