Like many a humbling experience, it all started at the Burger King drive-thru window. I had paid for my meal but my order wasn't quite ready. I was asked to pull over and they would bring my food to my car. That's fine. I had been asked to do precisely that in the past. I certainly didn't want my special order to upset the lunch-hour line of cars behind me.
But a few things seemed odd. For starters, my order was simple. Also, there were absolutely no cars behind me. That's when I noticed a pair of digital timers perched by the dispatch window. I was being clocked, man! Or, rather, the BK staff was being timed. Once I pulled over to wait for my food, the timer reset to zero.
Then it happened at another Burger King. Then, at one of Tricom's (NYSE: YUM ) timed Taco Bell locations, I was actually asked if I could back up a bit and then pull back up to the window when my meal was ready. I know what you're thinking. Rick, you've got to cut down on the fast food. But, setting that aside for now, let's consider the damage being done outside of my digestive tract.
The great lie
As I was being inconvenienced, needlessly, fast-food executives were probably high-fiving one another under the falsehood that customer service was improving. The increased efficiency unit managers were being patted on the back for was about as real as the chicken in a McNugget.
Customer service? Please. It's more like customer disservice. I don't mind being thrown the occasional curve by a company, but, hey, take it easy on those spitballs.
Technology has improved so many things but it can alienate the end user in the process. I'm too much of a technophile to argue the obvious laments of voice mail replacing voices and e-mail taking over the handcrafted note. But who was the genius that invented voice prompts?
Sure, the touch-tone trumped the rotary dial, but when I call some place and a recorded chip tells me to please speak in my natural voice I just break out laughing -- in my natural speaking voice, of course. Am I supposed to take pointers on being human from a machine?
Voice recognition sounded good on paper. Why does it suck so badly in person? Why does it feel so condescending to use? Why does it feel so humiliating to be caught in this tango when others are around? Am I supposed to fake it and pretend that someone real is on the other end of the line so I don't look like a complete idiot? I can usually manage just fine without being misunderstood by an automaton asking me to repeat my sensitive account number in a clearer voice out in public.
Thankfully, most call centers will let you go retro with the touch-tone prompts alongside the voice recognition offerings, but I certainly wouldn't mourn much if this trend should d-i-e.
Good customer service is an oxymoron
The best products and services are those that operate flawlessly or are so intuitive that you don't need support. I remember a Dueling Fools on Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) a few years back in which Yi-Hsin Chang argued that the box maker scored high in terms of customer satisfaction because it was quick to replace a defective monitor. I didn't buy it then. I don't buy it now. A satisfied customer is one who is served well the first time around.
If I'm on the phone with a company, aren't we simply negotiating acceptable levels of dissatisfaction?
Sure, we have such solid companies as Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL ) and Siebel (Nasdaq: SEBL ) toiling away in what they call customer relationship management. But if I'm having a problem, what's there to manage? Is this so-called relationship really going anywhere? If it's OK with you, maybe we should split up and start seeing other people!
But, no, I'm on a phone with a call center being funneled to who knows what country and technology has improved to the point where they can now give me an approximate time that I will have to wait before I am tended to.
Good idea? I'm not so sure. I realize that the old way (which left you dangling in the dark unknowing) wasn't very cool, but at least you had some wee sliver of hope that your discomfort wasn't entirely the company's fault. Maybe there was something wrong with your connection. Maybe you called the wrong help desk. Maybe the phone equipment was randomly juggling calls and you just wound up on the wrong side of karma.
That was then
Today, you no longer have any doubts that the company is messing with you. Right now, you know that it is fully aware that your call won't be answered for another 23 minutes -- and it's fine with that. That's an acceptable level to cope with a problem, or so thinks the company that more than likely created the problem in the first place. It believes that the value of your time is worth less than fresh hires to pump out the call volume faster.
So maybe I've gone full circle with my rant. Then again, maybe companies call themselves customer-centric because they have us going in circles. From fast-food joints fooled into thinking that they served you quickly to call centers that take pride in the fact that they won't, I'll restate the obvious: The only good customer service is the customer service that never needed to be rendered.
Rick Aristotle Munarriz really does hate voice prompts, automated minute gauges, and pulling over to the side for fast food. While he mentioned a few public companies in this piece, he doesn't own a stake in any of them. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.