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Beware the automation trap in customer service

Jul 03, 2011 Management, Sunday Nation

I have been a customer of a large global bank for a couple of decades. Recently, however, I closed all my accounts in despair. Why? Because after years of halfway decent service, this bank fell victim to the modern business malaise of automating all its customer interfaces.

I began fearing the worst some years ago when I visited a flagship branch of this bank in central London. There were NO tellers present – just machines. When I explained to the single attendant on duty that my issue required a discussion with a human being, I was directed to a telephone. I picked it up and found myself speaking to a call-centre representative – in India!

This bank’s service has been plunging since. It is next to impossible to speak to a knowledgeable human on any issue – you merely go through loops of automated telephone responses or descend into various levels of online hell. Hence my decision to quit. That, too, was no easy thing to pull off: my instructions were rendered incorrectly and I received threatening messages to regularize my account for months before I was able to detach myself from the madness.

Another example: last week, I became fed up with the spam-marketing phone calls I kept receiving from another international bank’s marketing staff overseas. I asked my local relationship manager to put and end to this. The reply? You have to fill out a form for that…

Even the best are messing it up. I have long admired Amazon.com’s ability to render good customer service online. I have even taught it as a model in my programmes. Yet, as Amazon grows and tries to scale up the automated service-delivery model, it too is hitting the buffers. Registering a non-standard complaint has become a journey through a labyrinth of indifferent and asinine online chat conversations.

I am writing about this so that Kenyan companies exercise caution as they rush down this route of automated customer experience. Let’s be clear: as a business advisor I understand very clearly the economics of automation. Companies can save massive amounts of money by moving transactions, complaints and queries online or to offshore call centres.

The economic saving is not in question; the emotional cost is. One of the few enduring sources of sustained competitive advantage in any business is an emotional bond with its customer base – a bond that creates brand affinity and enduring loyalty. That bond is precisely what too many large organizations are taking an axe to. In their rush to improve short-term bottom line, they harm their ability to create and protect longer-term loyalty.

Automation can also create the illusion of customer-friendliness. My wife told me how she rang a large local company and listened to their automated call waiting message – a silky, friendly, posh recorded voice promising all sorts of things. The message was then interrupted by a real person shouting “Hallo!” in a crude and harassed tone. Back to reality, sharpish.

A warm and friendly customer experience is one of the two or three cornerstones of business. Damage it and the whole edifice can tumble someday. As they hasten to embrace relationship-management software and machine-heavy customer interfaces, business leaders should stop and think. Do not inflict automated indifference on your customers. Do not break your brand essence in your wish to improve your balance sheets. The unseen balance sheet that captures the intangible emotional brand asset may suffer irreversible harm.

A thoughtful combination of investment in efficiency-boosting technology, and in human warmth, is needed. The former is easy, the latter very difficult. Most businesses take the undemanding, me-too route. If you’re leading a business, pay more attention to the feeling you provide, not just the process.

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