When customer service becomes self-service

Whether you’re banking, buying groceries, or seeking tech support, companies are encouraging you to do it yourself

Published: June 12, 2014 04:45 PM

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Mention outsourcing and most people see red. It's a hot-button issue. But here’s a twist. While the U.S. lost more than 6 million manufacturing jobs to low-wage nations between 2000 and 2010, more and more companies have been farming out a lot of the labor that remains not to foreign workers, but to their own customers.

Remember when attendants pumped gas, brokers executed stock transactions, and salesman sold insurance? Time was we relied on doctors to perform medical tests and let the local theater dictate when we got to see the latest movie blockbuster.  Think about it: When was the last time someone measured your foot before you tried on a pair of shoes? Today many of us do our banking and bill paying by smart phone. At some restaurants, tableside computer tablets are being installed to encourage patrons to bypass waiters to place their own orders. 

The do-it-yourself model is transforming industries, services, and society at 4G speed. Credit the availability of inexpensive, widely available, and widely embraced technology for much of the transformation. And blame companies bent on cost-cutting for jumping on the bandwagon. On the plus side, it’s empowering—and convenient—to take charge of an experience. There’s nothing like being in control, and customers now have access to the tools and information that allow them to do so. Would you rather select your seat on a flight or leave it to airline employee? Would you prefer to wait bumper-to-bumper in an endless cash-only toll-booth lane or zip through the plaza at full throttle with your E-ZPass wireless transponder mounted on the windshield?

But what about the downside? Automation is often accompanied by job losses; those at the low-end of the wage scale are particularly vulnerable. Many consumers, especially older ones, run the risk of being left behind, either unable or unwilling to adapt. And when trouble arises with the ATM, say, to whom do you turn?

Self-service is great as long as things go smoothly. But try canceling an online order immediately after pressing “submit.”  And fess up, don’t you break into a sweat when the supermarket self-checkout suddenly freezes?

What's your opinion about do-it-yourself customer service? Take our survey to let us know.

Here are some of the pitfalls of self-service and how to navigate the waters.

  • There's no way around it. Finding help can be a nightmare. Airlines bury their numbers, cable companies banish you to voicemail, retailers steer you to FAQs, and cell phone carriers refer you to user forums for troubleshooting assistance. Despite what the recorded messages say, it's hard to believe the words, "your call is very important to us."
  • When Consumer Reports conducted its first major customer-service survey several years ago, respondents complained most about the difficulty of getting through to a live person, endless waits on hold, dealing with ill-mannered, uninformed, and unapologetic in-store salespeople, and a lack of help, period.  The frustration runs so high that more than six of 10 people surveyed admitted to hanging up the phone without airing their grievances or storming out of a store before buying anything because service was so awful.
  • You're not powerless. Consumers have tools to express themselves. Internet forums can turn one person's headache into a corporate nightmate. Companies actively patrol social-networking sites to monitor what's being said about them—and often respond to a concern before it goes viral. Twitter has become the go-to brand for customer support. There's even an app, GripeO, that will take your complaint right to a company's doorstep.
  • Though few companies post their toll-free numbers on all of their web pages, more and more offer live chats with agents. It's faster and more efficient than e-mail because you can have a clear dialogue. Be sure to print out a transcript of the conversation before signing off.
  • User communities within a firm's site are a sure-fire way to catch a company's eye. You can post questions, comments, and air grievances about products and services. Often, a representative will join the discussion.
  • Bypass automated phone menus. Check out websites such as DialAHuman and GetHuman, which list hard-to-find customer service numbers and advise how to bypass automated prompts to get a live person. 
  • Give praise. Thank a company for a good outcome, especially if you've griped publicly. That way, you won't be branded a whiner.

—Tod Marks

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