Quick Takes: Why Is Customer Service So Bad?

Andrew McAfee’s plea about customer service
“How can it still be the case, in 2010, that really well-understood technologies (telephony, voice prompts, etc.) are still detracting from customer service, rather than improving it, at some of the largest companies in the world?”

That’s MIT Sloan research scientist Andrew McAfee, wondering in his blog why the American Express Travel Services phone service offers such poor service. None of the possibilities make sense. Leaders aren’t aware? All they have to do is dial their number. They’re aware, but not bothered? “How could they not be?” McAfee asks. “They run a customer service business — it’s all they do — and they just released a study showing that, as their headline put it, ‘Americans Will Spend 9% More With Companies That Provide Excellent Service.’”

McAfee’s third possibility is the most intriguing: Leaders know about the problems, are concerned about the problems, but aren’t planning on doing anything about the problems.

“Maybe they don’t feel like they have the budget, the expertise, or the managerial bandwidth to take on a tech-heavy project now,” McAfee says. “Maybe the issues I experienced only crop up in the particular segment of Amex Travel I was dealing with, or when call volumes are particularly heavy, and so the company is willing to live with them for the time being. But I’m a heavy traveler, the kind of customer they probably want to attract and retain, and I’m sufficiently struck by this lousy tech leading to lousy customer service that I’m sitting around blogging about it.”

The folks at Amex Travel might want to read Sriram Dasu and Richard B. Chase’s new piece for MIT SMR, “Designing the Soft Side of Customer Service.” Or McAfee’s own interview with MIT SMR, “Putting the Science in Management Science,” on how evolving technology — like telephone technologies — can rein in the data deluge and help companies not only to be smarter, but to act smarter, too.

The Four Phases of Design Thinking
Warren Berger, author of GLIMMER: How design can transform, business, your life, and maybe even the world (Penguin Press), blogs at Harvard Business Review that after looking at more than a hundred top designers in various fields, “I found that there were a few shared behaviors that seemed to be almost second nature.”

Berger outlines those behaviors:

  • Question. If you spend any time around designers, you quickly discover this about them: They ask, and raise, a lot of questions.”
  • Care. It’s easy for companies to say they care about customer needs. But to really empathize, you have to be willing to do what many of the best designers do: step out of the corporate bubble and actually immerse yourself in the daily lives of people you’re trying to serve.”
  • Connect. Designers, I discovered, have a knack for synthesizing–for taking existing elements or ideas and mashing them together in fresh new ways.”
  • Commit. It’s one thing to dream up original ideas. But designers quickly take those ideas beyond the realm of imagination by giving form to them.”

GE’s $200 million open innovation challenge for ideas in creating a smarter, cleaner, more efficient electric grid
According a GE press release, “The global challenge invites technologists, entrepreneurs and start-ups to share their best ideas and come together to take on one of the world’s toughest challenges – building the next-generation power grid to meet the needs of the 21st century.”

Called the GE ecomagination Challenge: Powering the Grid, the challenge allows anyone to view the ideas, comment on them and vote. As of August 16, 1,138 ideas had been submitted, and 11,402 comments posted.

Ideas will be evaluated by GE‘s technical and commercial teams, and selected entrants will be offered and opportunity to scale up their ideas through GE‘s technical infrastructure and GE Global Research Centers.

Ideas can be submitted and the public can comment until Sept 30. GE will announce which entrants it would like to have commercial relationships with in late October, and any business deals that have been formalized will be announced in November.

A final word from McAfee on managing modern technologies that “keep us from getting our work done”
As Andrew McAfee notes in his blog, “We drown in email, surf the Web endlessly, check in with our social networks, and constantly get interrupted and interrupt ourselves.” Many of us spend most of the day in front of the screen, not just working but looking at news, sports, and video clips, engaging in chats and shopping sprees.

It’s St. Augustine who McAfee says offers good wisdom on managing temptation. McAfee quotes St. Augstine: “No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations.”

Writes McAfee: “I have a colleague who unplugs his wireless routers when he needs to get serious writing done. Another gets up absurdly early and plays white noise through his headphones so he can concentrate. I’m thinking about adopting techniques like these because if I’m not getting enough good work done, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.”