One of my Brazilian colleagues, Roberto Silva (not his real name), was a frequent traveler to the U.S. on business and for pleasure. He had a daughter at an American university and he visited her whenever he could. He also liked buying things at specialist outlets and, a few years back, had bought some trousers (which became his favorites) from Lands’ End.
With his wife reminding him regularly that these favorite trousers were wearing out, he decided to buy some new ones on his next trip. From his New York hotel, he telephoned Lands’ End and introduced himself to the cheery telephonist who welcomed him back to Lands’ End. A moment later, she asked him about his daughter, how she was doing and if she had graduated from college? Stunned, he asked how she knew about his daughter and she said that the last time he had called, he had mentioned that as the reason for his visit. What could she do to help him?
She asked how he liked the trousers he had bought before. He replied that if they still had them in stock, he’d order two more pair. “Can we ship them to the same hotel you stayed at last time? We can have them to you by tomorrow evening,” she said. Of course he purchased them and some other items and when he told me the story he said emphatically: “I’ll never buy trousers like these anywhere else. There are warm, friendly people who work there, not a telephone bullpen staffed by bored and underpaid, out-of-work actors. These people obviously enjoy talking to customers and seem in no hurry to get you off the phone and you don’t have to listen to endless menu options and punch in some numbers to get someone to talk to you.”
Perhaps that’s a rather long way around to introduce the “impossible tradeoff,” the obvious cost-saving of having an automated system interact with the customer up to or beyond the point where he or she either needs or demands to talk with a human being, vs. a totally human interface which may be less efficient in terms of costs, but is more likely to have customers become “advocates,” as my friend Roberto had. Can you imagine someone saying how happy they were only having to make four menu options instead of 10?
Banks and credit card companies seem to be in competition with mobile phone operators to win some prize for making it difficult to talk with anyone (and making you wait the longest time if you want to). Internet sellers are often even worse, hiding their telephone numbers in the most secluded nooks of their websites. The recent United Airlines disaster of dragging a passenger off of a flight to free up some oversold seats is a horrible example of how a focus on efficiency (in this case, maximum passenger loads created by intentional over-booking) can undermine customer loyalty. After that incident, it will take a long time before anyone is ever “loyal” to United again.
The ultimate question is one of relative value. And despite all of the big data in the world, there really is no way of gauging accurately the relative value of the tradeoff. How strongly the customer feels about the transaction must be an important if unquantifiable (soft) data point.
The bean-counters will assure you of the obvious saving; machines are, in the long run, cheaper than people. They work 24/7, they don’t demand raises and they don’t need pregnancy leave. Then they will argue that customers are better-served, get to speak to the right knowledgeable person faster than explaining their problem over and over again — or better, have it dealt with without human intervention. Not so for my friend Roberto, who will counter that his loyalty and the loyalty of many like-minded customers will more than make up for the savings in long-term revenue and insulation against “efficient” competition.
So where do you draw the bottom line?
It’s always a tradeoff compromise (the best solution or the worst). But I would opt for an automated answer which, first, thanked the caller for calling and second, offered a choice of:
- Immediately talking to a warm, friendly and knowledgeable human, or
- Hearing a short menu, which may speed you to the answer you are looking for.
Unfortunately, a “right” answer is impossible.