Do you have friends or colleagues who prefer dealing with people rather than machines? My wife is like that. When she needs to know her bank balance or just get some cash, she will go out of her way to talk to a bank teller rather than fumble with an ATM; and she'll always push the button for a "live operator" on an automated telephone service menu.
This doesn't mean that my wife is averse to technology -- she uses email, iPods, cell phones, and the usual array of 21st century devices. But at the same time she is drawn to personal, human customer service and wants it to be part of her life
For the past 20 years, companies have struggled to find the right balance between cost-effective, technologically-enabled approaches to customer service and person-to-person contact. While personal approaches have advantages for many people (like my wife), they require much more training, reduce consistency, and cost more.
As a result, most firms -- from large retailers to local doctor's offices -- now require customers to go through layers of technology-based service or web-based alternatives before getting to a human being. Although this makes perfect sense from a financial point of view, it's also created an unintended consequence: Customer service has gotten more complicated and impersonal.
For example, a large mutual fund company spent a lot of money encouraging its high net worth customers to use all of its automation tools and to essentially become self-sufficient investors. Sure, they could talk to a live person if needed, but the unspoken message was that human contact was a last resort and, in fact, was only for those who couldn't figure it out for themselves.
When the financial collapse occurred, most of those high net worth investors lost lots of money and began moving their remaining funds to other companies, most of which provided easy and straightforward human guidance. In essence, this mutual fund company lost direct contact with its customers and didn't have easy customer service mechanisms in place to get them back. So how did it recover? The company mobilized its staff to call each and every one of these high net worth customers personally -- and immediately saw the asset transfer numbers start to turn around.
Simple and human customer service doesn't have to be difficult or expensive. But without it, customers won't have the loyalty to stay with you through tough times, which carries an even greater cost.
Danny Myer is the head of the Union Square Hospitality Group which runs more than a dozen restaurants including two that are perennially voted the most popular in New York City. His organization is so successful at building customer loyalty that he has created a learning company called Hospitality Quotient to share their best practices with corporations and government. He notes that the heart of a long-term, profitable customer relationship rests both on providing quality products and services and doing so in a way that makes customers feel cared for, which is how he defines "hospitality."
Given all of the cutbacks in recent months, perhaps this is a good time to take a fresh look at your customer service. Have you made it simple and human? Have you built emotional bonds through true hospitality -- no matter what business you are in?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online
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