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Why your -- and everyone else's -- customer service stinks

Frustration with customer service teams isn't new. But there are some reasons why it is seemingly getting worse.

Picture it: You call your internet provider for a service problem. The system doesn't understand your request, and you spend the next couple of minutes screaming at it for an agent just to be dumped into a queue where you wait another 30 minutes to speak with a human. You're finally connected with a live agent, where you must explain the problem again and end up taking out your frustrations on the person in your line of fire.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, for many, this is their experience with call centers today. They experience frustratingly bad service that makes them want to go off the grid and never talk to people again.

According to a Metrigy study of 502 consumers in North America, 36% said customer service has gotten worse, while 27% said it's gotten better and 37% said there's no change.

"If you talk to consumers, more will say it's getting worse than getting better," said Robin Gareiss, CEO and principal analyst at Metrigy. "But businesses will say it's getting better."

Liz Miller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, agreed.

"There's a growing chasm between what customers think their experience should be versus what businesses are delivering," she said.

Why is customer service so bad?

According to Scott Sachs, president at SJS Solutions, customer service has had the same issues for 30 years: hiring, training, motivation -- anything people-related. For many people working in customer service, it is not a career; it's just something to pay the bills. And, when someone is offered $1 more an hour somewhere else, they jump ship. They are simply not invested in their job.

There is also a belief that customers want to use self-service and cut out human agents. But that depends on the demographic. According to Metrigy research, younger generations prefer self-service, while older generations don't.

"The biggest mistake I see companies make is forcing [customers] to talk to a bot and giving them no way out of the loop," Gareiss said.

Types of customer service graphic
Here are the different types of customer service.

There are also too many systems for customer service agents to sift through, Sachs said. These systems include ticketing, CRM, help desk, billing, email, social media and contact center systems. While systems may be easier to use today than in the past, there are just too many of them.

"It's not a badge of honor to have multiple systems in front of you in the customer service world," Sachs said.

Gareiss said, while the technology itself is pretty good, the execution is not.

"A lot of the onus right now is on the organizations to implement these technologies properly and rely on technology partners more than they are," Gareiss said.

In addition to disconnected agent systems, customer service channels are often siloed. As customers hop from channel to channel, information doesn't carry over, and they must repeat themselves.

According to Gartner research, 88% of customer journeys that start in self-service channels touch multiple channels. Also, 62% of customers said transitions between service channels are high effort. Only 13% begin and remain in self-service.

"I don't care how amazing and efficient your technology is; you still need to acknowledge and fix what caused your problem in the first place," Miller said.

We're just exhausted as a people. And there are some days just having someone be nice to you is a standout.
Liz MillerVice president and principal analyst, Constellation Research

Overseas call centers can also play a part in poor customer experience, as there is a language barrier, making it difficult for callers to get the help they need. While these agents may speak English, they often have difficulty understanding what callers are saying.

"Speaking and conversing are two different things," Sachs said. "Just because you can speak a language doesn't mean you can have a real conversation."

Another reason for poor service is many businesses consider customer service and support a line item in their budget.

"Call centers are an expense," Sachs said. "No one has ever proven the profitability of a call center."

Businesses treat customers great when they are prospects ready and willing to spend money, Miller said. But, as soon as that money is spent, businesses want customers to talk to automated systems.

"The organizations where you see the best customer service fundamentally look at service as an opportunity to expand a profitable relationship," Miller said.

Keeping existing customers happy also increases retention. This is good for an organization's bottom line, as it costs less to retain existing customers than to acquire new ones.

"I think people's patience and tolerance have gone down," Sachs said. "People are more argumentative than they've been before. People's attitudes have changed. Kindness has gone by the wayside."

Customer service teams are equally frustrated

Customers aren't the only ones with headaches.

"It's really hard to be in customer service," Miller said.

Customer service and customer support agents spend hours each week calming down angry customers, using multiple systems that don't talk to each other, all while trying to meet their organization's set performance metrics. It's easy for employees to start their workday in a foul mood if they feel like they're walking into a battleground each day.

Organizations need to take care of their employees and can do so in the following ways:

Benefits of good customer service graphic
Here are some benefits of good customer service.
  • Empower employees. Give agents the ability to resolve situations without further escalation. For example, give them a budget to offer customers refunds or prorate accounts.
  • Provide training. Provide agents with ongoing training on tools and procedures to properly do their jobs. And offer upskilling opportunities so they can grow in their careers.
  • Offer better benefits. Providing benefits demonstrates to employees that the company cares and is investing in them. Benefits can include increased pay; paid time off; and health, dental and matching retirement plans.

Those same agents are also aware of self-service options within their organization, but 39.4% worry that advances in technology may eliminate their jobs, according to Gartner research. Businesses can alleviate this uneasiness by doing the following:

  • Be transparent about self-service capabilities, and provide updates about enhancements.
  • Share the value customers get by starting their journey in digital channels.
  • Communicate the value this provides to frontline teams.

How businesses can begin to address the problem

AI can take some pressure off contact centers, but it is by no means the solution to bad customer service. Human action is still required.

"I think it's a good tool internally for companies," Sachs said.

Ways AI can be used in contact centers include the following:

  • Sentiment analysis. Sentiment analysis identifies the emotional tone in customer phone calls, text messages, emails and chat sessions. It can detect positive, negative and neutral sentiments and alert agents to what kind of customer they will be speaking with so they can adjust their tone accordingly.
  • Intelligent routing. Intelligent routing systems work by sending customers to the appropriate contact center agent based on the request. This prevents multiple transfers and reduces call times. Keep in mind: This only works if a human programs the system correctly.
  • Uncovering insights. AI can help uncover insights during customer transactions. This can be done by analyzing call transcripts so managers uncover customer pain points and pinpoint where agents may need more training. Once those insights are uncovered, businesses must act on them, or problems are never addressed.

A voice of the customer program is also an essential component of any customer service department, Gareiss said. By gathering customer feedback, businesses can answer questions such as the following:

  • Do we need more channels or fewer channels?
  • Do you like how you interact with the company?
  • Should we implement auto callback?
  • Were we able to help you during your most recent transaction? Why or why not?

Methods for gathering customer feedback include social media, surveys, website statistics, focus groups and AI analytics.

Once businesses gather that data, they must act on it. This includes updating agent scripts, adjusting the product development strategy and sharing this information with employees.

"We're just exhausted as a people," Miller said. "And there are some days just having someone be nice to you is a standout."

Sarah Amsler is senior managing editor for the Learning Content team at TechTarget.

Next Steps

Ways to improve call center agent performance

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