Real service, real fast

Posted: January 30, 2006 in CRM

Have you noticed the “Dial O for a human” movement gathering steam? One related manifestation is the clever set of ads put out by Citi Bank for its credit cards. You may have seen the ads showing a man calling for service and navigating through the tragedy that is the automated call response system so many companies use.

One of the ads shows the guy getting up in the morning and calling his banks credit card service line. The character is reluctant to disengage from the automated system once he starts for fear that he’ll only have to start over. The ad progresses through him getting dressed for work and waiting for and riding the train. In between we are treated to all the marvels of modern voice response as the system prompts him to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or enter a simple bit of data. I particularly like it when this meek guy is in a public place and is asked for his password and has to respond ‘big boy!’. We’ve all been there or its one of our top ten nightmares and we can relate.

The kicker is that when he finally reaches a live agent hes riding the train to work and the train plunges into a tunnel wiping out the wireless connection and all the effort to that point.

There may be a solution to this hapless consumer’s plight and it says a lot about us, what were willing to put up with, and perhaps an important future direction of CRM. A software engineer, Paul English, who lives near Boston, has come up with a clever alternative to phone hell. English is the originator of ‘Dial O for a human’ and his solution is quite simply to develop cheat sheets for navigating major corporation’s phone systems.

Since the phone systems can take input as fast as you can provide it, there’s no need to wade through audio menus to make the right selections. If you want to speak with someone about a problem that the computerized system won’t be able to help with, simply use the cheat sheet to enter ‘*’ a few times or a sequence like 4,5,2,9 or whatever and presto you’ve broken through. If you’d like to know more about this whole thing or if you’d like to contribute a sequence to the growing list of companies whose codes have been cracked, check out http://www.paulenglish.com. I hear there are more than 200 entries on the cheat sheet already and theres a new edition focused just on the UK.

What’s interesting to me about all this is the CRM angle. Clearly the ads are ridiculing CRM and English is rigging a work-around that, in a prior generation, Rube Goldberg fans would have resonated with. What I think is being said in these examples is that CRM isn’t working for precisely the people it is intended the customer. It also exposes some ugly truths namely, that, too often, CRM is about saving money not engaging customers and, sadly, that the pre-eminent product attribute we look for is low cost rather than total cost of ownership. (For example, we still buy SUVs at steep discounts because we don’t factor in the rising cost of gas.)

But much more than that, if you take a long view, the general public has been through decades of cost cutting through automation and we may be reaching the practical limits of what automation can do and how much of it we are willing to take, and in this there is opportunity. Automation reduces the labor component in products and especially services and thus enables everyone to take cost out. That’s no surprise, and it makes sense to a point. Why, after all, should a products price reflect the cost of support if you personally never access that service? Shouldn’t a non-service user be rewarded for being clever or insightful or just plain lucky enough not to require service?

The opportunity I see is in charging for service. I don’t think we do that enough. I have super-duper, gold technical service contracts on all my computers (and I am too embarrassed to tell you how many that is). I bought the contracts up front with the computers because when I want to know, I really want to know, end of story. Are they making money on me? I sure hope so, because I want it to be worth their while to speedily take my call when I croak my operating system.

Want to speak with someone? You can wait in line or you can pay a small fee. Its your time and money, you decide. What I think wed find if we did more of this is that people make pretty good decisions about the trade-offs on a personal level and that paying the premium makes good sense sometimes. If people feel they’re getting good value for their fees we might see satisfaction and loyalty graphs climb out of the cellars that some are in. Its also a very satisfying idea for enterprise call center managers and executives trying to generate revenue. Maybe its naïve but I think if people are willing to turn to a cheat sheet, there are probably even more who are willing to simply pay for service.

So, what did you think?

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