Technology is not improving customer service

I’m a frustrated customer. I had a problem with my New York Times subscription and I noticed this on the New York Times website:

To write Sr. V.P., Circulation, send to:

So I did just that, only to find that my email went to a fulfillment house — Publishers Circulation Fulfillment Inc. A call to The New York Times confirmed that they have a Sr. V.P., Circulation — Yasmin Namini. Did that person read my email, or was it just forwarded automatically? Even a form email indicating that they were passing me on to someone who could better assist me would have been preferable to the impersonal treatment I received. I really felt that my relationship as a customer didn’t matter to them.

Companies all want a one-to-one relationship with us — for marketing purposes anyway. Like many other companies, The Times even has a My Times site in beta. But the goal is typically to build a database of personal information so that they can sell to us. They aren’t interested in our comments or feedback.

We have better communications technology now than at any point in human history. We have email. We have instant messaging. We have website feedback forms. We have blogs. We have Twitter. All of these services can be used to communicate information about products or services to a company. Yet customer service really hasn’t improved at all, and few companies make the effort to use any of these technologies to make it better.

Unfortunately, consumers don’t understand this. Where we once might have taken the time to locate a phone number and call a company, or write a letter to complain, we now think nothing of dashing off emails. And when the companies in question — deluged by similar electronic complaints — fail to respond, we then complain vociferously online.

In addition, while companies have refined the way they gather information for marketing, they really haven’t bothered to find a way to let people get customer service assistance. In most cases they haven’t open channels to let people suggest enhancements.

When customers do get through to a live human being, they are relegated to speaking to $8-per-hour frontline staff who are measured on how fast they get customers off the phone, as opposed to how well they solve their problems. Why wouldn’t the VP of Customer Service be interested in what some of these customers have to say?

Interestingly, my mobile phone company has actually told me that their VP of Customer Service does not have a phone number or email address; they can supposedly only be reached by postal mail. They know I’m a lot less likely to write a letter than to phone or email.

Though the companies themselves don’t seemed concerned with facilitating this kind of interchange, there are other companies doing something about the problem. GetSatisfaction provides forums to connect companies with their customers. UserVoice lets companies create pages to interact with their customers, and to create widgets to allow customers to share concerns and to provide feedback.

Technology that improves customer service will pay for itself by enhancing our relationships with those companies that care enough to use it. And happy customers are repeat customers. Yet most companies prefer to spend their money on the very difficult task of customer acquisition rather that the much simpler task of keeping the ones you already have.

If you are in customer service, you might find that some customers can actually help you to improve your product. Can you really afford not to listen?

Larry Borsato has been a software developer, marketer, consultant, public speaker, and entrepreneur, among other things. For more of his unpredictable, yet often entertaining thoughts you can read his blog at

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