Six Sigma
Last Word


Performance Improvement
H. James Harrington

Looking For a Little Service

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the airport…

These days it seems like every organization is talking about how important its customers are. A major part of the e-commerce package is customer relations. But even with e-commerce and organizations focusing on improving customer service, service quality is going downhill fast.

 I called to make a flight reservation just an hour ago. The telephone rang five times before a recorded voice answered. "Thank you for calling ABC Travel Services," it said. "To ensure the highest level of customer service, this call may be recorded for future analysis." Next, I was asked to select from one of the following three choices: "If the trip is related to company business, press 1. Personal business, press 2. Group travel, press 3." I pressed 1.

 I was then asked to select from the following four choices: "If this is a trip within the United States, press 1. International, press 2. Scheduled training, press 3. Related to a conference, press 4." Because I was going to Canada, I pressed 2.

 Now two minutes into my telephone call, I was instructed to be sure that I had my customer identification card available. A few seconds passed and a very sweet voice came on, saying, "All international operators are busy, but please hold because you are a very important customer." The voice was then replaced by music. About two minutes later, another recorded message said, "Our operators are still busy, but please hold and the first available operator will take care of you." More music. Then yet another message: "Our operators are still busy, but please hold. Your business is important to us." More bad music. Finally the sweet voice returned, stating, "To speed up your service, enter your 19-digit customer service number." I frantically searched for their card, hoping that I could find it before I was cut off. I was lucky; I found it and entered the number in time. The same sweet voice came back to me, saying, "To confirm your customer service number, enter the last four digits of your social security number." I pushed the four numbers on the keypad. The voice said: "Thank you. An operator will be with you shortly. If your call is an emergency, you can call 1-800-CAL-HELP, or push all of the buttons on the telephone at the same time. Otherwise, please hold, as you are a very important customer." This time, in place of music, I heard a commercial about the service that the company provides.

 At last, a real person answered the telephone and asked, "Can I help you?" I replied, "Yes, oh yes." He answered, "Please give me your 19-digit customer service number, followed by the last four digits of your social security number so I can verify who you are." (I thought I gave these numbers in the first place to speed up service. Why do I have to rattle them off again?)

 I was now convinced that he would call me Mr. 5523-3675-0714-1313-040. But, to my surprise, he said: "Yes, Mr. Harrington. Where do you want to go and when?" I explained that I wanted to go to Montreal the following Monday morning. He replied: "I only handle domestic reservations. Our international desk has a new telephone number: 1-800-1WE-GOTU. I'll transfer you." A few clicks later a message came on, saying: "All of our international operators are busy. Please hold and your call will be answered in the order it was received. Do not hang up or redial, as it will only delay our response to your call. Please continue to hold, as your business is important to us."

 It seems like our new electronic systems are designed to make maximum use of the organization's resources rather than conserve the customer's time. Whatever happened to the friendly clerk that used to wait on me with a smile, saying: "Hello, Mr. Harrington, it's good to see you today. How can I help you?" I object to being a 19-digit customer service number verified by the last four digits of my social security number. I object to trying to locate the right person within the organization by operating the company's internal mail services instead of having the operator direct my call to the right person. If I am a frequent customer, I want someone who knows me to handle my needs, not the first available operator. I realize that there may be other people in line ahead of me, but I should have the choice of waiting in line or having Joe (the salesperson I like to work with) call me back when he finishes with the customer he's presently helping. Our modern telephone and Internet sales systems are fast, but they are terribly impersonal.

 Service is a personal interface between a customer and a provider. Our present technologies have the potential to provide the kind of service that's required, but we haven't advanced to the point that they're widely used. Until we make voice recognition, video telephones and computer transmissions the norm, we need to focus on eliminating customer wait time and recognition systems. A quality communications system should connect you directly to the person who will help you without delay or undue telephone manipulation. When customers go out of their way to search out the proper 11 digits to dial to contact your organization, your organization should have the courtesy to talk to the customers without putting them on hold. Good service organizations value their customers' time more than their own. When customers want to give you money, don't keep them waiting.

 I guess I just miss the old cracker barrel.


About the author

 H. James Harrington is CEO of Systemcorp, an Internet-software development company. He was formerly a principal at Ernst & Young, where he served as an international quality adviser. E-mail him at jharrington@qualitydigest.com .

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