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Customer First Aid

Customer First Aid

Companies these days say they want to be customer centric and customer focused, which suggests the question -- what were they before? Unfortunately it seems many companies are mistaking an electronic customer transaction with customer service. Here are two examples I've encountered in the last few weeks, and if you work for one of these organisations it might be worth stepping back a little and taking note.

The first relates to a very senior executive of one of our top banks. He recently went surety for a loan for his daughter at his bank, only to have it knocked back because he hadn't worked at the bank long enough. The irony is that he worked in IT and no doubt it was one the systems he managed that knocked him out.

On the second occasion, a friend of mine applied for and received an American Express Gold Card. However the card was posted to the wrong address, and the person on the receiving end went whoopee! Her problems really started when she tried to get some help. For those of you lucky enough not to have experienced it, the American Express call centre was designed by Franz Kafka, or one of his acolytes; it seems to conspire to keep its customers beyond the reach of fellow human beings. My friend is a high-paid professional -- just the sort of busy business person with no time to sit around wading through recorded phone messages.

The first example illustrates the problems with information systems that lack human intuition or even common-sense. The second, represents the folly of erecting electronic firewalls between you and the people who pay the bills. Of course that's the bad news. There are also some excellent examples of companies who have successfully deployed technology that is both customer sensitive as well as customer centric.

Last May, writing in this magazine Maggie Macrae profiled the efforts of Federal Express, regarded by many as a benchmark outfit for the deployment of technology. Macrae quotes Denise Wood, vice-president of information and telecommunications systems for FedEx Asia Pacific: "Our focus has always been on customer service and enhancing it. Today, we have 4000 people worldwide dedicated to making the highest quality customer service available using technology . . . and we make the service available to all our customers no matter where they are . . ." (cio.idg.com.au).

Customer service means much more than sacking telephone operators and building a call centre for companies like FedEx. Can you say the same for your company?Footnote: A recent column caught my attention because it was suggestive of the uncritical influence that many in the analyst community hold over us. Paul Strassmann's column in ComputerWorld Today (computerworld.idg.com.au) examined the first-quarter 1998 reports filed by US companies listed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as they related to the Y2K costs.

Analysing those figures closely, Strassmann came up with a year 2000 bill for corporate America at $50 billion. That's a lot of dollars but it's certainly much less than the figures portrayed by the likes of the Gartner Group. In fact its makes you wonder which of its famous probability scores Gartner attached to its guesstimate. One out of 10 would seem appropriate, since, if these early results are any guide, they are an entire order of magnitude lower than Gartner would have us believe.

Andrew Birmingham is the CIO of IDG Communications. He can be reached at Andrew_Birmingham@idg.com.au

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