Your Call is Very Important

In his podcast, Akimbo [https://www.akimbo.me/], Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

The 800-number became popular with corporations for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it was free for customers to use. The 800-number technology came just in time back when making a long-distance call was expensive. The second reason was the fact that corporations could scale it easily. The 800-numbers turned into a potent customer service tool.

There are three reasons why corporations deployed 800-numbers.

  • The first reason is to fix a short-term emergency for customers. Having customers call the company directly, instead of the retailers, is the essence of customer service.
  • The second reason is to transform the customer experience. For example, FedEx’s business model of picking up packages from the customers would be very difficult to implement without the 800-number.
  • The third reason is to use the 800-number to build a competitive advantage with a direct connection with the customers. 800-numbers shift more profit to the company which made the products, rather than the retailers. Also, the direct connection to customers allows us to build ever deeper relationships with the people who want to buy from us.

Over time, the companies who had successfully used 800-numbers started to shift their mindsets. Instead of being a tool for marketing and customer services, the 800-numbers have become an operational expense. It went from being a marketing/growth feature to be a cost item that should be minimized or eliminated.

As companies tried to squeeze profit out of every corner, the people-oriented customer service became a target. We get the recording that our call is important, but the company’s interaction with us tells us otherwise. We hear about the unusually heavy call volume, which of course is nonsense.  What we are hearing is the computer deciding to filter out as many people as it can and reduce the demand. Also, companies are increasingly pushing us to self-service. As we move to the web, customer service is disappearing. The customer interaction has turned into a corrupted exercise with two side-effects.

The first side-effect is the outbound phone spams, the human spam and the robotic computer calls that try to trick us to raise money, to sell us useless merchandise, and to hassle us. The second side-effect is the human beings on the other end in the call center. They are being pushed to be faceless cogs. They are not allowed to care, and computer systems control everything they do. What we have done is trained generations of people to expect that it is okay for that person on the other end of the line to not act like a person.

There is no easy answer to this phenomenon, and artificial intelligence could be changing the game further. Instead of leveraging AI to dial out more spams or to turn more people into faceless zombies, AI can be a great tool to help us get back to the essence of customer service, which is to improve our interactions with our customers.