We find it strange that leaders of companies know that customer experience is critical to their success and yet the service they provide is getting worse. Five years ago, a half of B2B companies we interviewed said that they were committed to providing excellent customer service. Today that figure is close to 60%. They are deluding themselves. We know from those same surveys that only around a third of companies believe that the customer service they provide is adequate. It is the same in consumer markets. The American Customer Satisfaction Index rose for 20 years but since 2018 it has been declining.
There are a number of possible reasons as to why customer experience is on the decline. In many markets there has been a concentration of industry. Mergers and acquisitions have led to market domination by a number of large companies whose monopoly power removes their need to be highly competitive. Customer service is often the secret source of small and medium companies who use it to gain an edge over the behemoths but today they have less clout.
Technology could also be part of the problem. We have written frequently about the role of chatbots and they have their place. But this should not be to the exclusion of real people. An increasing number of companies are busy installing automation software to do away with human interactions and lower costs. In so doing they are lowering the standards of customer service.
The general public doesn’t help. Frustrated customers, who cannot get the attention of leaders of companies, can only access customer service operators who become the butt of uncivil interactions. As a result, contact centres find it difficult to hold on to their staff. These hard pressed and low paid employees, not unreasonably, will seek alternative employment if they are subject to foul language and verbal abuse. It is estimated that approximately a third of staff in contact centres churn over a year which means less experienced people are battling against highly motivated complainers .
What to do? Almost certainly the trends we have identified will continue. There will be a further concentration of larger companies, all eager to reduce costs by removing well-trained personnel. We, the general public, are unlikely to become more forgiving in our attitude to companies that seem to care less. Perhaps artificial intelligence (AI) will make some beneficial contribution. AI does help in self-service solutions where simple transactions are involved. However, when things get complicated there should be a real person as backup.
AI could also be useful for helping the customer service agents deal with issues. As they are listening to customers’ problems the agents could feed the problem into the software and hopefully get some helpful solutions. Where this has been tried it is reported that the technology has led to a significant improvement in how customer service representatives treat their customers. It also seems that AI tools reduce the attrition rate of the agents. Let’s hope that AI will be good enough to benefit the customer service industry by leading to better jobs for the agents and better experience for customers.