Friday, November 8, 2019

Mission Impossible Part II: State of the Art for Customer Service

How could a passenger disappear on a flight from New York to Singapore because their ticket was miscoded to show the wrong date of arrival?
Why can’t a mother of three with a husband under a Domestic Violence Order get a divorce decree after six years in and out of court, despite her many expensive attorneys’ attempts to find out why?
Why did it take four years of repeated applications and inquiries to renew an ordinary passport through the mail?
Why does a healthcare system declaration of Patient Rights apply only to its hospital in-patients, excluding the thousands more getting out-patient care in its many department clinics?  When the patient finally got the right person to answer their phone, he was told that out-patient problems had to be resolved at the specialty department level even though the problem was with the department manager herself. The hospital saw nothing odd in telling the patient to take their complaint to the very person they were complaining about.
Why does no one at the Philadelphia city government level recognize their own new City ID cards, nor can explain what they cover?  How is it that no one at the many City Hall desks seems to know where to direct cardholders to a simple list of covered benefits?
Why does a low-vision eye clinic not answer its telephone, nor post its location in an assisted-living building without an identifying sign? 
And so on.  Of course there are millions more consumer horror stories to add to these.  The consumer complaint narrative has become the latest form of self-expression, arguing for the right to fair treatment in the face of the uncaring big company. Fairness – not to be confused with the legal concept of Justice — is a uniquely American cultural value. 
Seventy percent of the US economy is consumer-driven.  It would seem there would be effective methods of resolving the inevitable conflicts of interest that result. The old term ombudsman, though hardly ever used anymore, once provided a disinterested third-party mediator who could resolve these problems.  Starting in the 1950s, such an agent began to appear as an impartial, independent “legal representative” (following the Swedish definition) who could be relied on to investigate “maladministration” in response to complaints by the public.  This role seems to have disappeared from the consumer issue landscape, however, since the 60s.
Consumer dissatisfaction now extends far beyond a few stray complaints about shoddy manufacturing or persistent auto-repair problems; it has become a way of life for the majority of Americans who spend their spare time between phone and internet trying to work their way through the labyrinth of help programs and customer service for medical, legal, insurance, banking, schooling, and governmental issues that have gone awry at the personal level. 
You would think that the world revolved around the customer and customer satisfaction, given the fierce competition for every dollar spent in the consumer marketplace.  But no, that’s not the case.  Business, government, and even nonprofits have just devised more and better ways to evade customers—sending us online, without telephone access—or when we do succeed in breaking the telephone or text barrier, finding ways of making things so complex that even experts have trouble wayfinding through the clutter.  That clutter now includes confusing the pathways to solutions and creating dead ends without alternative pathways to get directions or information needed to solve even the simplest-sounding problem.  Rude, unhelpful customer service has become the norm, the latest iteration of “You can’t fight City Hall.”
Mega-companies--the ones with customer service--are the prime adversaries of their own customers.  Given the term “customer service,” companies should have the best interests of the consumer as their core motivation. Experience demonstrates, however, that they are more about customer management. These companies make profits, often huge ones, and their goal is to maintain profitability. When dealing with customer service, it’s not unusual to find yourself in an adversarial relationship.  It’s not an equal fight by any measure.  The sophistication of big business, big healthcare, and big government is many times that of their customers, and they are fully aware of this fact.  For the customer, efforts to be dealt with fairly amount to an ongoing Mission Impossible. 
This is because expecting a company to cure its own complaints is akin to expecting that everyone who is a patient can also negotiate like a health-care lawyer—and understand the system, its rules, definitions, and intentions.  This is unrealistic.  It’s difficult enough just to learn enough to navigate the departments, procedures, doctors, support staff, locations, price structure, let along start in on your own insurance coverage and what that means in payments due.  Patients don’t even appreciate how to frame questions to produce the answers they need—or what do with the answers.  In response to your questions—if you can manage to understand how to frame them—customer service agents can’t tell you why anything happens, just cite policy.  Leaving the patient to try constructing a logic framework to explain what’s going to happen, when, where, and how much it will cost out of pocket.  Add to this conundrum the coded messages, abbreviations, and proprietary terminology that make up just one bill (or even “This is Not a Bill”), and the average person is overwhelmed before even beginning to see any useful answers.
Perhaps this is the reason that less than 4% of customers complain formally (TARP Research, 1999).  Instead, they spread negative world of mouth.  One in ten leave the business and never return—harder to do with a hospital or health system.  The White House Consumer Affairs Office reports that unhappy customers will tell  9-15 people about their bad experience; 13% tell 20 or more.(Nov. 2, 2017).  But essentially, complaining is just too complex, too time-intensive, and requires too much effort.  Too many steps involved, too much time and anguish for an uncertain outcome.  Relating the same story again and again to each new agent without any quick fix, the problem balloons into a bigger one and becomes an anger-inducing project that won’t go away but keeps magnifying the initial wound with ongoing frustration.  With government agencies consumers suspect the agency doesn’t care, and might even penalize efforts to correct its own mistakes.  A firm belief rules dealing with the IRS, postal services, city government – that these entities have no interest in improving their service through customer feedback and get no reward for resolving problems. 
The larger consumer reality—the core situation, really--is that we depend on these many organizations in order to operate.  They are no longer optional luxuries.  Our computers and smart phones must be functional to connect us to everything we need to get done—including all the tools, data, and services needed on any given day.  However adept  we’ve become in navigating all these necessary systems, we aren’t savvy enough to advocate for ourselves against the bureaucratic forces that operate outside and against our own best interests.  Calling itself a “service” makes it an arrogant pretender.  The company that can devise better ways to champion the consumer—as Amazon appears to do—will emerge as winning competitors in the customer services arena by assuring their customers that they don’t have to go it alone.  Can customer service be said to be a failure—one that takes over our time and mindspace?  Many would say it needs to be fixed.
Consumers need a champion.  The battle between big and little players means that some service is needed to step up to the plate to give a wide-range assist to Joe Customer.  This will eventually begin to happen as the outcome of consumer rights fueled by the big data needed to build expert systems with the human help of practiced experts across many fields of consumer activity--from finance to health care, social media and computers, social security, travel, home buying, assisted living, college applying, etc.  As Charles Schwab has said with reference to an on-line consumer rights attorney group, “The idea of bringing even a small percentage of the professional services market online, in the way did with retail, is a multi-billion-dollar idea.“