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Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.
— Bill Gates, Business @ The Speed of Thought
Some unexpected insights came my way, as I was running a focus group in Chennai. The topic was “Adoption of new technology products”. We were working on mapping the decision making process, when the issue of customer care and call centers came up. One of the participants said – Customer Care centers are less preferable to a local mechanic because:
Further probing revealed more issues.
In a way it made sense. In my earlier research work too I had seen instances of people depending on local repairmen. It does make sense to call someone you know, someone you can reach directly over phone. But is it practical? What are the odds that you would find someone reliable?
Call center infrastructure has been built over the past couple of decades with the promise of delivering the following:
1. Consistency in service
2. Access to skilled repairmen
3. Scale to reach millions of customers at hundreds of locations
Call centers make use of technology to efficiently service a large number of customers via highly trained professionals. They can instantly look up your phone number, figure out where you live and what products you use. They have a database of repairmen or other skilled workers who can be dispatched to your premises within a fixed amount of time. They can even fix your problems by walking you through some self service steps. Surely nothing can be wrong with this?
Welcome to the hyper-connected world. When call centers came up, most people were happy to be able to make a phone call, better yet from a mobile phone. Access to Internet meant booting up the computer. Fast forward a bunch of years -> smart phones rule. Internet anywhere. Services helping you find everything – high end restaurant or a temporary maid. On your phone where you are.
Cab companies led by Uber have taken the initiative in breaking out of the call center and getting onto your hands. You talk to the cab driver and not to a call center agent. You see a cab on the map and know for sure it’s on its way. A big change has happened and people have adopted it readily, although aided by low rates for a start. But the peace of mind it offers is sure to make this new way of getting a cab the only way. Mumbai cab unions are doing the only smart thing by adopting this technology themselves. [Read that article here]
Uber of everything else is in the works. The formula is fairly straightforward – build an app, load it with service providers for whatever service, get this out into as many hands as possible. There are bound to be winners among the bulk of losers. One thing that is for sure is that these services will evolve to a point where more people will prefer these services to the corporate call centers.
It’s a disruption. Adapting to it won’t be easy, neither cheap. Revenue from services is at stake. An entire machinery built for the purpose is at stake. Cost of not adapting is high too. The best run machinery could one day start looking outdated and ineffective. Companies known for poor service could leapfrog to set new benchmarks in service.
New business models need to be evolved. The established companies have built an army of experts. Fine tuned training programs. Ways to cross sell products piggybacking on service. And so on. Customers appreciate some of these, only if these could be delivered minus the drawbacks of the traditional call centers. Mumbai cab unions are trying to adapt. Would the big corporate wake up too?
Just as in many other industries, technology seems poised to break the top down regimented structure of traditional call centers, to be replaced by a loosely aligned network of rapidly forming and disintegrating networks of individuals. If leveraged well, companies will be able to respond to service requests more rapidly.
Hiring, training and retaining skilled workers is a huge challenge in the current environment. One company’s loss is another’s gain as people switch jobs. An open pool of skilled resources might make more sense.
Language issues highlighted above are addressed well if Services engage with local communities to impart essential skills to carry out certain level of service and repairs.
Call centers in the age of Hyper-connectivity need to be re-assessed for their role in providing customer care. I hope it means good things for the general public. Could mean much more for the economic fringe groups of society where they could find new ways to make a living.
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