Technology should have killed lousy customer service. So why does it still exist?

DENISE KINGSMILL: Checking into a hotel is a laborious experience and staff can be rude and unhelpful. Surely reception areas of hotels could be dispensed with entirely?

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 30 Aug 2013

I have just returned from Silicon Valley and am suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms. The heady mix of innovative thinking, entrepreneurial endeavour, a great climate and lots of money washing around is irresistible.

It is the home of some of the world's biggest tech companies but it also saw 46,000 startups last year.

Many will fail - there were about 12,000 bankruptcies in the same period - but some will grow to become the next Apple, Amazon or Google. It is just a case of spotting which ones.

On the lookout for these are some of the best brains and most sophisticated risk-takers in the world, such as the recently knighted Sir Michael Moritz, who we in Britain can claim as our own, just as we can Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple's chief designer. Silicon Valley now accounts for more than a third of the venture capital of the US and as such is a major contributor to the revival of the US economy.

The academic hub of this activity is Stanford University, where the faculty and students have long been encouraged to start their own companies and are often supported with both intellectual and financial capital from alumni, many of whom are themselves founders of successful companies.

Graduates from the major US universities, inspired by the success stories of Silicon Valley, no longer aspire to a career in Wall Street or on Capitol Hill but rather dream of building the killer app that will be bought for millions of dollars by one of the big boys in the Valley.

I was invited to a dinner with some highly successful tech entrepreneurs, where I was entertained by stories of risks taken, deals done, and fortunes made and missed. It was jokingly observed that, increasingly, the apps being created in Silicon Valley seem to be designed to improve the lives of those living in Silicon Valley - such as BlackJet.com, which allows people to use their mobile device to book seats on a private jet within 10 seconds, or others that offer 'high-end, off-market' real estate for sale where privacy is desired.

In contrast, one of the most useful and interesting Silicon Valley companies that I have now become associated with is (24)7-inc, which uses predictive analytics and big data to improve everyday customer experiences.

We have all been outraged by lousy customer service from our banks, internet providers or credit card companies that could be greatly improved by the application of such techniques. It is estimated that poor customer service costs UK businesses around £15.3bn a year, as customers vote with their feet, defecting to competitors or abandoning purchases.

How unexpected it was then that on my journey to the digital mecca I encountered some distinctly analogue service experiences. It started at San Francisco airport when I had to join a huge queue to pick up the hire car that I had booked and paid for through the internet.

It took almost an hour to reach a bad-tempered person behind a desk and a large screen, seemingly designed to keep customers at bay. After laboriously checking the details he already had in front of him, he clumsily proceeded to try to upsell me various things, including GPS and insurance, before he reluctantly allowed me to have the key.

This process could be shortened and improved to the benefit of the customer and the company by the sensible use of mobile technology and data about previous hires.

Checking into the hotel involved a similar experience. The internet provides many options, with excellent sites such as Mr&Mrs Smith or Trivago for choosing, booking and paying for a stay in a hotel, but to actually access the room you have to go through a very old-fashioned check-in process.

Reception areas of hotels could be dispensed with entirely by the application of some imaginative thinking.

Perhaps the most irritating of all customer experiences was when the phone company cut off my mobile access to the internet without warning, leaving me unconnected until I was able to find a Wi-Fi area.

This was particularly infuriating since I pay by direct debit and have never agreed to or been informed of any limit on my usage.

How simple it would be for the company to use its acquired data about my normal consumption patterns to provide me with a good service and enable me to use my phone to keep a day-to-day check on my usage if and when I choose, instead of behaving like an obstructive policeman and arbitrarily imposing a restriction.

Smart mobile technology combined with sophisticated analytics is readily available to meet the needs of media-savvy consumers who expect instant accessibility and contact, together with an anything, anytime service ethic.

When I can get a seat on a private jet in 10 seconds, surely good customer service is not too much to ask of the providers of more everyday services. A Silicon Valley dream or an achievable goal?

Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on editorial@managementtoday.com

Follow her on Twitter: @denisekingsmill

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