Roger Trapp: In the digital age, don't forget the human touch

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We British are a patient lot. It is not just our legendary capacity for queuing. Thanks to an apparently almost nationwide desire not to make a fuss and an ability to understand, we will put up with all manner of things. Or at least we used to.

We British are a patient lot. It is not just our legendary capacity for queuing. Thanks to an apparently almost nationwide desire not to make a fuss and an ability to understand, we will put up with all manner of things. Or at least we used to.

But things are changing. Gather a few people together and sooner or later, you will hear complaints. About how they were late for a dinner engagement because they had to wait in for a parcel that never came, or about how their car was not ready from its service by the time the garage said it would be. Or about how that new dishwasher they were so pleased with has broken down and the engineer has said it will take three weeks for the replacement part to arrive.

We are even becoming less prepared to queue. Just as motorists are becoming more "European" in their readiness to hoot at roundabouts, junctions or other scenes of delay, so shoppers are less prepared to queue to pay for their groceries and bank customers less inclined to wait for the privilege of gaining access to their own money in banks.

Nor is it just a British issue. In the United States, for so long considered the home of customer service, there is a growing backlash against the seeming indifference of large corporations to their customers. According to an article in The Washington Post earlier this year, "customer service has deteriorated into a new kind of purgatory, one in which companies pass the buck, frequently from one corporate division to another. Or customer service representatives pin the blame on other companies. Or, even worse, they fault their customers". There are various factors behind the problem. Partly, it is perception.

Corporations are perhaps not much worse at serving us than they used to be; it is just that we expect them to be better - chiefly, it has to be said, because they claim that they will be. After all, much of their advertising concentrates on how easy it supposedly is to do business with them.

But that is not the whole story. As companies get bigger, they must work harder to stay closer to their customers. And many are clearly relying on technology to do the job for them. This is a mistake - for at least two reasons. First, because many of the benefits of customer relationship marketing (CRM) systems are oversold; second, because these failings can be so obvious that customers realise when a company is communicating with them as part of a "market sector" rather than as the individual they say they are.

More important even than this, though, is the fact that for many companies, customer service is not nearly as central to their planning and strategy as they say it is. They are still thinking of profits first, rather than listening to the management experts who tell them that profits follow from satisfied customers.

A key part of making customers satisfied is having satisfied, even happy, employees. Requiring staff to deal with so many calls an hour is not the way to make them or the companies' customers happy. Similarly, outsourcing responsibility for such areas as deliveries to contractors - who, despite their claims of professionalism will not necessarily be as interested in serving customers as they should be - is unlikely to produce the right sort of service.

Another lesson that companies appear to have forgotten is the need to give employees discretion to satisfy customers. Everybody knows how frustrating it is to talk to somebody in a call centre who appears to be unable to do or say anything other than repeat the problem. For all the talk in the past few years of "empowerment", there seems to be precious little of it around at the moment.

One glorious exception is Ocado, the supermarket home delivery service run in conjunction with Waitrose. But then the company states that "what makes us totally different is the quality of our people". It adds: "Everyone who works at Ocado has a responsibility to find a better way to do things. They use common sense instead of corporate manuals." How refreshing. But then Ocado is a new venture, a fact that brings me to my central point. Given the widespread dissatisfaction with, and distrust of, large corporations, there has probably never been a better time to be a small entrepreneurial business. By using real people to develop real links with their customers, such businesses can steal a march on their larger counterparts.

But to maintain this advantage, they need to remember that technology is fine for running certain routine aspects of their businesses, but it is no substitute for properly motivated employees able to make appropriate decisions on behalf of customers. In the digital age, perhaps more than in any previous era, the human touch is vital.

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