Why is Customer Service Still So Lousy?

I had a few phone calls with American Express Travel Services yesterday afternoon, and am so bewildered by the experience that I have to write about it.

The calls started with a pre-recorded message telling me I should expect delays because bad weather in the US had increased call volumes. Fair enough. But then Amex started dropping my calls. The first time it happened I thought it was my phone, so called back and then called from a land line. But as the calls kept just dropping off with no warning I realized it wasn’t me.

One time I got to stick around long enough to hear another message (that I couldn’t ignore or fast forward through) telling me that if I wanted to fill out a customer satisfaction survey I could stick around after my call was ended. I then got transferred to what I thought was going to be a human operator. Instead, it was the survey, which I couldn’t also opt out of or fast-forward through. As you might imagine, I gave Amex very low marks. Then I got dropped again.

Because I’ve come to expect this kind of service from large companies (especially older ones), and because I needed something only Amex could provide me, I kept redialing. On about the sixth call, I was connected to a very helpful travel agent who did his job beautifully. I imagine, though, that he has to spend a fair amount of his time apologizing to people for the technologies that got in the way of his ability to help them.

How can this still be the situation? How can it still be the case, in 2010, that really well-understood technologies (telephony, voice prompts, etc.) are still detracting from customer service, rather than improving it, at some of the largest companies in the world?

I can think of three possibilities here, none of which makes a lot of sense. The first is that Amex’s leaders aren’t aware of these kinds of service breakdowns. But how can they not be? All they have to do is dial the number themselves, or hire someone to do it and report regularly, and they’d know. But maybe they don’t make their own travel plans by calling up the Amex 800 number, and the kinds of problems I experienced don’t get adequately summarized in any report that they read.

I did respond to their misplaced customer phone survey, though (I had no choice), I did give them lousy ratings, and I have to believe that those ratings are summarized and reported somewhere. So the second possibility is that Amex’s leaders are aware of their customer service issues, but not terribly bothered by them. But again, how could they not be? They run a customer service business —   it’s all they do — and they just released a study showing that, as their headline put it, “AMERICANS WILL SPEND 9% MORE WITH COMPANIES THAT PROVIDE EXCELLENT SERVICE.” Even if you take a pretty cynical view of large corporations and believe that they don’t care that much about their employees, you have to admit that they probably care a lot about their customers, especially in industries like travel with lots of competition and low switching costs.

The third possibility I came up with is that Amex’s leaders know about their tech problems and are concerned about them, but aren’t going to do anything about them. Maybe they don’t feel like they have the budget, the expertise, or the managerial bandwidth to take on a tech-heavy project now. Maybe the issues I experienced only crop up in the particular segment of Amex Travel I was dealing with, or when call volumes are particularly heavy, and so the company is willing to live with them for the time being. But I’m a heavy traveler, the kind of customer they probably want to attract and retain, and I’m sufficiently struck by this lousy tech leading to lousy customer service that I’m sitting around blogging about it. So informed inaction doesn’t make much sense either.

Of the three possibilities, the first seems the most likely to me. In large organizations it’s easy for senior people to become divorced from day-to-day reality, and to see only what they expect to see, or what their subordinates want them to see. One of the great promises of today’s technology, though, is that it can provide a view of a company’s situation that is current and comprehensive at any level of detail, from highly granular to widely aggregated.

Terminated / dropped calls can be tabulated. Call volumes can be monitored. Survey results can be summarized. Employees can be polled. Customer sentiment can be inferred from blog posts, tweets, status updates, and other contributions to the real-time social Web. And all this information can be presented to decision makers at any level, at any time.

Not too long ago it was hard know how well knowledge work was being done, or to clearly hear the voice of the customer. But not any more. A consumer-facing company like Amex Travel can obtain and track its digital vital signs, and do so at higher levels of accuracy and lower price points than has ever previously been possible.

So why does it appear as if they’re not? I’m not asking rhetorically; I’m really interested in other people’s insights and experiences on this topic. Why don’t companies take stronger action to fix the technologies that are impeding customer service? Why aren’t they more acutely aware when things are not going well? Why hasn’t competition driven out lousy customer service, especially in contexts where switching costs are low? What have you seen firsthand in this area, or learned or read that made a lot of sense to you? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.