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Stop laying off customer service workers!

Never underestimate the power of one unhappy customer.

Smart use of software can eliminate ‘cable guy syndrome,’ and save jobs.

By Moshe BenBassat, Chairman and CEO, ClickSoftware

Companies recognize how important the quality of service is when it comes to customer acquisition and retention, and that a drop in customer satisfaction can have a significant impact on a company’s success or failure. Yet, Accenture’s latest study of global business reports that customer satisfaction ratings have dropped by double-digits in each of the last two years. This finding is not surprising considering that customers today are more demanding then ever, and when expectations are unmet – people talk.

In fact, never underestimate the power of one unhappy customer. 90% share bad experiences with friends, colleagues and ‘followers’ online. With Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks, individual bad experiences become amplified and are eventually reflected in customer satisfaction ratings.  Adding fuel to the fire: Management’s statements about “putting the customer first”- if not backed by action, or worse are made in the context of headcount reduction – backfire as lipservice.

The Service Catch-22

Knowing this, then why do thousands of companies still include their service operations when they find a need to reduce headcount? Where’s the disconnect?

Adding people to the service force – or not cutting in a down economy- is likely to increase service quality and customer satisfaction ratings, but it also increases operating cost and hence decreases profit and earnings. Increasing cost impact a financial statement right away, while improvements in customer satisfaction tends to show up later and at a gradual pace. Thus, torn between the two alternatives—one with immediate impact, and one that may not show up for several quarters—many CEOs decide in favor of cost cutting steps, including layoffs in service departments.

The dilemma is difficult and there is no right or wrong decision. Fortunately, technology can help relieve some of these pressures by enabling much better service while still increasing service profitability.

Man and Machine can be the cure

Recognizing that technology can perform many of the tasks done today by human beings–in a better and more consistent way– is the way forward. Providing good service to customers no longer has to be trade-off between long and short gains.

Don’t use people when technology can do the work better. Web-based appointment booking manages the dialogue with the customer on the date and time (convenient to the customer, available by the service provider) and issues final confirmation. Furthermore, automatic computer algorithms for optimized scheduling manage the next step of assigning the job to the “best” technician, and even plan his travel route so as to minimize travel.

Next, we have to put an end to the “the cable guy syndrome” – where the customer waits at home endlessly for a pre-set appointment with the cable guy who fails to arrive.  With an integration of the schedule, hand held device, location-aware tracking and messaging technology – customers can get immediate, accurate and actionable updates on the estimated arrival time of a technician in any variety of formats – voice, e-mail or SMS – increasingly narrowed down all the way to the arrival time: “on his way to you, expected to arrive in 15 minutes.” Who doesn’t love that?

As for the service provider, there is no need for an army of human operators to deliver on-going updates to thousands of customers during the day; it is all done with technology. Balancing what tech does best with what people do best, is the key to making systems like these work.

Making Service Work

At a time when many service organizations are firing people, risking a death-spiral of declining service levels and revenues, service chain optimization can yield both better customer experience and better service profitability, leading to growth on both top and bottom lines. We can do it better, smarter and cheaper by keeping the one truth about customer service in mind: when there’s a problem, customers just want someone to fix it – no excuses.

BenBassat is Chairman and CEO, ClickSoftware, a provider of mobile workforce management and service optimization technology for businesses of all sizes – from the SMB market to the Fortune 500.