From time to time, I like to write a column about a subject that is near and dear to my heart: customer service. Sometimes I use these columns as a forum to recognize companies who do an outstanding job of providing customer service. Sadly, I so rarely have positive customer service experiences that I feel the need to shout it from the mountain tops when I do. I cling to the hope that by doing so I will inspire other companies to improve in this area.
We have taken a giant step backwards with regard to the use of the telephone based customer service. More and more companies are making it absolutely impossible for customers to reach them by telephone. I run across e-commerce web sites every day that provide absolutely no means of contacting the company by phone. These companies don’t want to talk to their customers. If you have a question, you have to submit it by email and wait — sometimes for several days — to receive a reply. To make matters worse, some of these companies try using technology to construct a reply to your e-mail. I believe that these companies use software that scans your message for key words and then chooses a response from a list of pre-formulated responses. In no case have such automated responses ever come close to answering my question.
Even the companies that do allow you to call them hide their phone numbers so well on their web site that finding a customer service or technical support phone number is like playing a game of Where’s Waldo? A primary example of this is Symantec. If you have a problem with one of their products, you need to wind your way through their knowledge data base before you can come out the other end and get to see a phone number you can call — a process that wastes a good five minutes of your time. In other words, the last thing Symantec wants to do is talk to you. They would rather have their customers root around for hours in their so-called knowledge base than actually talk to a customer.
It would be bad enough if companies just wanted to avoid talking to customers. They also want to avoid talking to their affiliates — business partners who drive business their way.
Recently, I signed up with a number of affiliate programs (please see the letter at the top of my home page). One of the companies I decided to partner with is Buy.com. I chose to partner with Buy.com because I often order from them myself, and I have found that they consistently have the lowest prices on some of the printer supplies I purchase.
Well, I immediately ran into a problem with Buy.com. One of the links they allow affiliates to create on their web sites promises free shipping on orders over $99. I copied this link to my web site, only to find out through personal experience that Buy.com is not honoring this offer.
And for the past four days, I have been arguing with them — by e-mail, since there is no way to call them. Each e-mail exchange takes about 12 hours, so I am able to communicate with them about once a day.
(For you information, they are claiming that the offer is no longer valid, even though they still make the offer on their web site.)
The point is, as a business partner, I am unable to work with them to resolve the issue, because I can’t talk to them. We can exchange e-mails until hell freezes over, but the problem is clearly not going to be solved. So I have replaced the Buy.com icon I had on my web site with a different icon — one that makes no reference to free shipping — because I don’t want to have my readers complaining to me if they place an order for more than $100 and get charged for shipping.
The Logical Progression of Customer No-Service
This whole notion that technology should eliminate the need for verbal communications absolutely astounds me. I can only imagine what goes on in the board room of some of these companies. Here is how I see customer service progressing over the next few years.
CEO: Bob, eliminating the phone number on our web site didn’t solve the customer service problem. We’re now getting inundated with e-mails from customers. It’s costing us too much to reply. What can we do?
Chief Technology Officer: I have an idea. Let’s remove the e-mail link from our web site and provide a street address instead. That way, only the customers that really need help will bother to contact us.
CEO: Great idea Bob! I knew I made the right decision when I hired you. Let’s do it!
Three months later
CEO: Bob, our mailroom is swamped. It’s costing us too much to answer these letters, and customers are writing a second and third time to tell us that we did not understand their problem. What can we do?
Chief Technology Officer: I was afraid this might happen, Jack, and I have a plan. From now on, we require customers to send us $10 with each customer service request. That way, only the customers that really, really have problems will contact us.
CEO: Great idea Bob! Where the hell would I be without you?
Three months later
CEO: Great job, Bob! We haven’t had as single complaint or inquiry from a customer in two months! Our customer support costs are way down. We’ve laid off both of our highly trained customer service specialists and are saving $10,000 a year!
CFO: If I may interject, Jack, I have even better news for you. We can lay off all of our order entry people also, because we haven’t had an order in two months. And we can let all of the people in shipping go too.
Far fetched? Perhaps. I mean, the idea of a company going out of business for providing lousy customer service is a ridiculous and far fetched as a major corporation going out of business due to an accounting scandal. And we all know that will never happen.