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There is no doubt that we have become accustomed to less customer service and more self-service these days. Maybe it is because the general bar for customer service keeps getting lower and the actual service itself surlier.
Maybe it is a cost-cutting measure as more retail establishments cut back on their staffs. Maybe it is a general increase in rudeness, or because of more violence or reality shows on TV. I don't know. Whatever the reason, self-service is here to stay, and we might as well get used to it.
The inspiration for this missive came from a blog entry on the New York Times Web site, entitled the Self-Service City. Timothy Egan talks about the various cutbacks in municipal services that have him growing his own food, hauling his own trash, and other activities: http://egan.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/the-self-service-city/?ref=opinion As he recounts, self-service doesn't always work out as well as we'd like, though. Remember how the Internets was supposed to empower everyone?
We buy our movie tickets on Ticketmaster/Fandango, so we don't have to wait in lines at the box office. We can examine online seat maps to find the perfect seat to watch our shows. Yet we pay "convenience fees" and surcharges that sometimes add $15 or more to the purchase.
Convenient for whom, exactly?
We book our own flights online, because travel agents weren't as good as search engines in finding the best fares or flights. Now I have a Twitter account that notifies when fares drop from major St. Louis-based routes. (Go to farecomparelabs.com and enter your city for more info.)
But I really don't need a search engine to find these fares, mainly because there are so few non-stop flights out of STL served by our one and a half major carriers (and American is dropping more nonstops, making Southwest our largest airline here now). Southwest has some amazing customer service initiatives, including calling you back when you dial their 800 number, rather than being on hold.
We bank online so we never have to enter our branch and deal with snarly bank employees or get stuck behind a first-time customer unfamiliar with general banking principles. And companies like USAA and ING have made this into a calling card, offering branchless banking for years with various online tools – USAA even allows you to scan your checks to deposit them instantly to your account.
That is the ultimate in self-service banking, without the heinous float times that the ordinary banks like to lay on top of you for their deposits. And yes, some banks are getting it totally online: after Twittering Bank of America a few months ago, I managed to save $140 in overdraft fees. Not bad for a buck a character transmitted, surely the best rate that I have ever been paid as a writer.
Many of you use Web sites like FreshDirect.com to order and deliver your groceries, which seems like the ultimate in self-service time savers. I know several of you that are very happy with this service, but you have to be more organized than I. Like Ticketmaster, there are delivery fees that are added on to your purchases.
There are companies like RightNow Technologies that build self-service web sites that have frequently asked questions and answers. And there are numerous developments on social networks, such as Answers for LinkedIn, Vark.com and Mahalo.com where people can ask and get answers to their questions no matter how arcane. There are some people that spend significant portions of their day answering questions for people they don't know and have never met: isn't the Internet a wonderful place?
So what does all this mean? As we do more Internet-based disintermediation, the companies that can provide face-to-face contact and initiate customer problem resolution will win over loyalty and retain their customers. The best companies will combine great service by humans with electronic initiatives such as USAA's scanned deposits and Southwest's call-backs. Those that have the right attitude and understand how important customer satisfaction is will need to do both online and human-powered things together. The others will go the way of Worldcom, GM, and AIG.
David Strom is an expert on Internet and networking technologies who was the former editor-in-chief at Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com. He currently writes regularly for PC World, Baseline Magazine, and the New York Times and is also a professional speaker, podcaster and blogs at strominator.com and WebInformant.tv