Remember personal service? Featured

5:10am EDT April 29, 2003
Several years ago, before the widespread use of voice prompting systems, I was a customer service supervisor for a utility company.

Despite the fact that the company's service area and customer base were defined by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), it spent a great deal of its financial and employee resources providing the best possible customer service. Any employee who interacted with a customer was given extensive training on the company's services, billing system and customer service delivery.

A certain number of customers who interacted with the company were polled each month about the quality of the service they received, and employees received monetary awards for achieving high rankings.

I heard someone say recently that since so many companies don't deliver on their promises these days, all it takes to wow a customer is to make sure your company does deliver. That is a pretty sad statement on the state of customer service.

The effort to achieve excellence in customer service began its steady decline when companies began replacing interpersonal communication with voice technology systems. For routine questions, they are an excellent tool and allow employees to use their time more efficiently.

But when it takes five minutes or more to access a real person on the phone line, it's a shabby substitute for service.

My former employer prided itself on its ability to answer all of its customers' calls -- any call lost was upsetting to us. These days, I have accessed several customer service voice systems that have asked me to call again later, due to "unusually heavy call volume."

What happened to being there for the customer, when the customer needs service, not when it is convenient for the company to take the call?

It's time we relied less on technology and more on our employees. Instead of getting so caught up in what technology can do for us, we need to re-examine the basics of delivering truly excellent customer service.

And these basics rely not on technology but on people -- people who care about the customer.