FEATURE: Man or machine? Customers want personal service, experts say a combination is best

Millions of calls in the UK are handled automatically every week. The tough economic climate for businesses makes it tempting to replace costly manual labour with automation. Receptionists are being replaced and recent figures show that unemployment is still high. Business owners and managers are faced with a dilemma, as the decision on whether or not to automate services could mean compromising customer satisfaction.

If it were up to customers, ‘man over machine’ would prevail. A recent study carried out by market research company Marketing Quotes shows that “90 per cent of customers prefer to speak with a human contact on the phone and hate automated call filtering systems.”

What is it about automated telephone services that instantly raise customers’ hackles? Penny Paschali, an O2 customer who lives in Islington, says: “These services are ridiculous. I had to call O2 when I was having a problem with my contract and I was waiting on the line for an hour and a half to talk to a real person… There wasn’t a real person available, so I had to trick them by saying I had a different problem. Who the hell came up with this?”

call_center

Call centres are being automated although many still prefer to speak to a ‘real person’

Actor Richard Wilson made a documentary about automated services for Channel 4. He says: “This is all about the money … the benefits for the service provider are clear, the benefits to the consumer less so.”

Guy Woodward, speech systems analyst at Eckoh, is part of the team that programmes services for National Rail Enquiries. He says that the recent rise of cloud technologies has made these services more widely available and the industry has “exploded” in the past decade. Most companies today use them to some extent and they are saving them large amounts of money.

Companies agree that the solutions are cost-effective. Patrick Morgan, Manager at Parcelforce, a company that uses Eckoh’s services said in a case-study published on Eckoh’s website: “It’s so much more costly to have an agent sat in a call centre than it is to have this system that works 24/7. As far as the cost for the service goes, it by far pays for itself.”

Businesses face a dilemma when deciding whether to use automated services or not. On the one hand customers are reluctant to use them, but on the other hand they can increase efficiency and cut costs, something clearly in their interest. But there is a third perspective: some think the services will in fact enhance the customer experience. Patrick Morgan said in the same study: “It works a whole lot better for the customers. They can access us at their convenience, evenings and weekends to book their re-delivery. It means we don’t have the situation any more where customers are at work all day and then come back to find that they can’t call us because the call centre is closed.”

He added: “Businesses need to optimise their use of automated and voice recognition services to stay competitive, but there is a fine line between providing cost-effective customer service and actually turning customers off your company. Just a two to three per cent increase in automation rates can cause customer frustration and potentially increase customer turnover.”

Today, most companies in the UK use some sort of automation. The current trend in the western world is to go more digital. Having said that there is also a trend to hate on these machines.

The most common word in the survey for describing customer experience was stress. Kristina Thomsen-Hall has been a customer advisor for many years. She says: “People have no patience. They don’t wait around to listen to instructions. Instead they press the wrong options and end up even more frustrated, since they end up going round in circles.”

Graham Kunz, Manager at Empirix, a company that conducts research and surveys on customer experience, does not think it fair to say that automated services are compromising the customer experience. He says: “Often businesses haven’t found the right balance between automated service and call centre staff and this can greatly compromise the customer’s experience. With the right balance, automation can actually be of use and benefit to customers. For example, a customer who just wants to find out their bank balance or train time may not need to speak to a call centre representative. Placing the customer in a waiting line and then transferring their call may actually have an adverse effect and frustrate them. However, if there is a need to question a bank statement, it’s important that a knowledgeable and personable employee is readily available to address the customer appropriately.”

Replacing customer service representatives with these services could mean lost job opportunities. Recent figures show that the unemployment is still high at 7.8 percent. And according to a recent study by IPPR, the Institute of Public Policy Research, another 200,000 people could be made redundant this year. So are these figures tied up with the fact that more and more companies opt for automated services?

Kristina Thomsen-Hall says: “I have not seen a decline in job opportunities here at SEB that could be related to the increased use of these services, and I have been here for seven years.”

Graham Kunz does not fear an increase in job losses, in fact quite the opposite. He says: “There is always a need for call centre representatives because every business wants to be approachable and a personal touch is needed. We are seeing businesses place huge efforts in customer experience and at the very core, there are skilled representatives available to speak to customers.

“Businesses that implement well designed customer services, with the right balance between automation and call centre representatives, can actually increase profit and grow the business. As a result they can then create more job opportunities for the local area.”

Figures below show what automated services give British people “the biggest headache”

Utility companies’ automated phone systems 55%
Telecomms companies (including broadband providers) automated phone systems 51%
Bank automated phone systems 43%
Self-service checkouts at supermarkets 26%
Text message car-park fee paying systems 12%
Online tax returns 9%
Travel phone and online booking systems 8%
Leisure phone and online booking systems (e.g. cinema booking) 7%
Other 3%
Source: Channel 4
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