I recall a number of years ago dialing 411 (Information) and asking the operator for a phone number for a store a few miles away in Boston. In a thick Dorchester accent, she corrected the name of the store for me. "I think you mean this one," she said, and she was right.
Old school customer service has been in decline for some time now--pushed out by the costcutting allure of self-service, offshoring, IVRs, etc.
Impersonal customer service works in some cases. Shopping for a known commodity like a book, or CD, for example, or putting a vacation stop on your newspaper delivery. But companies have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, because if it's really important to understand what a customer needs, a trained, empathetic person is the best resource a company can have. These folks, as John Kotter writes in "A Sense of Urgency," help "bring the outside in"--in other words, they provide insight from a vital outside constituency--customers--into the organization.
I've talked before in this blog about how data about customer interactions will be captured and mined for insights about customer perceptions of products, service and the company that provides them. Today, surveys and focus groups attempt to paint this picture. Tomorrow, the real, raw data will be used. Stories from customers, and the stories from the people who serve them directly.
This will provide a new value proposition for customer service. As opposed to a replaceable part hired at the lowest hourly rate possible, front-line staff will be well-paid and well-trained. Their insights will be carefully collected and utilized, and products (and the customers that buy them) will be better off for them.
Shifting customer service to a different location to save $1.00 a call will be unthinkable.
It's possible that Best Buy's Geek Squad is an early prototype of this mindset. In an article in today's New York Times, Matt Richtel depicts a power struggle between computer manufacturers who install application craplets on their PCs, and retailers, who are responding to customers' desire to buy a PC free of craplets. This section was notable:
Mr. Stephens of Geek Squad says he agrees with H. P. that the future is in allowing computer buyers to choose and download what they want. But he said he believed Best Buy, not H. P., was in the best position to help people choose what works for them because, he argued, the in-store technicians are in closest contact with them.
“Geek Squad agents have one thing over Apple and Microsoft engineers. We spend most of the day talking to people,” he said.