<B>The paradox of customer service centres</B>

Daisy Escobar. Professor. Instituto de Empresa

31 January 2006

For most clients, dealing with a corporate customer service department is a frustrating experience, despite its promises to provide complete satisfaction. It doesn’t have to be that way.

“To receive the very best service, contact our customer service centre either by phone or through the Internet. Or visit the customer service office closest to you."

This is more or less how customer service centres (CSC) are introduced: Their main aim is "to provide the customer with full satisfaction". The paradox is that a high percentage of customers are unsatisfied with how CSCs deal with their problems. What's more, many of them have an even more negative opinion of an organisation after using a CSC.

Why do customer service centres fail to address or solve problems?

Most CSCs are structured into specialised units. These organizational divisions correspond to an 'efficient' way of grouping together activities in accordance with the traditional concept of mass production. Customers are passed along, either by telephone or in person, from one department to another so they can receive specialised services from each one. This way, the company takes full advantage of its resources by keeping personnel and equipment working at full capacity, even when this results in delays and inconvenience for the customer. The flaw in this model is the misconception that the company gains 'efficiency' because it minimises the time the client spends in each division. In reality, an unresolved customer complaint becomes recurrent, thereby consuming a greater amount of company time and resources. What the customer really wants is one single interface that mobilises resources and provides a comprehensive, trouble-free service. Instead, the functional structure curbs customer value and proves more costly for the company.

What can be done?

The wide range of customers, coupled with the growing complexity of products and services, calls for new management models that break with the traditional idea of a trade-off between productivity and flexibility. Lean thinking, already successfully applied in industry, offers an effective strategy for service systems such as CSCs. On the one hand, applying this concept requires a customer-oriented focus that acknowledges that customer ignorance also is responsible for the ineffectiveness of a CSC. This suggests that the customer must be trained and managed.

On the other hand, activities that do not add value need to be identified and eliminated; inter-departmental and inter-organisational processes should be grouped together in an optimum way and all customer-related information should be synchronised.

Finally, the possibility of understanding and attending to the varied and unpredictable needs of a customer depends on the skill of contact personnel and the authority they have for taking decisions. These employees require the power, the freedom and the motivation to solve problems as they arise in their dealings with customers.

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