Are Customers Just Plain Fickle?

I must admit.  Now I’m totally confused.  Or, maybe it’s not just me.  Or, maybe it’s not me at all.  Maybe it’s the customer that’s a bit confused.  Fickle maybe a more appropriate term?

There have been reams and reams of studies, blogs and articles reporting customers’ sentiment in general about the sorry state of customer service across the board.  In many of those writings, the customer has indicated a strong preference for self service.  And, the trend towards that preference is growing rapidly, due to many factors such as demographic shifts.  But, as important, is the feeling that, if live customer service stinks and, like a box of chocolates, you never know what or who or from what remote corner of the world you’re gonna get, people would just as soon have a DIY option.

Now granted, self service has had a rocky history as well.  By no means is it optimized.  Just look at the track record of bank ATMs.

Then along came a question posted on LinkedIn from my friend Justin Flitter. who asked:

“What will customer service and a great customer experience look like in 5 or 10 years?”

And the responses Justin received confounded me.  They all fall into the bucket of, in Justin’s words, “robotic, impersonal customer service must die”.  Well, I can’t argue with that.  And, I think this is a hangover from the less-than-stellar deployment of self service options to-date.  A couple other quotes from Justin’s post:

“I predict that high-tech over high touch will experience a severe consumer back-lash.  The self service, online transaction with little to no human contact will reach a tipping point of frustration”

“Self service transactions completely void of any human interaction and IVR…once seen as innovations in customer support, are now the bane of customers”

So, wait.  Live customer service stinks.  Self service stinks.  Now what the hell do we do?

Here’s what I read into all of this.  Is it that we as customers don’t know what we want?  Well, not exactly.  We know we want a great experience when we interact with a brand.  I think that’s the underlying message.  As for how we get it, I think that’s the part where we collectively as customers are grasping at straws out of pure frustration.  If self service rocked, studies have shown that people would prefer that.  It combines the great experience we desire with ultimate control, which by the way, enhances the experience for many.  Unfortunately, there are only a handful of companies that have solved this equation.

Here’s the deal folks.  That train has left the station and it ain’t coming back.  Self service provides huge cost benefits to companies.  And, it will continue to be a strategic focus in terms of customer service channel development.  Because, high-touch human capital-based service costs dough.  A lot of dough.  Who’s going to pay for that? 

There is a balance that needs to be struck, however.  As Amazon has done, its based on a three-part strategy, the combination of which I believe offers the best win-win for companies and customers.

First, redefine the role of the traditional customer service function in the enterprise.  Make its mission to identify and fix the broken processes that drive, as Bill Price from Amazon calls them, “dumb contacts”.  These are the product defects, billing & shipping errors and other upstream flaws that drive unnecessary volume into customer service, stretching it beyond its capacity and forcing the function to focus on wringing efficiency out of its own processes rather than on delivering world-class service.

Next, focus on developing world-class self service and community based support channels that give customers that combination of flexibility, satisfaction and the sense of control.

Finally, invest in agent-based channels that focus on high-touch contacts that truly demand that level of service and engagement.

From a cost perspective, this is the only way companies can consistently justify and provide the level of high-touch, human capital-based customer service that it appears some folks are after.


  1. Hi Barry.
    Reaching out on linkedin to 'anyone' was very interesting and as you note the responses were all over the place.
    I agree that self service will become more prevalent but more so because its so much easier to find answers. You're far more likely to be heard these days; if you say something online you can expect a response.

  2. In my future dream (where I have a flying car, BTW), everyone in the company is authorized to provide the customer with what they need, in the way they need it. Self-service your thing? Fine, we've got great FAQ and community Q&A.; Do you want nano-Twitters? We can do that. Do you want to talk on the phone or send me an email. Great. The way this happens, though, is a whole new culture of empowerment of employees, a new mindset of how you measure your employees' effectiveness, and an understanding of how to balance the personal and impersonal to provide the best customer experience. I can't wait to see this landscape in 5 years. I'm sure there will be lots of surprises. Thanks for a great post and for all your interesting posts. You always give me so much to think about.

  3. Good post Barry, and I agree with you. But I also agree with the sentiment of the responses to Justin's question..

    I think we are living in uncertain times. Times where known solutions do no longer work in all situations, but they do in some. Times in which new solutions work for some, but not all. Triggered by times in which Customers don't want "one size fits all solutions" but seek unique solutions in their unique context..

    And thus we seek to understand the things through our own lenses, whilst we should through our Customer's lens..

    I agree with you that self-service is by far not on it's return. We have just experienced the tip of the iceberg if you ask me. Yes, self-service is about saving costs for companies, but it is also about providing options for Customers to get their jobs done when and how they like doing them.. And with the least possible friction..

    At the same time we see an increased appreciation for high-touch service contacts on social channels. I'm not sure it's because of the high-touch though. I think it's because of the convenience too. Think about it.. how easy is it to drop a tweet, and then wait? Or how easy is it to drop a question in a forum and do the same? And it usually is a lot more reliable than e-mail and less costly than a phone call.. Sounds like a lot less friction to me..

    I'm guessing here, much like the people responding to Justin.. but it's a perspective I'd buy 😉 What do you think?

  4. Alyson,
    That's my futuristic dream landscape as well. My Nightmare on Future Elm Street is, as a techie, how we integrate all that to provide a seamless platform that delights, not further agitates the customer. (Ok, "nightmare" is a bit dramatic). But, many organizations still struggle with moving a customer record from an IVR to a rep or having that record follow a warm phone transfer. But beyond that, way beyond even that technical challenge, you hit it. It's cultural. Change is hard (yea, I have a "soft" side too). If you look at the organizations that have figured it out up to this point, they are adolescent from a business life cycle perspective. That's actually a huge advantage. There's no legacy. Legacy infrastructure. Legacy business models. Legacy culture to unwind. Its easier to build a Zappos or Amazon with that cultural foundation from scratch than to turn the Queen Mary…or in some cases the Titanic. Thanks for the comment and THANK YOU for reading these musings!

  5. Wim,
    I'm empathetic to both camps as well. I guess that makes me fickle too. Uncertain times, indeed. And hence, the targets in terms of understanding customers are constantly moving. Customers are also trying to shoot at moving targets when they look at the brand landscape. So this actually makes me think of a point about which I know you are passionate.

    In such an uncertain environment are customers and companies maybe actually asking the wrong questions of each other. Is the energy misdirected in trying to find the nugget and solve for that through what looks like the game "20 questions". Wouldn't a better approach be to put the specific issues aside for a moment and actually jointly create a platform to come up with the solutions together. Co-creation, call it whatever you want. Kind of makes me think of a negotiation. Instead of me trying to guess what you want. You trying to guess what I want in a zero-sum arena. A better approach is to develop the framework for working together. And through that framework, the solutions to the specific tactical issues will emerge.

    Does that make sense?

    Oh, right. And I 100% agree. Its as much about convenience as it is high-touch. Great way to look at it.

    Thank you for taking the time to add your thoughtful insight. I really value your opinion and appreciate you sharing it with me.

  6. Well put Barry – the solution lies in differentiation, as usual, stepping away from the one-size-fits-all.
    Customer self-service? Maybe it's me but after plowing through the options I always end up empty-handed and in a call

    Also, we need to differentiate for product types. The cheaper the product, the less time people want to invest in it. The more expensive, the higher their expectations – with the same result

    Customer loyalty is out the window, maybe that's the underlying issue. But the real problem is the reward system for help desks and such: the call-close mentality is tattooed onto their foreheads. Why? Because managers are too lazy to come up with decent (and enormously more complex) measures to calculate the benefits of a helpdesk

    Reason? It's seen as a cost centre. It ain't a cost centre – it's a Marketing and Sales channel, just after the purchase is made, and not before. So I'd say: invest!

  7. I enjoyed and agree with your CS assessment here. Which is why I am so perplexed by my local US post office this week.

    I noticed that the stamp machine, which I mostly use, was missing from the lobby. So, I stood in line, and at the counter asked the clerk where it was. He said that they weren't "cost effective" and were all being removed.

    Does that make any sense to anyone?


  8. Customers are like god for the business persons and they always make good comments for business products and whenever this thing happen like a bad comments or reviews than it changes the policies..

    Plain Racing company profile

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