Valued customers left waiting

By PAULA OLIVER

Perfecting the art of good customer service might not be easy, but it appears many companies are simply throwing the problem into the too-hard basket.

A survey of customer service standards released this week revealed that 30 per cent of organisations did not have a customer service department. Almost unsurprisingly, Government departments fared even worse. Forty per cent of those surveyed did not have a separate service department.

The study indicated that while people were being told they were "valued customers," many of them were hanging up in record time to avoid infuriating automatic telephone machines.

"There is a big chunk of companies who don't seem to be taking customer service seriously," says study designer Paul Linnell. "If businesses understood that you can directly link loyalty to service and satisfaction, then things would be different."

The study surveyed 178 organisations, including Government departments, top-500 companies and small businesses.

It found that despite the internet and e-mail's rapid growth, more than 75 per cent of customer contact came via the ever-reliable phone call.

Mr Linnell said an interesting point was that companies were e-mailing customers more frequently, but contact via e-mail often resulted in a phone call anyway.

A huge number of organisations could use e-mail, but customers were not using it, he said. "Customers want a speedy response to their inquiry, and they don't like being ping-ponged around the organisation, which can often happen with e-mail."

Kiwi customers were shown to be more impatient than their overseas counterparts in the survey, with most phone callers abandoning calls after waiting between 24 and 30 seconds for a human response.

With 61 per cent of companies surveyed using automated voice responses on their phone systems, Mr Linnell said many people simply hung up.

"Poor [automated] messages really do annoy people, and we can always tell how valuable we really are when there's nobody there to take our call," he said.

"It's another thing that delays customers from getting an answer, and it can be used to disguise a lack of resources in the call centre."

Mr Linnell said such automated systems did have their place, but many people perceived them to be annoying.

Just 1 per cent of companies surveyed outsourced their customer call centre.

Outsourcing could potentially result in a far more efficient service, said Mr Linnell. More than half of the companies provided only a five-day-a-week service, and less than half regularly measured customer satisfaction.

A worrying trend in the survey was that most companies intended to cut their spending in the service area, despite the poor results they were achieving.

"It's hard to tell why they would do that, but perhaps it's because many of them think e-mail and the internet will be a more efficient way to deal with customers," Mr Linnell said.

"But that has been shown to be a dangerous assumption."

Mr Linnell said the companies which performed well tended to perform very well; others lagged a long way behind.

It seems that New Zealand companies have two options: Press one if they want to lose a potential customer, or pick up the phone to make a sale.

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