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Get Me Someone With a Pulse . . .

By Larry Dignan Print this article Print

Automated customer service systems are cost-effective—until callers take a hike.

Change your address for your Sports Illustrated subscription via phone, and you will "converse" with a robotic voice that can't understand how two towns can share a ZIP code. No amount of pressing "0" for an operator will get you help. The obvious fix: Provide an escape to reach an attendant.

Or ring Comcast during a broadband outage. In one recent incident, the automated routing system sent you straight to the company's pay-by-phone system. Maybe you'd be happier about paying the bill if your Internet access worked. The fix: Install a system that has the logic to route the call to the technical service department.

If that isn't enough fun, have an AT&T rep explain why the company nixed your phone service 14 days earlier than requested with only a day's notice, and can't restore service for a week and a half. The fix: a system that could flag conflicts in schedules. The bright side? A human broke the news.

These experiences are the results of customer service systems built to cut costs rather than keep customers happy. Providing good customer service on the cheap is easier said than done. This is not a problem that can be solved with just a dash of quality assurance testing or a pinch of thoughtful design. Companies looking to cut costs and corners are likely to lose customers.

But it's an ingrained habit. "A publicly held company is looking to do service as cheaply as possible," says Steve Sarowitz, president and CEO of Ameripay, a small third-party billing provider.

Ameripay is a company with about $7 million in revenue, but Sarowitz—who detests automated systems—may be on to something. He argues that smaller companies have to give good service or perish. But even if Ameripay, which handles billing for companies in the Midwest, grows to be a $7 billion company, Sarowitz says he won't scrimp on service.

His homegrown customer service system logs the billing problem, sorts through rankings of people qualified to fix the problem and finds the best person—including the head of his technology department, if need be. "Hitting 1, 2 or 3 [on a telephone keypad] is a waste of my time when the goal in most cases is to get a human being," says Sarowitz. "Why not give them a human up front?"

Michael Callaghan, CEO of the Opus Group, a call-center performance optimization company, adds this rule of thumb: No automated routing system should take more than two buttons to get you an answer. Other service executives stopped short of saying every customer deserves to get human help when a response can come from Web self-service, chat and integrated voice response systems. Bottom line: Expect long chats with Mr. Roboto. Humans are expensive.

According to Conversagent, an automated customer support supplier, a frequently asked-questions page costs a company about a penny per session, and an automated response system—your friendly neighborhood phone robot for transaction-oriented issues—runs about 10 cents a session. An e-mail response system is $4 to $7.80 a session, online chat costs $3 to $9.99 and live phone support is $7 to $33. Automated service agents such as the ones Conversagent supplies are 20 cents a session.

Given those figures, it's no wonder we a spend a lot of time being routed through poorly designed automated systems. Companies don't want to talk to customers. Financially speaking, they want to avoid them. Stephen Klein, CEO of Conversagent, says there is a hybrid solution where an automated help system can ping a customer service rep to call you if it detects a quirky question.

Service executives say most systems are good at tracking complaints and making tickets. But project managers need to integrate procedures that can trigger responses that may actually retain the customer.

Yes, the bottom-line benefits of Web pages and automated responses to customers are clear—as long as the customer doesn't end up bolting to a competitor.

But ask yourself: Is your "cost-effective" system going to tell you each time that happens?

This article was originally published on 2004-06-08
Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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