At a business meeting I attended recently, a participant made an interesting observation about customer service and technological change.
She had tried hailing a company’s attention the conventional ways (i.e., a toll-free number), but decided to give social media a try.
I can’t quite remember how successful she was with Twitter, but I was intrigued to hear how a relatively new tool — online chat — was able to quickly put her in touch with someone who could answer her questions.
Several weeks ago, I needed to make an adjustment to my cellphone plan as I got ready for a trip that took me briefly into the U.S.
I dialed the toll-free number, and as I was listening to the message that told me my call was important to them — yada yada yada — I remembered that tip about instant messaging.
Sure enough, I was able to log onto the website, find the chat tool on the customer service page, and actually get in touch with a human being on the other side long before I even got tired of the Muzak playing in the background of the phone.
I hung up.
That decision proved valuable as soon as it became clear that I was getting precisely what I needed through a chat box.
The woman on the other end supplied detailed answers quickly to every question I had, especially when it came to pricing options.
I had a plan picked out and added to my bill in what felt like a few minutes, and I also picked up some advice for a more complicated trip down the road.
Well, that was easy.
And it was, to the extent that I thought that chat may well be the vanguard for solid customer service.
It raises questions about how well, and the extent to which, chat may replace (or more likely complement) existing customer service avenues.
For instance, one of the reasons why my query might have been handled so quickly is because not that many people may be using chat to communicate with a company.
As well, not that many companies (particularly smaller ones) even offer this as an option, so I don’t think it’s gone mainstream yet. The bottom line: I didn’t have a very long wait, but that dynamic may change.
Still, I don’t think chat will be everyone’s cup of tea.
Those who like instant messaging a lot — and this is becoming standard communications in many offices — will take to it, but if it’s alien to you, you’re likely going to want to have more comfortable options, like phone, email or a letter.
The range of options are connected to a belief I have that companies need to be flexible in their approaches in dealing with customers — and that includes social media.
Approaches to customer service have evolved gradually over the decades, but social media has upended things rather quickly; now, larger companies recognize that their marketing and customer service arms need to be alert and online.
Personally, I find that some people have unrealistic expectations of obtaining customer satisfaction through social media.
For instance, firing off a single tweet doesn’t strike me as being particularly effective.
Instead, I would want to make sure my concerns and questions were being heard and understood, and that I had a two-way line of communication open.
Nonetheless, the marketplace is changing, and so too are the stakes in customer service.
A discussion about the practical implications for consumers and companies alike will have to wait for another day.
In the meantime, I’m curious to see how various businesses and groups will adapt their workflow to accommodate a digital technology that I think has great potential in serving either side well.
John Gushue is a digital producer
with CBC News in St. John’s.