Responding to Customers in a Virtual World

Amazon EchoI don’t know how typical I am, but I suspect there are a whole lot of people like me when it comes to dealing with customer service. It takes something really drastic in my life for me to want to pick up the phone and talk to a customer service rep. Only a lack of a broadband connection or having no money in my bank account would drive me to call a company. My wife and I have arranged our life to minimize such interactions. For instance, we shop by mail with companies that allow no-questions-asked returns.

The statistics I hear from my clients tell me that there are a lot of customers like me – ones that would do almost anything not to have to talk to a person at a company. And yet, I also hear that most ISPs average something like a call per month per customer. That means for everybody like me who rarely calls there are people that call their ISP multiple times per month.

It’s not like there aren’t things that I want to know about. There are times when it would be nice to review my bill or my open balance, but unless there is no alternative I would never call and ask that kind of question. But from what I am told, billing inquiries and outages are the predominant two reasons that people call ISPs. And if a carrier offers cable TV you can add picture quality to that list.

Customer service is expensive. The cost of the labor and the systems that enable communicating with customers is a big expense for most ISPs. Companies have tried various solutions to cut down on the number of customer calls, and a few of them have seen some success. For instance, some ISPs make it easy for a customer to handle billing inquiries or to look at bills online. This is something banks have been pretty good at for a long time. But it’s apparently difficult to train customers to use these kinds of web tools.

Many companies are now experimenting with online customer service reps who offer to chat online with you from their website. I don’t know the experiences other people have had with this, but I generally find this even less satisfactory than talking to a real person – mostly due to the limitations that both parties have of typing back and forth to each other. Unless you are looking for something really specific and easy, communicating by messaging is not very helpful and might even cost a company more labor than talking to somebody live. Even worse, many companies use a lot of pre-programmed scripts for online reps to reduce messaging response times, and those scripts can be frustrating for a customer.

There are a handful of solutions I have seen that offer new tools for making it easier for customers to communicate with an ISP. For instance, NuTEQ has developed an interactive test messaging system that can answer basic questions for customers without needing a live person at the carrier end. Customers can check account balances, report an outage, schedule and monitor the status of a tech visit or do a number of other tasks without needing to talk to somebody having to wade through a customer service web site.

But I think the real hope for me is going to be the advent in the near future of customer service bots. Artificial Intelligence and voice recognition are getting good enough so that bots are going to be able to provide a decent customer service experience. Early attempts at this have been dreadful. Anybody who has tried to change an airline ticket with an airline bot knows that it’s nearly impossible to do anything useful in the current technology.

But everything I read says that we will soon have customer service bots that actually work as well as a person without the annoying habits or real service reps like putting a caller on hold, losing a caller when supposedly transferring you to somewhere else, or in trying to upsell you to a product you don’t want. And there ought to be no holding times since bots are always available. If a bot could quickly answer my question I would have no problem talking to a bot.

But as good as bots are going to be even within a few years, I am waiting for the next step after that. I have been using the Amazon Echo and getting things done by talking to Alexa, the Amazon AI. Alexa still has a lot of the same challenges like Siri or the other AIs, but I am pleasantly surprised about how often I get what I want on the first try. In my ideal world I would tell Alexa what I want and she (it?) would then communicate with the bots, or even the people at a company to answer my questions. At the speed at which AI technology is improving I don’t think this is going to be too many years away. I may like customer service when my bot can talk to their bot.


3 thoughts on “Responding to Customers in a Virtual World

  1. I was reading an article the other day and it was about internet of things and that our modern day appliances are junk. But there was something that caught my eye that most of us are realizing about customer service : most of it is on the internet nowadays AND many companies are starting to follow the google model which is absolutely insane and terrible idea.

    Have you ever tried contacting Google if there’s a problem with one of their products? Have you ever found a 1-800 number? I never have.

    The author of these articles is addressing two problems I see when IOT devices come into play by tech companies who also are getting into the business of everyday appliances. Just imagine for a second if your connected “smart” washer was having a problem and it was designed by Google? Who do you call?

    “This is the bottom line based on what I have learned: Your appliances are total crap.

    Not only will they not make it to the stated 10 years warranty, and not only will the appliance manufacturers figure out how to not honor it out of the box, but you’ll be lucky in most cases if the current models being sold by these large manufacturers will make it to 3 to 5 years of use without a major equipment failure, tops.”

    Let’s talk about another company named Netgear who is notorious for terrible customer support on hardware they only support for a year. Even then they often try evading responsibility for the devices they sell which are plagued with buggy software that often it takes a hacker to publicly embarrass the company to fix security vulnerabilities on their products.

    A.I. is in it’s infancy. Although the technology is continuing to develop at a rapid pace, there is no replacement for speaking to an actual human being. I’ve done business with amazon and Apple and I always go through the steps when calling the companies to speak with a live service rep.

    Companies like Google are going to learn the hard way that if they are going into the business of making smart devices, internet support forums and an artificial intelligent customer service is not going to cut it.

    Our society has not evolved to the AMC British series called “Humans” where they have “synthetic appliances” walking around.

  2. Dear Doug:
    Actually, I think most real people PREFER a real, live customer service rep when they are calling a vendor about a product issue or problem…
    The disconnect here is that most companies think that more automation, less “live people”, and more scripted answers are better… For them maybe, to the finance department and the “pencil-pushers”, but not to those real customers that need real-time answers.
    In affect, a vendor that automates is telling you, “Buy my stuff, trust me, it works… now if you need help, tough tush. BTW, here are some FAQ’s from our marketing folks and lawyers that we think will help…” ((*ACK!*))
    To be honest, I care not whether my dishwasher can connect to the Internet — I just want it to consistently wash my dishes… for years… (Or maybe vendor Bosch can use its Internet capabilities to figure out how to design a D/W without a pool of water in the bottom?)

    • Large nationwide surveys show that somewhere between 40% and 50% of people hate talking to customer service and much prefer some alternative method to find out what they want to know. I’m in that category. I’m suggesting that technology might find a way to really make these people happy.

      We are probably also withing five years where for the normal transaction you might not easily be able to distinguish an AI from a live person as long as you are doing expected things like scheduling an appointment or checking an account balance. Experts expect AI to get that good.

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