Lost in the system

Lost in the system

Customers seeking redress for poor service are disoriented by sophisticated corporate defences made up of rerouted calls, contrived rules and inappropriate cross-selling.

Customers seeking redress for poor service are disoriented by sophisticated corporate defences made up of rerouted calls, contrived rules and inappropriate cross-selling. Marketing, as a social science and professional specialty, came to prominence relatively recently. One element of this developing discipline now travels under the rubric of customer relationship management.

For their part, customers confronting more sophisticated marketing tactics still have a lagging comprehension of some implications of their subordinate role in these managed relationships.

Businesses are increasingly adept at tightening the terms on which customers deal with them: Changed terms may comply with fair-trading rules but nonetheless preclude expected avenues of redress. Customers often feel wrong-footed in their day-to-day dealings when overlooked contract terms, triggered by unforseen events, leave them disadvantaged and defenceless.

The political environment has been conducive to businesses taking more licence but, even so, emerging concerns run deeper than such transitory influences could explain. Unacceptable behaviour is commonplace in situations where customers are "locked in" and, with uniformly disagreeable practices common in superficially competitive businesses, choice between suppliers has little practical meaning.

There are various illustrative focal points for these concerns but none as evocative as the corporate call centres that now divert telephone dealings with customers, feeding enquiries and complaints to skilled relationship builders and managers. Call centres have put a cutting edge on customer relationship management.

Overloaded call centres entail recurrent low-level annoyance for customers left hanging before being encouraged to "visit our website" and eventually being rerouted, with further delay, to someone able to listen and, hopefully, resolve the issue.

Customers expressing exasperation at this point are left feeling partly responsible for the overload, with no concession to the possibility that call centres are understaffed or mismanaged.

Time is money for customers as well as for businesses and, compared with the bygone age, businesses leaving customers languishing on the line are cutting costs at customer expense. When next pondering the value of the hold time that customers collectively spend waiting, consider also why call centre facilities are not made more customer-friendly.

There are higher level concerns about call-centre practices that are more worrying.

Customers' follow-up calls are redirected to a random employee at any one of several locations. Denied continuity with call centre staff, customers going over old ground feel doubly disadvantaged. Recordings and notes of previous customer conversations allow some continuity. But they strengthen the negotiating power of the company.

Complaint-resolution discussions are being flexibly contrived and discretionary "rules" are fabricated on the run to disadvantage customers. Customers lose out when put under pressure to accept a settlement coloured by such unfairly exercised discretions.

Doing it right the first time can often cost more when handling complaints.

Anecdotes of abuses are especially disturbing when discretionary interpretations of one-sided contracts are dictated to ordinary people who are rarely competent to sustain an objection.

Much of this irritation may be small beer for individual customers who get a professional runaround, but the practice has an aura of exploring customer and regulatory reactions to assess what discretionary impositions might fly, and how high. Negotiating new impositions on customers can deliver very valuable long-term pay-offs.

Who has not queried an obvious account-keeping irregularity that is reluctantly conceded (by a supervisor) before the conversation switches to sophisticated cross-selling? Call-centre personnel are trained to take advantage of customers, and rewarded for doing so.

When exercised across ostensibly competing major companies, slick behaviour well beyond the car-dealer level of sophistication does not just happen by chance. Senior managers oversee call-centre strategies and approve operational tactics along with investments in technology and customer-management skills.

No one is saying much yet about these embryonic irregularities, but the pressure for revelation will build - and the dam will burst eventually with a flurry of regulatory outrage in the clean-up.

Embryonic or not, people have stories to tell already - customer-management stories that would unsettle regulators as well as chairmen of boards with no idea of tarnished deeds being done behind a façade of call-centre efficiency.

Among others, ombudsmen overseeing banking, insurance and telecommunications might beat the bushes for these anecdotes before dealing resolutely with at least the worst implications.

Sidebar: The Regulation of Respect

A world where consideration characterised suppliers' dealings with customers is largely lost. Customers once able to choose between independent suppliers benefited from genuine competition while public utilities, as natural monopolies, behaved benignly.

Now, concentrated and privatised industry structures see dominant suppliers behaving like mercenaries. Powerful businesses routinely profit unfairly, shifting costs to customers and misusing pricing powers and monopolising tactics.

This could be transitory as businesses and customers adapt to more efficient but still unfamiliar procedures and technologies. Even so, some offenders need regulatory encouragement to restore fairness and respect to their relationships with their customers.

Fairfax Business Media

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Tags project managementCustomer Relationship Managementcall centrescustomer focusnew technologies

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