Customer Dis(service) Internet Style

in Technical, User Experience by | March 6th, 2009 | No Comments

For some organizations a Web site is a great way to cut down on customer service costs. Put up an FAQ, add a message board, create self-service documents, and more to reduce calls, emails, and other costly communications. However, at the end of the day humans are on the other end of that HTTP request and sometimes they really do want to talk to you so if you don’t there may be a cost involved.

For many sites finding a real person to talk to is quite difficult. In the offline world most folks have figured out to dial zero when in voice mail purgatory, but what to do when you are in Web contact limbo? You could start guessing emails like help@companyname.com, info@companyname.com, etc. and pen your question. Very likely this is going to go into a black hole or even bounce. Instead you likely click around looking for the contact section of the site which in many cases isn’t that easy to find. Hopefully they have a form, maybe they have email address(es) but rarely do they have a phone number or details about the names of live people. Anyway you take what you get contact wise, send away and hope for the best. Often times this doesn’t produce much and unless we were really miffed or interested it is a lost chance for contact. Sorry to say this seems not the exception as it should be but more often the rule.

As an example of the contact process recently I had enough negative energy built up to want to contact Hulu.com because they decided to lock out my Boxee software on AppleTV from accessing their video. Aside: AppleTV becomes quite a bit more interesting if you have more video on demand like Hulu on it, interesting to the point of being a "wow I want that" type of device from any visitor to my household.

I figured I ought to let Hulu know that I basically went from a non-vaguely aware user to a big fan to a non-fan in about a 30-day span. I thought knowing that kind of cycle existed might be useful or at least satisfy my frustration with them. So off I went found the contact form by digging into support and then discovered a list of emails (http://www.hulu.com/support/contact) A brief message (not a rant at all mind you) letting them know my concern and click. Away my message went into a black hole I figure maybe to do good maybe not. Oh well, I felt better screaming into the cyber cloud so all is well.

What I got an email back a few days later and from a real person! The main thing – I’m surprised by this. Mind you it isn’t some heartfelt missive, it mentions a link to a blog and had some form letter parts to the exchange, but there was also apparently someone who took 30 seconds to add a few sentences and provide their contact info too. Suddenly my view of Hulu went from faceless company to company trying to deal with changes probably from growth and well just challenges of running a business. Hulu Rating: +10.

Interestingly I then realized that for some reason this basic communication with an online organization was an exception to me and I do lots of things online. I simply was conditioned to expect customer service quality issues and impersonal communication even from the best of Web sites. From Amazon, to Ebay, to Google, and beyond I realized that I generally wasn’t treated in a personal human manner like I was in every non-Internet thing I did. In comparison I realized airline counter people offered real customer service value the majority of the time!?

I started thinking much deeper about the times I had tried to contact newspapers online (you know the dead tree ones), government agencies, various retailers, and so on. Mostly I hadn’t gotten much interaction at all. In some cases some form letters a few looking into it whatever the problem or question was, but mostly no interest, vague responses and very little follow-up. I thought some more and I considered it wasn’t a size issue either, the biggest Web brands seemed the worst and while the small ones did better it wasn’t always and when they got it bad they got personal. Web 2.0 people would likely say that with community this will change, I’m not so sure, but let’s hope so.

I figure something else is going to be the change. A simple understanding that Web communication concerns really do have consequence. Reality Check: THE Web IS THE REAL WORLD. When I am on the phone that is real. When I am on the Web that is real. When I am in person that is real. Sure there is communication difference but it is still real – no special rules when we get into the world of reality.

Case in point of the rules of the real world intruding on cyberspace today I read about Google and some fellow who sued them successfully. I consider that as much as I love Google they too are mostly a wall of nothing to me. Just recently my other firm tried to contact some known Googlers directly about something one of them brought up and silence nada. It had and always was for me par for the course. The expected contact reaction online…mostly bad.

I realize that in fact that while I love using Google product, when I interact with them outside of that it was mostly poor. As a writer to the PR group or helping my customer with search appliance issues it wasn’t generally not so good. They weren’t the only ones many of the Web age firms seem to require payment or the calling of personal favors to get good customer service.

Big sites online should seriously consider what it would it cost to have a customer care center. Even a bad one would be better than what most have. How does the offline world like Wells Fargo have one, Amex have one, and so on. Come to think of it most of these old organizations that service millions of people do but it seems similar level Web sites don’t? McDonald’s and Starbucks show that the monolith can have customer care even for very low end transaction costs so don’t give me the scale argument it doesn’t hold.

Prediction: the days of getting away with this level of Web customer service are going to be over soon. Call it recession rule #1 – customer service does matter people can go elsewhere or just not buy as much.

The thing about the Google article that struck me the most isn’t the right or wrongness of the fellow’s claim. It is that well he is a customer for better or worse and he wasn’t treated like one. In many cases such issues go away with just an explanation. No doubt you can’t make every customer a happy one, but if you don’t at least engage them you are going to make trouble for yourself quickly. Why this is so hard is beyond me.

I do not propose a Web 2.0 solution with everywhere engagement as
to monitor all Twitter channels, Blog posts, message boards for most people is in a word – ludicrous premature. Most site owners at this point can’t engage customers in any arbitrary setting quite yet. Instead first you must be responsible if they come to you and say “look I need help” or “I want to be heard.” As it is now clear to me despite claims otherwise by Web 2.0 consultants really quite few sites actually do this.

Even the best of the large folks online like Amazon really are pretty dehumanizing when compared to offline activities and they just shouldn’t be. Jeff Bezos does a good job compared to most with his firm but they don’t do a great job and they should. Consider when the failing big banks still have better customer care than profitable online sites there is still a major disconnect. No need to deal with the Twitterati or even the Facebook masses yet just get your site contact methods right and have a real human send something back setting expectations and follow-up. Who knows a phone call might even be in order! Where things are today you do that alone and you’ll surprise someone who uses the Web quite a bit and probably amaze those who don’t.