May 22, 2007 at 8:00 AM ET
Ever wonder why your computer and your gadgets are driving you mad, and why calling the manufacturer or seller for help seems to make things worse? Perhaps it's because high-tech CEOs have an inflated sense of their customer support skills.
A new survey shows that 75 percent of high-tech titans say their companies provide "above average" customer care.
OK, I'll give you a moment to stop laughing. Apparently, these CEOs don't have to call the standard 1-800 number.
As you might expect, high-tech consumers don’t share this perception. To be precise, nearly 6 in 10 respondents told researchers they were somewhat upset or extremely upset with the way their most recent customer service experience was handled, according to consulting firm Accenture.
"That's a rather stark disconnect," said Brian Sprague, who runs Accenture's customer service and support group.
High-tech trouble can be a big time suck for consumers. Another survey released earlier this year concluded that the average consumer wastes 12 hours every month on computer troubles.
And all this high-tech trouble can have unseen consequences. Since people don't believe companies stand behind their products, most (74 percent) turn to friends and family for help, according to a "Cyber Stress" study conducted by Support.com. But that imposition may be straining relationships more than you realize. One in two people surveyed said they'd rather help a friend move than help a friend with a computer problem.
"There is a really high level of frustration out there," said Jennifer Massaro, a spokeswoman for Support.com.
'It's not us'
The phenomenon of gadget madness isn't totally lost on high-tech CEOs, Sprague said. It's just that most executives believe the problems only impact other companies.
"They all think, 'It's not us,' Sprague said. "So we say, ‘I understand you think you are great, but let's do a little survey.’” At most firms, the survey shows the same disconnect between what executives and their customers think about service.
The consequences can be severe. Consumers who feel they've been badly treated are incredibly disloyal, the Accenture survey found; 81 percent said they'd purchase from a competitor next time.
Even average treatment isn't good enough -- only 27 percent of those consumers say they'll buy again from the same company.
Budget conscious companies in the ultra-competitive consumer electronic industry are always looking to cut corners, and customer service always seems like a good target. Companies save on employee costs by forcing people to work their way through voice mail systems or by skimping on warrantees. But that's a penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy, Sprague said. The actual cost of providing good customer service -- having a human being answer the phone, for example -- only costs between $10 and $30 per customer. Acquiring new customers is much more expensive. Direct broadcast satellite system firms like DirecTV spend on average about $600 to acquire customers, he said.
Keeping current customers happy is not a new concept -– the problem of churn and customer retention has been studied in business schools for decades. An entire software industry has flourished -- customer relationship management software – to mine databases in search of at-risk customers. Yet so many companies persist in their shortsightedness.
Why? "A lot of high-tech companies are very product-centric, they're all about the latest features and functions,” Sprague said. “But they've lost focus on (what happens) after the product is shipped. They have historically focused on cost avoidance. ... The entire customer service organization is an afterthought."
The good news for companies -- and consumers -- is that some firms are finally starting to understand the value of treating consumers well, Sprague said.
The benefits are immediate. Companies that improve their customer service experiences find consumers become immediately loyal -- they are 2.5 times more likely to buy again from the same company. In fact, consumers who have a problem and enjoy a positive customer service experience are actually more loyal than customers who buy a product and never have to call the firm looking for help.
"The benefits of treating people well are pretty dramatic," Sprague said. And so are the costs of treating people poorly.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
Be a VIP: Fair or not, VIP treatment is real. Many companies think 80 percent of their revenue comes from 20 percent of their customers. “Retention” efforts, such as late fee waivers or special tech support lines, are often focused only on the top 20 percent. When calling for help, tell a representative why you are a valuable customer -- “I’ve purchased 12 Dell computers in the past 5 years,” for example. You’ll often get better treatment.
Be less price-centric: You can be penny wise and pound foolish, too. Patronize companies that treat you well, even if their products cost a few bucks extra. When you inevitably have a problem, you’ll be glad you did.
Get a human: You can skip past the annoying electronic voice prompts by using secret codes provided by GetHuman.com. While you’re at it, patronize companies like LL Bean and Hertz, which pay enough employees to answer the phone.