Customer Support is an Asset Not a Liability

In the rush to streamline and cut costs, there is a tendency towards reduced customer contact with real people. This poses real challenges in industries such as computer software that depend on frequent customer feedback to make sure they are building systems that actually meet their end users' needs.

Car manufacturers currently estimate that by 2020, they will be selling cars that can drive themselves. What does this mean for the taxi business? Taxi drivers will become taxi owners, sitting at home while their cars drive customers around without them. Previous taxi drivers will be able to operate multiple taxis at once, all while sitting on a beach in the Caribbean. Of course, this means that there will be less business for each owner and consolidation will push some previous drivers out of business. Ultimately, like many other industries, individuals will be bought out by corporations until just a few giant taxi companies remain. Perhaps we will see United Airlines owning a taxi company to provide the complete travel experience from door-to-door.
One of the consequences of this progression, (I shall avoid the word ‘progress’ as a controversial label in this case) is reduced customer contact with real people which appears to be the all too common consequence of technological development.

The software industry has been one of the leaders in reduced client interaction. It began by outsourcing telephone support which included convoluted requirements for users to ‘press 1 for installation issues, press 2 for networking issues,’ and so on, until a recorded message finally told the increasingly frustrated user that they could find their answer at www.doityourself.com. Next, customer support was replaced by the on-line ‘help-center’ which encourages users to search a knowledge base or ask questions of the user community – users must increasingly do support for one another. More recently training professionals have been replaced by ‘instructional designers’ who create YouTube videos to show users how their products work. Sales have not escaped the march of automation as sales professionals have been replaced by on-line ordering systems.

Not only is there a correlation between technological ‘progress’ and customer interaction, but there also seems to be in inverse proportional relationship between the quality of customer support, including the amount of customer interaction, and company size. Perhaps it is because larger corporations can afford to introduce these automated systems before smaller companies can, or perhaps it is the huge demand from the financial markets for these giant corporations to generate larger and larger profits, resulting in reduced staffing.

But I think there is more to it than that. The larger the corporation, the more faceless they seem to become. Perhaps this is because as customers, we have become faceless to them. Within larger corporations we are increasingly seen as numbers, and not people, which leads to a less human-oriented approach to managing us. As large corporations, they can more easily dictate the product their clients will get and respond to ‘trends’ not individual needs. Nobody in those large, faceless corporations wants to have to deal with a real customer; outsource customer relationships, or better yet, automate the relationship; it will be easier to gather metrics and analyze the statistics that we have become.

Conversely, small organizations rely on the feedback from real people. They build their products according to the feedback of actual human users and they respond to support needs by talking to us. Word-of-mouth marketing is important to small companies, and so direct contact with clients is essential. That’s not to say technology is not used to improve the process; it is, but the actual relationship is between two people. This is what we need more of in this world: human-to-human contact. I am not a number, I am a real person.

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