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your call is (not that) important to us

13 july 2009

Emily Yellin's study of the customer-service industry, Your Call is (Not That) Important to Us, observes that customers universally perceive the service they get from large companies as lousy. Nearly everyone involved in delivering that service, however, comes across as dedicated to making customers happy. There's some sort of disconnect here, and Yellin, though she ranges deeply into the culture of the call center, doesn't ever quite figure out what's gone wrong.

We've all had the experience. I've had it several times in the past few weeks with a certain electric company that shall not be named. You call the dreaded 800 number, and someone somewhere many thousands of miles away assures you that your electricity is on, while you stand there flicking a useless lightswitch idly up and down. The poor soul on the headset in Tegucigalpa isn't a bad sort; their telemetry tells them that everything is copacetic, so they truly can't understand why you'd be calling. Somewhere in the course of the conversation it dawns that the rep, though perfectly good at the communications aspect of the job, hasn't even the foggiest concept of what electric service in an apartment in Texas entails. He or she is just a conduit for some unreliable information to pass from some database to your ear. Customer-service reps can no more turn your lights on than they can send a man to Mars. And the people who can turn your lights on, the actual Texan technicians, are deliberately unreachable by any known technology.

This disconnect involves global divisions of labor that are bafflingly, yet purposefully, alienating. Yellin reports that the friendly voice that takes your drive-through order at the burger stand may actually belong to someone in the Philippines, who then relays the order to someone standing four yards from your car. This incredible disembodiment in service industries is only partly due to the wonders of instantaneous broadband communication. It's mostly due to the fact that the order-taker in Manila earns a tenth of what even the most minimally-waged American burger-sacker makes. Any reorganization, however tiny, that takes a living wage out of the American employment market and transfers it overseas is worth exploiting in the name of ROI.

Yellin also reports that the most satisfying customer-service departments belong to such companies as Amazon and FedEx. She attributes these efficient service operations to a customer-centered ethos that has tumbled down the company ranks from their superhumanly solicitous respective founders, Jeff Bezos and Fred Smith. Yet I think that Yellin obscures a central distinction between the service provided by Amazon or FedEx (or your average MunchaBurger, for that matter) and that provided by electric companies or cellphone outfits. When you order a book from Amazon, when you ship that book to Grandma via FedEx, the delivery is the end of the story. The book needs no continuous maintenance. Grandma may call FedEx if it absolutely, positively hasn't gotten there overnight, but she doesn't call FedEx to explain some difficult concept on page 46.

Amazon, in particular, has moved in recent years from being mostly a traditional mail-order business (where you tell them via some medium what you want, they get it from the warehouse, and they send it to you) to being mostly a virtual broker between thousands of fairly small retailers and millions of customers. Their software infrastructure involves little continual human intervention. When an order occasionally goes wrong, they can easily afford to have someone fire off a few e-mails, which I can attest are deadly effective: no small bookseller wants to bite the hand of Amazon by leaving one of their customers unfulfilled.

But businesses that involve continuous tech support simply don't devote attention to keeping the customer satisfied. Yellin, paraphrasing automated-calling maven Steve Springer, says that

companies simply can't shoulder the increasing costs and complexity of having a human being answer every call coming into a company—especially at multinational companies with millions of customers and hundreds of thousands of calls coming in each week. (83)
But that assertion doesn't make any sense on the face of it. A company with millions of customers makes billions of dollars; shouldn't it use some of that revenue to serve them? Mom and Pop had to, and they did all right for decades. John Wanamaker coined the phrase "the customer is always right," and he seemed to do OK (though come to think of it, it's been a while since I was in a Wanamaker's). But in the 21st century, poor service is precisely one of the economies of scale that allow huge multinationals to make huge profits. "The company looks at the call center as a cost center," says Keith Dawson, another of Yellin's informants (194). They make more money, in other words, by ignoring us.

In fact, in a dynamic that Yellin notes in passing, the easier it is to get hold of a customer servant (as websites like GetHuman make easy to do), the more people will call with minor issues, or just to talk to someone, or to act out their Motorola Munchausen obsessions. If the company discourages you from getting through, by putting those insanely baffling voice menus or those obtuse "Let me see if I got that right" androids on the line, you will only persist and get through if you're frustrated enough to stop your service altogether – one reason why the eventual conversation with the rep is often so abusive.

Many of the entrepreneurs quoted by Yellin are purveyors of outsourced or subcontracted customer service, trying to sell their own services to multinationals by preaching the new gospel of service as the heart of a business. To listen to them, you'd think a new Peaceable Kingdom of service-centeredness is just over the horizon. But except for businesses like FedEx that provide simple, limited service (which is why FedEx has a highly-devoted in-house call center), these entrepreneurs are swimming upstream. Our call is not that important because the very way that an electric company makes money in the newly deregulated utility industry is to ignore that call as long as possible, to make it as brief as possible once we get through, and then to simply read some numbers off a screen and hope that we, and our problems, will go away.

Yellin, Emily. Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us: Customer service and what it reveals about our world and our lives. New York: Free Press, 2009.