By Mike DuBose with Blake DuBose
Peter Drucker, who is often referred to as the “father of management theory,” once said that a business’s purpose is “to find and keep a client.” Without customers, a business doesn’t earn revenue, cannot pay its bills, and will fail. Although this seems like common sense to most of us, it often feels as if many business, government, and nonprofit organizations go out of their way to erect barriers to strong customer relationships!
Problems arise when, instead of caring for their existing customers and treating new ones respectfully to win their business, businesses force both to jump through hoops during even simple interactions. As Consumer Reports noted, 64 percent of respondents in their recent study said that that “during the previous 12 months they had left a store because service was poor,” and “67 percent had hung up on customer service without having had their problem addressed.”
Especially now, in the era of social media, effective communications are key to finding and keeping customers, and businesses typically spend a great deal of money on marketing to new clients. However, these efforts are useless if, when prospective customers contact the firm through the organization’s website, e-mail, or telephone systems, they are faced with a frustrating, inefficient maze before they can access what they want. Existing customers also become frustrated if they cannot reach a human being who cares enough to inform them about an issue, solve a problem, or explain why they should purchase their product or service. In both cases, the clients are likely to leave, seeking out a business that makes a better effort to serve its customers. Most customer service issues boil down to simple problem: a failure to give customers what they want, when they want it, and in an outstanding way!
How do clients want to communicate with businesses?
The term “touch points” refers to the ways that a consumer and organization can connect. This can take many forms, including communications over the phone, using social media platforms like Twitter, or through a business’s website, for example. The objective, of course, is to provide positive experiences at every touch point, which will keep current clients happy and transform new users into loyal customers.
Customers’ preferred communication methods vary by person and situation. A recent Consumer Reports survey indicates that “16 percent of Americans prefer to deal with a customer service problem in person. Twenty percent favor the phone; 2 percent, live chat. Fewer still prefer e-mail. Sixty percent of respondents said that their preferred method of contact depends on the nature of the problem.” For example, a client who will be traveling one day might prefer to speak via e-mail; on another day, he or she might want to place a phone call while in the office and obtain an immediate response. (In fact, 71% of the survey respondents reported being “tremendously annoyed” when they couldn’t get a human on the phone; “56 percent felt that way about having to take multiple phone steps to reach the right place.”) Thus, organizations who don’t offer a variety of contact options, especially those allowing customers to speak to human beings, may be frustrating—and eventually losing—their clients.
Based on our research, businesses’ main point of contact with potential or existing clients is currently by telephone or online. Before making a purchase (or simply to learn more about the products and services offered), many consumers today will visit an organization’s website before initiating contact. With the “Millennial Generation” (those born 1985-2005) becoming the largest group in the US, the population as a whole is becoming more tech-savvy. Due to this influence, we are likely to see the preferred method of communications shift from speaking in person or on the phone to e-mail, chat, and text messaging in the next few years.
Why are there so many barriers to good communication?
Even when given the opportunity to contact a business in the way they’d like, many customers still have to deal with subpar phone systems, long wait times, and reps that don’t have the authority to tell them or give them what they want. This is usually a result of companies trying to “save money” by scaling back on their customer service departments. As David Yarnold noted in a 2011 Forbes article: “These companies slash costs by eliminating personal interaction, using consolidations of call centers, call deflection technology, robotic implementations of call scripting and workforce optimization tools. Get off the call, get out of the client site and move on to the next appointment as quickly as possible! The result is a reduction in the amount of time their people spend in direct personal contact with customers.”
Many businesses also eliminate their customer service staff—and the knowledgeable, localized support they can provide—altogether. In fact, they can reduce costs by up to two-thirds by outsourcing customer service processes to foreign countries. If they use an electronic or computer voicemail for customer service, the cost is 35 cents per encounter, or only 4% of what it costs to staff telephone lines with humans. These methods are becoming more and more popular. Citing a survey by Stella Service, a company that rates Internet retailers’ customer service, Time writer Brad Tuttle wrote, “Of the top 100 Internet retailers, 79 use automated phone trees that require callers to press buttons or speak requests into the phone—and that often seem to purposefully steer customers in every direction except the one that leads to a human being.”
But if they’re saving the company money, why do these strategies present problems? Most notably, they’re building barriers to effective communication with clients. Robots and reps who live across the globe are unequipped to provide the answers and take the concrete actions that customers want. Many callers become enraged when forced to stumble through endless phone trees, and it’s infuriating to “instant message” online with what you know is actually just a computer spouting automated answers. As a result, these clients drift away, and the company loses their business forever.
Major touch points—and associated problems
Websites: At DuBose Web Group, we are contacted almost daily by organizations that have found it difficult to grow without quality websites. To appeal to greater numbers of consumers, they are shifting significant marketing and advertising funds to the Internet—a good idea. However, many organizations who manage to attract customers with their online presence make it difficult for consumers to take the next step. Either the “Contact Us” form on their website is hard to find, or there are no contact phone numbers or e-mails in sight. When consumers are able to find a contact form, they are frequently required to select from a list of options, some of which may no fit the issue at hand (and may direct them to the wrong department).
Another issue arises when an organization’s website does not function properly. When it’s hard to understand how to use it or customers cannot access the pages they need, they become even more upset! One major hotel chain’s customer service department informed us that they had received hundreds of calls about their inefficient, unfriendly website over the past month.
Companies lose many potential new customers when they are unwilling to invest sufficient resources in a quality website that’s easy to maneuver, friendly, understandable, and properly coded. To be effective, websites must provide positive user experiences outlining exactly what the business does, where to navigate on the site, and how to get in touch. The website should not only look good, but also be coded to appear on the first or second page of results from search engines like Google. Because such sites require the skills of professional graphic designers, programmers, technical writers, and marketing strategists working together as a team, they cost money, but they pay off by attracting quality customers and generating profits.
800 Numbers and Phone Systems: Most likely, your blood pressure rises significantly when you have to call your cable, cell phone, satellite, utility, credit card, insurance, or home telephone company! Every time, we know that we will waste minutes or hours trying to figure out how to reach a human being; we will be faced with a barrage of selections, many of which will not apply to our situation; and when we finally reach a human, it might be someone who sounds like they’re in a rowboat out in the ocean who we can barely understand. Then, there are the “helpful” offers to buy more things when we only need help with a simple issue!
One study showed that American company call centers collectively receive 43 billion inquiries a year, according to CBS News. Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 3 million people work in call centers in the United States, and another 2 million are employed in centers around the globe. To further illustrate the volume of calls, Federal Express reportedly receives 57,000 calls per week!
At many companies, the long journey begins when you are asked to push “1” to continue the conversation in English. Credit card companies, hotel chains, and other financial institutions generally require that you enter your account number before you move further; one of the largest banks in the US also requires that you enter your confidential password before accessing customer service. Often, when you finally reach a human, the account information you entered when you began your electronic travels did not convert to the agent and you have to restate all the account information. You also have to provide detailed information about yourself before they will discuss your issue—which is good to prevent identity theft, but not if you’re just seeking general information to a question that doesn’t concern your personal account. Then, you might get transferred yet to another representative where you have to repeat the same information again!
Of course, those who reach a representative at all might count themselves lucky. Brad Tuttle cites a survey of 500 people where “86% of consumers report being put on hold every time they call a business, and that 48% believe the customer service representatives who answer phone calls are not helpful” in his 2013 Times article. The article estimates that the average American consumer spends 13 hours per year waiting on hold! The most notorious wait time offenders are cable and cell phone companies, according to a 2011 Businessinsider.com report by Alyson Shontell.
Many businesses see customer hold times as opportunities to tell you things you don’t want to hear, such as your credit line, account balance, and when your last payment was made. Then, you have to engage with “the computer operator” which is supposed to be as good as a human, yet often fails to grasp what’s being requested. In fact, one major hotel chain even has the computer sound like it’s typing in the background to further insult your intelligence! Other businesses see hold time as an opportunity to sell you something or tell you how great they are. They often play irritating music, and a voice interrupts you every 1-3 minutes reminding you how important you are, that they value your business, and that someone will answer your call soon. Wait time messages are very helpful, but can also be depressing—we were once quoted a wait time of six hours!
Sometimes, smaller businesses only pay for limited telephone lines, which means that customers might reach a busy signal when they call. Worse yet, our favorite swimming pool company just doesn’t answer the telephone most of the time (and they don’t have voicemail, either). These mistakes can cripple or kill small businesses, which are particularly dependent on repeat customers who they must earn through good service.
Consumers are fed up with the communication barriers they have been encountering from companies, as recent studies have shown. Arizona State University has conducted several Customer Rage Studies, and 70 percent of the respondents have stated they experienced “emotional rage” when trying to resolve a product or service problem in the last year. Sixty percent reported that when they contacted customer service about the issue, they were not satisfied with the outcome.
Businesses that insist on angering their customers this way will not only lose their business, but they will also feel the pain of negative word-of-mouth (and even social media) advertising. Indeed, many customer service nightmares have “gone viral,” like a major cable company employee’s stubborn refusal to disconnect one man’s service. Instead, he argued with the customer, who started recording after the tenth minute of the call—then posted it online! Thousands of people viewed and commented on it, and it was discussed all over the media. The company received substantial negative PR for the event and had to publicly apologize. Imagine if that had been a small business--it probably wouldn’t exist anymore!
The bottom line: When it comes to customer service, many companies seem to forget that the client “signs their paycheck.” In a misguided attempt to save money, they often put up barriers that keep consumers from accessing needed information or services. Instead, they should be heeding the advice given by David Yarnold in a 2012 Forbes article: “Higher touch customer service equals additional revenue, customer loyalty, profits and higher enterprise value...It’s time to double down on technology and implement company values that enhance and encourage human interaction and the empowerment of service organizations. It’s good for your customers, and it’s good for your entire company.”
About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at [email protected].
Mike DuBose, a University of South Carolina graduate, is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, health, and personal published articles.
Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).
Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.
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