An experience last week with my internet service provider caused me to examine the issue of customer service. More precisely, I wondered why I was doing all the work to identify the reason why I couldn’t connect to the internet while the voice at the other end of the phone gave instructions. It occurred to me that customer service has become, or is it on its way to becoming, a relic: these days, customer service frequently means customer-provided service. With apologizes to cartoon character Pogo for playing off the famous line attributed to him, more often than not today we can say, “We have met the customer service provider and he is us.”
A comic strip called Rudy Park addressed the issue of customer-provided service this week by articulating the thought process of a business owner seeking to wring more money out of his customers. In yesterday’s strip, the owner had a brainstorm: instead of having his employees fill customers’ coffee orders, he would call his business a training ground and charge customers for the privilege of making their own coffee! In today’s episode, he decided he would charge a premium for allowing customers to wash their own coffee cups. This conclusion might have been funny were it not for the fact that we are seeing this pattern in more and more establishments.
No doubt you have experienced the “customer service as self-service” phenomenon yourself. Companies that used to have employees provide services to customers now require customers to do the work themselves AND pay for the privilege of doing so. Here are a few examples:
Gas stations: Does anyone remember the days when gas station attendants were the norm? Even when they started fading from the scene, they went gradually – i.e., you had a choice between self-service and full service. No more.
Grocery stores: For a while, so-called “big box” stores made an appearance, trading self-service for lower prices, which seemed a fair exchange. Yet today, many grocery stores have self-service lines in which customers check themselves out and pack their own groceries. Personally I haven’t noticed grocery prices going down as a result.
Air travel: Travelers today find and book their own flights, and can choose to pay the baggage fee on-line or pay a premium for paying at the self-service kiosk at the airport. In many airports, after getting the luggage tags, travelers then must haul their luggage to the TSA security checkpoint so it can go through screening. I’m waiting for the day when passengers also are told to screen their own bags….
The point is that customers now are required to perform many services that formerly were provided by companies. This raises a question: if we don’t do a good job, or we are unable to resolve the problem, are we to blame? To whom do we complain?
What are the implications of the customer-provided service trend for business? Certainly, entire classifications of jobs will disappear – e.g., customer service agent, customer service manager, technicians. Costs will be much lower because workforces will be smaller. Presumably this will help profits, as I don’t see a concomitant reduction in prices. Yet what about the cost of decreased customer satisfaction? Are companies being “penny wise and pound foolish” by forcing customers to provide the desired service AND to pay for the privilege of doing so? At what point do people begin to feel that they work for the companies they are patronizing and should be compensated for their services? What are your thoughts about this issue?
© 2010 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.