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What Happened to Customer Service?

  |  January 6, 2003   |  Comments

Jeremy wants to know: Is it just him, or have most companies totally forgotten the importance of customer service?

Conventional wisdom says it's easier (and less expensive) to keep a current customer than acquire a new one. Why, then, is it so difficult for current customers to get any help?

Weak online support systems include terrible knowledge bases; painfully slow response times to emailed questions; difficult-to-find service numbers (often not toll-free); incredibly long waits in call queues to speak to service representatives; restrictive service policies that preclude doing what's necessary to make customers happy; and more. All these things add up to customer service nightmares.

What makes it even more frustrating is I'm a techie. I can fix many electronic problems encountered by the average consumer. If something goes wrong with my computer, TV, or home theater system, more often than not I can monkey around and fix the issue. It's not frequent I do need help. I can't imagine what nontechnical folk need to go through.

If you regularly read my column, you know I'm a digital video recorder (DVR) zealot. Used to be a TiVo zealot, but our TiVo blew up and the company couldn't help. The damn thing kept getting stuck in a restarting loop and was totally unusable.

I called support and sat on hold for 30 minutes. What kills me is if you call the new customer sales line (not necessarily in this case, but in general), the wait is less than a minute. Companies are obviously emphasizing customer acquisition over retention. Anyway, once I finally connected, the rep ran through a few obvious things then told me I'd have to send the unit in for repair. Rubbing salt in the wound, the rep informed me it'd cost over $150 and take up to six weeks.


I'd convinced at least five of my friends to buy a TiVo unit. I loved it and would rave about it to anyone who would listen. This experience was souring. I was loyal. I was vocal. TiVo ruined it by not taking care of me.

Angry and frustrated, I ran off and bought ReplayTV, TiVo's biggest competitor. Less than two months later, it started doing weird things. I spent an hour at the online support area searching for a solution, to no avail. I called the support center every day for a week at different times of the day. Every time I call, a recording said something to the effect of, "We are experiencing unusually high call volumes at this time. Please try again later."

Another example: I bought a cell phone from one of those massive electronics retail chains a few months back. The sales guy convinced me the enhanced warranty/service package was a good idea. I usually ignore those pitches, but this guy seemed to make sense. He said it would be easier if the phone needed service. I'd just bring it back to the store and they'd take care of it -- no need to mess with the service carrier.

Turned out the phone just about never rang. I was missing important calls left and right. So I took it back to the store's service desk. I was ignored for about 10 minutes, and finally a surly guy came over to "help." I explained my situation, and he immediately went to work trying to replicate the problem. He dialed my cell phone number. Sure enough, it didn't ring. But he said he kept getting a "number not active" recording or something like that. My wife, standing next to me, dialed the number on her cell phone. As usual, mine didn't ring and she got my voice mail.

Clearly, the number was active, and the idiot behind the counter didn't know how to work his own phone system. I said this as politely as I could to the guy. He told me flat out they couldn't help me. I showed the warranty paperwork and explained I was told they should be able to help. He didn't even look at me. He was watching a half-dressed young girl at the cell phone counter behind me. Still without looking at me, he repeated there was nothing he could do. Ugh.

What does all this have to do with advertising technology?

A lot of campaigns on the Web are focused on customer acquisition. There are many success stories using the online channel to accomplish this goal. But what's the point of acquiring a customer if you're not going to make every possible effort to keep that customer once she's on board?

Technology can help. Next month, we'll look at some online customer support systems that are helping some of the world's biggest companies maintain positive relationships with their existing customers.


Jeremy Lockhorn

Jeremy Lockhorn leads the emerging media practice (EMP) at Razorfish. The team functions as a think-tank on new technologies and next-generation media, and operates as an extension of current client teams. EMP is focused on driving groundbreaking marketing solutions for clients. Jeremy is a filter, consultant, and catalyst for innovation - helping clients and internal teams to understand, evaluate, and roll out strategic pilot programs while reinventing marketing strategies to leverage the power of emerging media. Jeremy joined the agency in 1997 and is currently based in Seattle, WA. His Twitter handle is @newmediageek.

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