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Stupid Systems, Bad Customer Service

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BusinessWeek had a great article on customer vigilantes last week – Consumer Vigilantes. The inability of companies to provide decent customer service has become more and more of an issue in recent years. Partly this is due to off-shoring and cost-cutting, but I believe the stupidity of their information systems is even more to blame.

Most large companies have no choice but to automate their processes – the number of customers and their geographical distribution makes any else impractical. Yet the systems they use to do this are, frankly, dumb. They capture information, store it in a database and regurgitate it when someone asks them to. These systems do nothing with the data they have, learn nothing over time and have no advice to offer customers or staff who must use them.
– Websites display the same information for everyone, even for customers about whom much is known.
– Interactive Voice Response systems list the same options for everyone, even though the incoming caller ID tells them who you are
– Call center staff must refer the most basic decisions to supervisors and guess about the value of a customer
– Branch or store staff might have the information captured on the web or in the call center but the system gives them no guidance as to what to do with it
These systems are simply not smart enough to be useful. They don’t learn, they don’t improve, they don’t act.

But so much more could be done. Most companies have enough data to segment their customers so they can treat them more effectively. Data can be analyzed to predict wants and needs as well as likelihood of fraud or future business. Approvals for returns, upgrades, discounts, repairs can be broken down into the rules that apply so that call center representatives and even websites can approve them, Automated channels can be useful, staff can be empowered, customers can be treated right even by information systems. Yet companies seem unable or unwilling to make this leap. They have become so used to their dumb, passive computer systems that they cannot see an alternative. Customer treatment decisions are hidden in manuals, code, people’s heads and customers are being mistreated as a result.

People are not taking this lying down but most companies are still responding not by fixing their systems but by reacting. Instead of curing the disease they are applying a band aid. If their systems treated people right, perhaps they would not need to scan YouTube for videos or the blogosphere for rants. Perhaps they should read my series of posts about improving the customer experience instead and make their systems smart (enough) to prevent these problems…

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