Can Customer Experience Block Progress?

Posted: March 3, 2010 in CRM, Current Affairs, Technology
Tags: , , , , ,

Customer experience reared its head in my life this month.  My phone service went out which was not a catastrophe for me because in addition to the landline (which went out) I have a cell and a nifty VoIP line that lets me talk through my computer.  Parenthetically, I love my VoIP line because — though I live in the Boston area, the VoIP line has a 415 area code, which you may know is San Francisco.  I don’t know if it’s my heart that’s out there but certainly a piece of me lives in San Francisco and for some reason that makes me happy.

At any rate, the landline went down, first with an annoying background hum and then I lost dial tone.  I’ve become an old hand at diagnosing the problem because it happens every winter when a certain manhole gets some water in it.  When the weather dries up the problem recedes into memory but it comes back every winter.

I am also something of an expert at summoning the phone company by filling out the obligatory form on the web site and, because I am a repeat customer, I have a special phone number that I can call directly.  Actually, after this latest round I have multiple numbers down to supervisors’ and technicians’ cell phones.

No matter.  The problem I had got fixed a couple of times and each time I got calls from customer service, some of which were automated, telling me that the phone company had wrestled the problem into submission.  In one incredibly ironic moment, when the phone company’s survey team called to check on my satisfaction with the service, the hum came back on the line and the person on the other end had to admit that she couldn’t hear me well because of it.  So, the problem is solved as I write this but the weather is threatening so it remains to be seen whether the fix is permanent.

I thought I could use this experience as sort of a thought experiment in customer experience.  I am happy to admit that the way the phone company handled my problem was top notch.  Everyone seems to have been trained in customer empathy — a term that I prefer over customer experience.  But empathy only goes so far.

Over the years I have seen a parade of empathetic phone company representatives, usually the technicians who stand outside on rainy days or climb down into the wet manholes to make the repairs.  These people do everything that they can to provide service but what’s management doing?

The technicians fix the problem and they do a great job but it’s management’s job to zero in on the root causes and spend the money necessary to eliminate the possibility of repeat.  So the question I have is this: Does management hide behind customer experience optimization in order to deflect more serious problems?  And if so what does this say about the proper use of CRM?  In helping deflect customer issues, has CRM become part of the problem instead of the solution?

I have always been skeptical of the customer experience movement for this reason, because if you can focus on the generic “experience” instead of putting processes in place that actually solve problems this is what you get.

My landline woes are a tempest in a teapot; being without phone service these days is not a hardship since most of us have multiple lines that get to us one way or another.  So it’s easy to watch the resolution play out with a sense of detachment but consider the mess that has become the Toyota recall fiasco.

As the congressional hearings investigating the problem of sudden acceleration played out I heard about and read story after story of customers who experienced unintended acceleration and the common denominator was never found to be a mechanical or electrical problem.  Toyota refused to believe an electrical problem could exist.  Instead the common thread was dismissal by the company or by the US Department of Transportation of the complaints.  Often the finding was operator error.

What I saw was stonewalling over ever really trying to locate the problem wrapped in polite letters and diligent dealers trying to figure it out.  Customer experience.

All this has a tragic dimension because people have died due to the problems with these cars.  Even more tragic though was this heartbreaking revelation.  I was watching Ed Shultz on MSNBC on the day of the hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Shultz was interviewing Bruce Braley (D-IA), one of the committee members, and mentioned the case of Koua Fong Lee of St. Paul Minnesota.

Mr. Lee was sentenced to eight years for criminal vehicular homicide because his 1996 Toyota Camry accelerated on an off ramp and plowed into another car, killing a father and son and leaving another child a quadriplegic who later died.  Lee’s defense at trial was sudden uncontrollable acceleration but the jury didn’t believe him because, heck, he was driving a Toyota and we all know how reliable Toyotas are.  Sadly, Lee’s story is not unique.

As far as I am concerned, customer experience had a part in killing those people.  It gave a company a way to deflect a serious problem while pretending that it was doing the right thing.  Customer Experience is an important part of dealing with customers but it should not be seen as a panacea.  Companies have to take responsibility for top notch business practices that address root causes.  Customer experience is table stakes at best and when it comes to building sustainable customer relationships it is not good enough.

Comments
  1. cfulbright says:

    Denis,

    I empathize (sorry) with your concerns on this issue of companies using agreeable front-line customer interactions to deflect solving the real problem.

    I had a similar experience with PacifiCare Health insurance four and five years ago. We had various medical expenses that never seemed to get processed. Every month I would call their customer service line and talk to a very nice person about four or five outstanding claims. Each one said things like, “Oh yes, I see what you mean, I’ll resubmit it,” but nothing ever changed. I started telling them at the end of the call that they were nice, but I thought that if PacifiCare was deliberately trying to avoid paying me, it couldn’t be doing a better job. Eventually, after about nine months of monthly calls, we got reimbursed, and they even had to pay interest on each claim.

    My wife told me when I left that job that I could never take another job where PacifiCare is the health insurance provider, and I’ve abided by it since. Prospective employers probably find it odd that I ask in late stages of the interview process who their insurance company is, and I tell them I can’t take the job if PacifiCare is the carrier. Fortunately I haven’t had to follow through on that yet.

    So eventually we consumers will take our revenge on companies that deflect problems with customer empathy, as you suggest.

    Cary

  2. Denis Pombriant says:

    Cary,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Sounds like a nightmare…I wonder what it would be like if we set up a customer site focused on letting customers sound off about how they’ve been treated?

  3. marcus3344 says:

    That was a terrific article on “customer experience.”

    We’ve been going through customer service hell as Comcast has been upgrading to digital technology in their TV cable system in Minneapolis. The digital set-top box upgrade was supposed to be easy enough to install yourself, but when I did that, nothing worked the way it should have worked.

    The “upgrade” meant that our very expensive LCD TV would receive only analog signals and no high def channels, and our VCR would be useless–none of which was spelled out in the promotional materials. Getting high def and recording meant an extra $16/month for high def service and a Comcast DV-R box.

    Every time I called Comcast, someone apologized for the problems I was having. I finally told them that I understood why they were apologizing, but I didn’t want any more apologies–I wanted Comcast to fix the problems. The company has had longstanding customer service problems, so I understand why customer services reps get a script to “apologize” to the customer.

    But after spending too many hours in online support forums, talking to services reps who recommend useless fixes, and being frustrated that our televisions didn’t work they way Comcast said they should work, constant apologies became meaningless. No, you weren’t sorry; if you were your communications would be clearer and less confusing, and your customer service reps would actually fix my problems on the first call–not the fourth.

So, what did you think?

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