All-digital customer service is not perfect

Consider Jack in the Box, which a year ago shut down all of its customer call centers, pushing customer service online

call center worker
Credit: Alan Clark via Flickr

Making retail operations digital is usually an improvement. Done properly, digital can be more efficient, faster and cost-effective and can capture far more information. it is also often the kind of interactions many younger consumers prefer. But don't let that lengthy list of advantages blind you to the reality that you're still losing something. That pro/con list may be lopsided, but it still has two sides.

Consider Jack in the Box, which a year ago shut down all of its customer call centers, pushing customer service online, according to this profile in Digiday. The story certainly described a lot of benefits of, if you will, hanging up all of those phones.

"Since Jack in the Box ushered in these changes, its response time for a majority of comments is less than 45 minutes during working hours. However, the average response time over the course of a 24-hour period is closer to 13 hours — still less than the average time of competitors Five Guys, McDonald’s and Burger King. It’s also a lot better from what it was a year ago in 2015, averaging over 20 hours," the story said. "The shift has improved Jack in the Box’s social sentiment, which is now more neutral and less negative. That’s because the brand prioritizes not just answering queries but also forging a relationship with consumers and ultimately, hopefully, turning them into brand advocates. So, for example, when two 9-year-old twin boys from California created a video to complain about the restaurant chain discontinuing its mini-cookies, the social customer service team sent them a box of the cookies."

A big part of the numbers improvement is that software, by its very nature, is easy to standardize. On the phone, you have some good reps and bad reps and even good reps having a really bad day. With software, all responses can, in theory, be precisely the same, with the same perceived tone and attitude. Yes, some of the responses are still done by humans, but that percentage is sharply lower.

But a lot of this is reacting to what is found on social sites. Those sites are public and therefore give a distorted picture to management. There are customers who are unhappy and want to complain to a store manager or to a call center but who don't necessarily want to shout their complaint to the world. You lose many of those people. And some of them are forced to choose: make this complaint public or not at all. Is this really a choice you want to push?

Some will counter by saying that the site still permits private messaging. Yes, it does. But that's not the same. Someone may have a legitimate issue and may want to vent but may not want to spend the time filling out an online complaint form.

Bottom line: By abandoning human-staffed call centers where a customer can talk — not type, but talk — with someone who seems as if they listening and interested, you are surrendering a lot of valuable information. This info drives decisions.

Also, your data will get skewed in another way. If something unusually good happens, many customers will call a call center. They expect a positive and pleasant interaction, as they assume, correctly, that calls to say something complimentary are rare. That good feedback can be very valuable. Forced to type such a message online, many won't bother.

First, online is a great place to complain. It's much less fun to be nice. More critically, there's none of the immediate favorable feedback that phoning in a compliment to a customer service rep can bring. With no pleasant and immediate feedback, you are taking away perhaps the only reason for that customer to spend their time typing away a message.

Granted, a pleasant "thank you" still may arrive an hour or two later, but it's not the same. Trust me: You want those messages to come. Rewarding an employee for good behavior can be a far more effective management tool than disciplining bad behavior.

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