The Nation's Pulse

Btflspk, Is That You?

The oxymoronic charm of "customer service."

By 6.22.06

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Speaking of Customer Service, here is an exchange over the telephone one day last week:

411 robot voice: What city and state?

Me: Washington, D.C.

411: What listing?

Me: Security Storage Company

411: That's Btflspk, right?

Me: No

411: What listing?

Me (louder): SECURITY STORAGE COMPANY

411: I think you said "Btflspk." Is that correct?

Me (much louder): NO! (followed by #@$%&*#!)

411: Please stay on the line while I connect you with an operator

Live person: Here is the number your want....


If you and I were paid a dollar for every frustrating minute we spent grappling with "customer service" we would have more money than Warren Buffett.

With a few exceptions (USAA, the insurance company, comes to mind), telephonic customer service is awful, especially that of the companies that are converting to "voice recognition."

The corporate desire to streamline the process is way ahead of the technology, with the customers being the guinea pigs.

Two impulses drive this rush to automate customer contact. On the corporate side there is the ever-present push to reduce costs. The more you automate the Customer Service department, the fewer live people you need to handle calls. It's no accident that, when you call Customer Service, you almost always get, "All of our representatives are assisting other customers. Please stay on the line." Actually, all one of "our representatives" has gone to the restroom and will answer your call when he or she gets back.

As to the time-consuming process of getting to a live operator, it is a software designer's and programmer's dream come true. My theory is that these folks are completely product-oriented.

That is, they are obsessed with the inner workings of the software system at hand and want to push it to the limit of its capacity to remove human involvement.

Many Customer Service telephone numbers try to steer you to the company's website and its Frequently Asked Questions department. "FAQ" will not contain the question you want to ask. Have you noticed that many websites do not contain a company telephone number or address?

Both Customer Service and the website are in the hands of people who understand computers completely, but who seem to have no understanding of human nature. There is nothing as reassuring as a friendly human voice when you have a question about a product or your account. A minute or two on the telephone will usually get the problem solved.

Several years ago there was a Great Awakening in the marketing world when business gurus proclaimed that too many companies were product-oriented, not customer-oriented. The notion spread in corporate America like a grass fire. Company after company had brainstorming sessions to discover the obvious, that customers respond well when products relate to their interests and perceived needs rather than concentrating on the wonders of the manufacturing process.

The nation's Customer Service lines and business websites need to take a lesson from that earlier phenomenon. They need a Great Awakening. Earlier this year, an e-mail message was making the rounds that contained the numbers to call to make direct contact with live Customer Service people. It's a start, but needs to be repeated and put into practice by every customer who has had to put up with Btflspk.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”