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… thank you for holding

Am I alone in thinking that the pandemic has seen a marked deterioration in customer service? Countless times over these past six months I have sat ‘on hold’ on the phone, whilst an array of tunes from classical jazz to hiphop blast my ears, intermittently broken by the soft tones of the automated receptionist who informs me that my call is important, and all her colleagues are helping other customers. My record thus far is 57 minutes…..a utility company, and I had listened to virtually the entire ‘Just Jazz’ album by the time a ‘colleague’ came onto the phone.

Up until that point, the aforementioned ‘automated receptionist’ has implored me to visit the website to resolve my query! Fat chance of that…..the FAQs just direct you back in a loop and hey presto… need to call the 0800 number for further assistance! So why has our once world class customer service deteriorated so much? Are big companies hiding behind the pandemic as a convenient excuse to reduce staffing numbers, and thus reduce the number of customer enquiries that can be handled? Or are we (surely it isn’t just me) becoming more demanding or maybe just less tolerant?

There is no doubt that the flight to offshoring call centres that we saw a decade ago created the ‘new norm’. Low cost delivery appealed to many big companies and many customers happily traded the perceived lack of cohesive and clear communication with an operator in the Indian subcontinent, for the fact that the phone WAS answered in an acceptable timeframe, and that their enquiry WAS dealt with.

However, with the drive to automate customer service, even low cost offshoring became ‘dispensable’, as ‘online’ platforms became the norm for any customer service related matter. From vanilla FAQ’s to DM’s on Twitter…..customer service has become ‘faceless’. I don’t necessarily want an intimate relationship with my energy supplier….but when I have a faulty meter and the energy company is asking me for a meter reading…. should it take me four phone calls, over ninety minutes and then a promise of a ‘call back’ that didn’t happen, to resolve? No it shouldn’t. I just want to talk to someone who understands the issue and can help resolve it. That’s not too much to ask for is it?

So where have all the ‘colleagues’ disappeared to? Is this the great ‘furlough fiesta’ that we hear so much about….are they all being paid up until September and then – boom, they will be gone? Or is the new norm ‘working from home’ culture meaning that it’s somewhat easier for a ‘colleague’ to disappear for a few minutes here and a few minutes there, and therefore leave me ‘hanging on’ listening to more Just Jazz? Surely not? So, how do we explain the deterioration then? It is either less ‘colleagues’, more customer demand or the changed working day culture.

Before anyone emails me and points out ‘Steve, you can switch supplier if you aren’t happy’…..they are all the same, and I include in this ‘catch all’ moan, large household brands from the one which is ‘never knowingly undersold’, to the one that purports to be the ‘world’s favourite airline’. Where does that leave the customer? Ever more frustrated, potentially heightened blood pressure and a sense that ‘no one cares’. Will it change when we get back to the ‘proper’ new norm? I think if the big companies can continue to get away with it – they will. The incessant drive towards online solutions should be seen as an enabler, not the panacea. Meanwhile back the Just Jazz tracks…….

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Steve is a regular contributor to B2B publications, see some of his recent articles for insights into current business news, leadership and much more...