Some companies have a business model of providing excellent goods and services. Some have a model of cutting back every expense except executive salaries and bonuses. You can get a good idea which is which when you call the company’s customer service center – whether you can easily get through to a human being who can help you, or whether you spend endless minutes on hold listening to elevator music, get trapped in the voice mail labyrinth or find yourself talking to someone in a foreign country who doesn’t comprehend what you’re talking about.
In our Sunday morning discussion group at First Universalist Church, Shirley Bond told us about Emily Yellin’s Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives. It is a consumer advocacy book, telling what consumers can do to get better service; a business book, telling the stories of businesses such as Federal Express or Zappos.com that provide excellent customer service; and a trends book, showing one effect of globalization.
Almost everyone has experience bad customer service, but I was encouraged by the reports of companies that provide excellent customer service and still are highly profitable. The secret of good customer service is to hire employees that (1) want to provide good service, (2) have the knowledge to provide good service and (3) have the authority to provide good service. You can’t have motivated, knowledgeable workers who can be trusted to act on their own unless you treat them well. Employees who are scared, resentful or exhausted won’t serve customers well. (That’s not all there is to it, of course.)
We talked in our group about what to do as customers. The important thing, we agreed, is to decide ahead of time exactly what you want, tell the person on the other end exactly what you want and persist until you reach someone with authority to give you what you want. But it’s also important to remember the person on the other end of the line is a human being, just like you, whether he or she is in India and down the road.
India and the Philippines, in that order, are the two most important destinations of outsourced American customer service calls, but they have many competitors. Yellin did extensive reporting on call centers in Argentina and Egypt. The globalization of customer service doesn’t always bring people together. Customer rage among Americans and Britons interpreted by Asian Indians as arrogance and racism. Pablo, a customer service representative in Buenos Aires, said that at first he couldn’t understand why Americans became so angry at overcharging and late deliveries, since to him these things are a normal party of life; later he decided that it is a good thing, not a bad thing, to stand up for your rights, even on minor issues.
Yellin reported that the Federal Bureau of Prisons owns Unicor, a call center businesses in federal prisons, and several state prison systems also are in the call center business. Unicor takes directory assistance calls and inquiries to government agencies, and doesn’t handle personal or financial information. Its employees are minimum-security and medium-security inmates, mostly female – all of which I find (not that) reassuring.