“Your call is important to us. Your estimated wait time is two hours.”

Sometime in the 1970s, during my 27-year extended leave of absence from the United States, someone came up with two conflicting ideas about how to generate a profit from customer service, which is not traditionally a profit center. I believe these two strategies have led to the extinction of product and service quality as we once knew them.

  • Commodify and mass-produce customer service. Customer service used to mean delivering individual, genuine, committed, caring responses to customers’ questions and concerns. The customer would go to a company’s service professional, who was actually well acquainted with the product or service she or he was supporting, and had the skill and knowledge to understand a problem and deliver a solution. Service professionals were trained in the actual subject matter, so they could understand and solve problems first-hand, rather than just reading responses from scripts or transferring the customer to a supervisor. Phone centers were staffed by intelligent receptionists and switchboard operators who could listen to the customer’s problem, understand it, and route the customer to the correct specialist extension or department. The goal of service was not to rack up as many shoddy “customer contacts” in an hour as possible, but to tenaciously work with a customer until the problem was solved to complete satisfaction.

    But training is expensive, and so is the CSR’s time. So instead, companies developed self-support websites, IVR phone trees, “I’ll just check that” scripts, computers with humanesque voices, and canned-text email and letter responses.

    The more automated the tools became, and the further removed from customer satisfaction the service industry infrastructure became, the lower the expectations of human service personnel. (I remember returning to the U.S. for a visit in the late 70s and being shocked to see cash registers in fast-food outlets with pictures of the products on the keys, so cashiers did not have to know how to read the word “cheeseburger” or know the basic math required to enter the prices. And relatively recently, I realized with horror that today, cashiers under the age of 30 or so do not typically know how to “make change,” instead relying on their computers to tell them how much change to give a customer who has handed them a dollar for a 60-cent purchase.)
  • Provide “caring statements.” Some dubious “consumer research” initiative — perhaps a focus group or quick online survey — led businesses to the perception that customers will spend more money if products and services are offered in a way that seems vaguely personal and empathetic. But genuine personal engagement is expensive: it takes time to learn a customer’s name and something about his or her life, build a rapport, and make a positive impression. So instead, companies developed low-investment “instant empathy” strategies, and talked themselves into believing that customers would actually feel valued when exposed to them.

    Live telephone operators used to say “I’m sorry, can you hold?” and would then check back with the customer every minute or two to update her on the expected wait time and explore alternative options. This expensive approach was replaced with a recorded “Your call is important to us,” often played over annoying elevator music and between advertisements for half an hour or longer.

    Instead of store staff being trained to engage personally with customers, a single “greeter” was paid (not much, presumably) to stand just inside the front door and intone “Welcometobestbuy, welcometobestbuy, welcometobestbuy” every time a human body broke their field of vision. Form letters that were devoid of any personal content were updated to include sentences like “We appreciate your business” and “We know that your time is valuable.” Supermarket cashiers were told to look down at your receipt and read your name aloud as they told you to have a nice day. Junk mail systems were redesigned to provide envelopes addressed in a font that looked a little like handwriting, with sales brochures that looked a little like individually written letters, complete with printed “handwritten” signatures at the bottom. The less effect these strategies proved to have, the more they were beefed up. Soon, call center staff were trained to say things like “Welcome to General Industries, where customer satisfaction comes first and our patrons are important to us. How can I exceed your expectations and provide you with truly first-rate service this morning?”

Complementing these two service strategies was the product strategy of rushing to market with an incomplete or poorly made product, rather than investing in quality. The idea was that it would be a waste of potential revenue to wait until a product was actually tested before selling it, and that it would be cheaper in the long run to sell faulty products and replace them if absolutely necessary. In the software industry, rather than wasting time and money on testing and perfecting the product prior to release, products were released with known flaws, in the knowledge that “service packs” and “updates” would be supplied months later, and often only when requested. Rather than employing beta-testers, the software developers duped the paying public into testing their products for them. Manufactured products became less and less reliable, because refurbishing a failed product is cheaper than enforcing quality standards throughout development and production.

Finally, the doctrine of the better mousetrap became obsolete and was abandoned. Rather than striving to provide a superior product or better service, competing businesses aligned to offer the lowest, cheapest common denominator. So switching banks, airlines, cable providers or phone companies is no longer a viable solution.

Where will all of this lead us? Why does the marketplace not rebel against it? And what is the consumer’s alternative?

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