Customers served best by communicating with real people

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New technology (computers, internet) adds some amazing, convenient customer options for businesses and government agencies. The same technology, however, also adds to the most inconvenient, antagonistic business practices. I keep a mental list of my favorite and least-favorite business customer practices.

Let me share a few.

Sometimes while using my online bank, insurance, and software accounts, talking with a customer service rep using their online chat is a big help. Online chat works just like Facebook Messenger or texting. A window pops up, a customer rep types, “Hello. How may I help you?” And my question is answered in no time flat. This is very convenient.

Amazon takes the online chat a step further. When I’ve mistakenly ordered an item I didn’t want, Amazon has an option where their customer service rep will call you. Right away, if you want. I’ve used Amazon’s call option three times. The Amazon reps were courteous, and resolved my issues straightaway.

Some businesses, and government agencies use computer generated voices that make it very difficult, sometimes impossible, to speak with real people. This practice is especially annoying when I’m forced to respond to a computer voice’s multiple choice options, none of which have anything to do with my call.

By the way, why do these computers use only female voices?

Some government agencies and businesses obviously use computer voices to steer customers away from talking to employees, to the entity’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) online. In so doing, they assume a lot, probably too much, of their customers. I’m reasonably comfortable interacting with computers. So when I’m wrestling to make sense of a computer’s instructions — what about people with little or no computer savvy? Or people with cognitive or physical challenges?

Such computer interaction make me think of the late-State Senator R. Leo Kieffer’s (R-Caribou) bill. He wanted to make sure people, not machines, always answered the phones in Maine government agencies. Wouldn’t that be something?

And I think of the Mac Store that lost my purchase because I could not get past its self-identified “Smart Computer.” If that computer is so smart, why did I spend my $2,000 at a different store?

Self checkout stations in grocery stores and big box stores are terrific. Once a man was struggling with the self checkout station next to me. That same computerized female voice was reprimanding him to “place the item in the bag,” and “there is an unscanned item in the bag.”

When finished, the customer said to the store manager, “I come here to get nagged.” On balance, self checkouts beat waiting in line.

How many food shoppers agree? When grocery store express lanes sell scratch tickets and cigarettes, they are often anything but express lanes. Waiting for one customer to ponder over which ten individual scratch tickets to buy, while five customers wait in what they thought was an express lane, is bad customer relations.

Up-selling drives me nuts. Maybe there’s a more upfront way of advertising extra items or warranties. Customers interested in extended warranties can opt in. I understand why stores up-sell, but it’s most often uncomfortable and annoying. Especially when the item I’m buying is already stretching my budget to the max.

In person, on the phone, or by online chat, sales and service people who love what they do, who know what they’re doing, who have a gift for sharing their love and knowledge with customers, are still priceless! There is no substitute for people like that. Every time I encounter such a person I am relieved and grateful.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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