I had two very different experiences of customer service today.

The first was at today’s office of choice: a coffee shop in SM Megamall, Blenz. It was my first time there, but based on the service, I’ll be there more often. One barista patiently pointed out to me where the sample cup sizes were, despite my total blindness. Another patiently recommended muffins to me, asked if I wanted them heated, explained their WiFi policy and remembered my name. And greeted me before I left.

The second was from a big corporation. They go for ruthless efficiency (or so they think, see parentheses below), hence screening all call-in customers with phone options to be able to point a customer to a “subject specialist”. And after following instructions, I had to wait for about 5-10 minutes to get through to that specialist. The specialist asked me for account details (despite the automated phone options asking me to input my details), and when I asked about my billing details, the specialist proceeded to tell me that the billing server was down so they couldn’t give me information, asking me to call back in an hour (like I would).

Something I noticed: I’m happy to point out that the customer service of smaller stores and food establishments (coffee shops, most especially) has gradually improved over the years. While these are improving, the customer service of corporations has slowly been declining, exchanging effectiveness for efficiency.

Why? In the first example, most of the work was done by them. In the second example, most of the work was done by me. 

The corporations grow too big to serve all its customers, so they are forced to put more risk and effort on the customers, quite literally, to serve themselves. Who has to dial through so many voice menus and input their account details, only to be asked for it again 5 minutes later? Most importantly, who has to wait to be able to get in touch with the corporation they are hiring for their services? 

A more extreme way of looking at it is that the smaller businesses understand that they owe it to the customers, while the corporations believe that the customers owe it to them to have their services available.

Both sides have something to learn from each other, I believe.

What the coffee shop can learn from the corporation

The truth is, I don’t think consumers mind to do some work for themselves, which is why online banking is picking up. My thought is this: If customer service will slow down the service, the customers would rather do the work themselves. 

If my coffee takes me 20 seconds longer just because they put sugar, give it to me, I’ll mix my sugar in instead. If I want to choose the muffin and it’s faster if I do it, leave the muffins a refrigerator, let me pick what I want and let me give it to them for heating.

What the corporation can learn from the coffee shop

Customers feel they get their money’s worth when they are treated right. “We’re paying, don’t inconvenience us with your self-serving policies.”

The opposite insight here is: When customer service forces customers to do work that will slow service down, customer service fails. 

When a customer inputs his account details, don’t let the agent ask for his details again. When a customer hears the pre-recorded messages, inform him immediately if a certain server/service is down, so he doesn’t waste 5 minutes trying to get through. Give the customer a call ID/identifier or something, in case he needs to call back or the call gets cut, or the issue is unresolved; that will allow the customer to save time from having to dial through everything and explaining everything again.

Customer service 

It wouldn’t hurt to rethink customer service. When do you pass on work to customers? What do you pass to customers? What do we take ourselves?

It’s not about what is easier for the corporation; especially in customer service, it’s about user experience. Honestly I think corporations are doing it wrong; they’re focused on their own operational efficiency, instead of the efficiency of service for the customer. They may be efficient, but are they effective?

We should look for ways to make it faster for the customer, by passing on the right things to them. We have got to believe that no one likes things slow (aside from a slow roast dish), and both sides will benefit from efficiency done the right way.