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Customer Assistance

As a consumer, how do you feel when you call a business and hear a recorded message like one of the following:

  •  “Your call is important to us.  Please continue to hold and the next available service agent will…”
  • “Thank you for calling.  Our regular office hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. …”, or even
  • “Please listen carefully to the following menu options.  To access our automated information service, press 1…”

 How do you feel when you go to a large, modern “superstore” and have no idea where to find the item you are looking for, and see no one to ask?

 Or perhaps when you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew your driving license – a procedure that will take approximately ten minutes – and find yourself waiting in line for an hour?

 How do you feel when you purchase a new electronic device only to find the owner’s manual missing or unintelligible, and the support options expensive or inaccessible?

 These failures in customer assistance (or citizen assistance) have various root causes, but in each case the service provider will cite cost constraints as the primary reason they are “unable” to offer prompt, knowledgeable help to customers when and where they need it.  Increasingly, however, this excuse is no longer valid.  The New Neighbors, properly employed and trained, excel at providing very low-cost, high-quality customer assistance, and companies and governments who figure this out first will reap tremendous rewards in terms of customer or citizen loyalty and satisfaction, at lower costs than the mediocre service they provide today.

 What Is Customer Assistance?

Customer Assistance services help people select, purchase and use just about every kind of product or service available.  Information about the products we buy can be as important as the product itself – for example, we need to know what it is, where to find it, how much it costs, how to purchase it, how to install and use it, what to do if it fails to perform to our satisfaction, and whether and how it can be upgraded or recycled.  Vendors currently provide this information to their customers in many ways: on packaging, in sales literature, through their sales force or retail network, on their website, and from customer support agents in call centers. 

 How Does Customer Assistance Work?

Unfortunately, not very well.  Providing quality customer assistance (defined as “prompt, knowledgeable help to customers when and where they need it”) has always been an expensive proposition for companies.  Customers appreciate it when they see it (and perhaps even more when they don’t), but often they shop for products based on the lowest price, only to discover the variation in support levels after the fact. 

 Vendors have long been frustrated by this dilemma.  If they provide premium levels of support, they need to include the cost of that support in the price of their products.  But most customers (especially consumers) are not likely to factor that into their purchase decision.  So support levels tend to drift down to a lowest common denominator.  This helps explain why very few firms today offer satisfactory support experiences to their customers. 

 Here is an example of customer assistance in action, using a simple task that could be handled today by New Neighbors anywhere in the world: a change of address.  Contrast this description of how it could work with the section that follows: an actual transcript of how it works today.

 1. How it could work:

I call my long distance company to change my address.  A friendly receptionist answers on the first ring, and takes care of the change in less than a minute.  This makes me happy.  The call costs me nothing, and costs them about thirty-five cents.

 A simple task, no big deal.  Right?  Well, here is the transcript of how this actually works today:

 2. How it does work:

I call my long distance company to change my address.  OK, this one is easy.  Simple task, I already have the number memorized from their ads (1-800-call att), and, after all, it’s the phone company.  Who better to provide telephone-based service?

I dial the number, and they answer before it even rings! Wow, this is going to be good, I can tell already… 

  “AT&T.  To place a calling card or credit card call, press 1.  To place a collect call, press 2.  For AT&T customer service, press 3.  For double O info US directory, press 4.  For operator assistance, press 0.”
  ‘hmm…must be customer service.’  [3]

AT&T:  “For questions about your bill or about calling plans, such as one-rate, press 2.  To request calling card customer service for residential customers, press 3.  For corporate card servicing, press 4.  To choose AT&T as your long distance carrier, press 5.”

me:  ‘Wow, not sure about that one.  Better guess.’  [2]

AT&T:  “If are calling about your home telephone bill or about a calling plan such as one-rate, press 1. If your request concerns a bill from AT&T for just your calling card calls, press 2.   If your request concerns your Universal Credit Card, please hang up and dial 1-800-…

me:  ‘1.  Definitely 1.  I think we’re about there.’  [1]

AT&T:  “AT&T, may I help you?”  (At last, a live person!)

me:  “Yes, I need to change the address on my account, please.”

AT&T: “Oh, I’m sorry, sir.  To do that you’ll have to call our business office.  Would you like that number?”

me: “You can’t help me with that?”

AT&T: “No, I’m sorry sir.  But if you’ll call 1-800-222-0300, they can take care of that for you.”

me:  “Well, OK, I guess.  Thanks.”

AT&T:  “Thank you for calling AT&T.”

 Well, that’s a little disappointing.  But I’m a good sport, so I hang up and dial the new number.  Once again, they answer before it even rings…

 AT&T:  “AT&T.  Thank you for calling AT&T consumer service. This call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance.  For help with your existing service, press 1.  For website and Internet access, press 2”
  ‘easy one.’  [1]

AT&T:  “Please stay on the line for our automated service.  If you need additional service, please call back during our regular business hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday.”

 Dang.  It’s Friday evening, on the west coast.  Must have missed them.  I wander through the automated service for a few minutes, but apparently they don’t do address changes that way.  OK, make a note to call back on Monday morning.

 (60 hours later)

 AT&T:  “AT&T.  Thank you for calling AT&T consumer service. This call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance.  For help in English, press 1.  Si prefiere continuar en espanol, oprime el numero 2.”

me:  ‘Actually, I’m bilingual.  But this is already more complicated than I was expecting, so let’s stick with English.’  [1]

AT&T:  “To sign up for a calling plan, press 1.  To speak with a sales assistant, press 2.  For help with your existing service, press 3.  For website and Internet access, press 4”

AT&T:  “We need to get some information from you in order to verify your account.  If you are calling from your home telephone, press 1.  If you are not calling from your home telephone, press 2.

me:  [2]

AT&T:  “Please enter your 10-digit telephone number including the area code.”

me:  (6505558712)

AT&T:  “You entered 6505558712.  If that is correct, press 1.  If not, press 2.

me: [1]

AT&T: “Please hold for the next available customer service agent.”

AT&T: (about a minute or so of soft instrumental music.  very pleasant.)

AT&T:  “Your call is very important to us.  Please continue to hold for the next available customer service agent.”

AT&T: (more soft, instrumental music.  kind of an annoying tune.)

AT&T:  “We apologize for the delay.  Your call is very important to us.  Please continue to hold for the next available customer service agent.”

AT&T: (incessant music continues.  I think my dentist plays this same tape.)  “We apologize for the delay.  Your call is very important to us.  Please continue to hold for the next available customer service agent.”

AT&T: (I’m trying to decide whether to throw the phone against the wall or jump up and down on it. Suddenly, the music stops and I hear a voice-).  “Thank you for calling AT&T consumer services.  This is Katie, how may I help you today?”

 Katie takes care of the change in less than a minute.  She’s nice, but by now I really regret choosing this long distance carrier.  I’m even having second thoughts about moving.  I’ve spent about 20 minutes on the phone over a three-day period.  The whole thing probably cost AT&T about $2.50 in hard cash, not counting the loss of goodwill.

 You may be wondering, why would anyone – especially “the phone company” – spend $2.50 to do a really crummy job of something that they could do really well for thirty-five cents?  Anyway, that’s what I was wondering.  If they would just call, I’d be happy to explain it to them.  Now there’s a thought – them calling me

 First, I’d answer the phone before it rings, just like they do.  Then I’d say…

 me:  “Thank you for calling Jesse Denek.”

AT&T: “Hello?”

me:  “Your call is very important to me.  I really mean it – I’ve been waiting my entire life for this call.  So let me just put you on hold while I go sort my sock drawer.  I’ll be back sometime this afternoon.  While you’re waiting, I’ll let you listen to this tape of my daughter’s first violin recital.  If you have a problem with all this, press 1…”

Service Export and Customer Assistance Today

A few leading firms, mostly technology firms, are looking to Service Export Centers in India or the Philippines to help solve the dilemma of high-cost human services vs. ineffective and frustrating automated help.  Technical support is the first major customer assistance application to become a mainstream Service Export business, and success here is leading to expansion of services in other areas as well: customer acquisition, customer reception, bill payment, pre-sales support and government services can all be found today in Service Export centers in various parts of the world.

 Where Will You Access These Services?

Most products and services you can buy - from a can of Pepsi to a new car – include a telephone number and a website address so that you can answer questions or solve problems related to the product.  The initial impact of the new neighbors on Customer Assistance has been to lower the costs for the service providers and to make it easier and less time-consuming for consumers to connect with a live agent. In the near future, however, customer assistance will appear in new, more convenient places as well.  Some examples:

 In-Store Assistance.  Perhaps the biggest trend in retail trade in the last decade is the emergence of “superstores” – large, efficient retail stores with low prices and a great selection of products.  Who hasn’t been in a Wal-Mart, an Office Depot, a Target, a Home Depot, or a Best Buy (or, outside the U.S., a Gigante, an Auchan, or an IKEA)? 

 But along with the miles of store aisles and the great prices, it’s easy to get a little lost and it’s often hard to find help, even though most of these stores spend large amounts of money on staff training.  They simply can’t afford to have enough people standing around the store directing traffic and answering questions.  Until now.

 Several applications under development will offer consumers in-store assistance from remote agents.  In its simplest form, consumers will pick up a telephone and speak with an agent who can provide store directory assistance, product specifications, or inventory information.  More sophisticated systems envision small displays located throughout the store with human-powered avatars (computer-generated characters) that can recognize you and even accompany you as you shop.

 Introducing an application we call “shelf-help”. People located around the world appear on small displays located around the store, when and where you need them.  From their workstation, these service agents have complete access to store aisle directories, inventory and pricing data, and product installation and use information.

 You can see crude prototypes of shelf-help today:  in-store telephones, sales associates with iPod Touches, and self-help kiosks.  And many of the big investments required to make this application a full-fledged reality have already been made: the content exists now, and new devices and connectivity options are appearing every week.  So who will be first, The Home Depot or Lowes? Target or Wal-Mart?  We’re waiting!

 In-Product Assistance.  It seems natural to us that smartphones, tablets and even ordinary cell phones are connected to networks that could have a service agent on the other end.  But soon many other products will be connected to the network that will be able to take advantage of the teleservices export capabilities.  Your next automobile may have a live connection to the Internet.  The Internet will transform refrigerators, audio/video entertainment centers, security systems and even furnaces from appliances to functional service depots for you.  In each case, human agents “in” the product will simplify the user interface, monitor conditions and make reasoned judgments, give advice, and even entertain you.

 Companies and other organizations that figure out that great customer service actually is an affordable option will reap tremendous benefits in terms of customer loyalty and increased sales and profits.  The new neighbors will be the key to a transformational new view of possibilities for Customer Assistance.  And the biggest beneficiaries will be the consumers and citizens helped by the new services.

(see a list of Customer Assistance services)