For the last time, customer service is not a cost

You have to spend to make it happen, but it brings both top and bottom line benefits down the line, says John Sills.

by John Sills
Last Updated: 10 Oct 2019

There’s a fallacy that exists in a lot of organisations that customer experience comes with a cost attached. New ideas are met with requests to prove ‘return on investment’ of customer experience, without which the idea is downgraded to the bare minimum and delivered with fingers crossed that it’s just about good enough to stop customers leaving.

But recently I was reminded that the opposite is true. When done well, good customer experience is a cost-saver for organisations. Or put more simply, providing a bad experience is high effort and high cost for companies and customers alike.

The train company that shuttles me in and out of the city every day wrote me a letter I’d been hoping to receive for years. I could finally get rid of my old paper ticket and replace it with a shiny, Oyster-like contactless card (we’ll leave to one side for the moment that they could have emailed and, in 2019, the ticket really should have been going directly onto my phone). The smartcard arrived a few days later, and I went online to load my existing season ticket onto it.

And that’s where the problems started. They seemed to have decided to gamify the experience, providing a cryptic challenge involving multiple systems and screens, apparently unlockable to a Luddite like me. So I asked their Twitter team, who suggested the local station, who suggested the mainline station, who suggested I phone the service helpdesk, who suggested the mainline station again. There were lots of mentions of ‘loading’ and ‘validating’, but not many mentions of ‘we’ll sort that out for you’. 

This experience went on for over a month, trying to set up the new card with a team of people who meant well but clearly had no idea what to do. This experience was pretty terrible for me as a customer, but clearly is very costly for the company too, repeated failures causing increased calls and queues for them to deal with. 

Whilst this was happening, I received two more letters suggesting I apply for a new smartcard. 

That same month, I bought a new car, and a few days later, I received three letters, on the same day, in three different envelopes, all giving information about slightly different parts of my contract.

That same week, my mobile phone company sent me two letters on the same day about an irrelevant price increase, one for my phone, and one, bizarrely, for my watch, which has a proxy phone number attached to my main phone number.

Two days after that, my life insurance company contacted me and said I’d missed one tick box on the underwriting form I needed to complete, as to whether I smoke or not. Their solution was to reprint the whole 15-page form, send it in the post, for me to put one tick in one box on one page, then post back to them again. 

And of course, for every one of these companies, my preference is online and email only, and has been for about 15 years.

The problem is that most organisations don’t connect customer experience and commercial performance in a way that shows the money that is being wasted. The cost for implementing a better customer experience is often looked at in isolation, with the business case needing to be proved based on whether or not customers will buy more as a result. What isn’t considered is the cost of inaction; the cost that exists in the business as a result of poor customer experience, whether that be from repeat customer queries, sending unnecessary letters, or gathering useless data.

Image credit: JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images

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