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The Truth About Customer Service


The Truth about Customer Service

Make way for the new service economy. Not the fantasy where everyone gets treated great but the reality of service that is sharply tiered and widely disparate. Big-time customers who spend a lot get customized coddling. Smaller fry have to make do with indifferent customer reps and telephone message trees. The good news: Thanks to information technology, there are a lot more choices on price, convenience, and comfort, and people have the option of upgrading. The bad news is that companies can invisibly identify individuals who don't generate profits and stick them with cheaper, poorer service, often without telling them why.

Studies by the Council of Better Business Bureaus show that the general public is increasingly angry at what it perceives as lousy service. The top 20% may be getting showered with attention, but the bottom 80% feel they are getting the short end of the stick. Part of the backlash against corporate power may stem from this sense of neglect.

What to do? Corporations should begin by making their segmentation policies transparent. Quietly collecting data on customers to differentiate service could easily--and unnecessarily--fuel public outcry over privacy. Banks already tell their clients that they must maintain a certain level of assets in exchange for free checking or lines of credit. Better to be honest and give customers clear choices than deceive and ultimately anger them. But corporations should also realize that service segmentation antagonizes young but poor "bad" customers who grow into wealthier "good" customers.

There's a public policy issue as well. As the airlines have discovered, aggravate customers long enough and they eventually will go to Congress for help, if not retribution. Industries that operate as public trusts--from banks to utilities-- are especially obliged to provide adequate service to everyone.

Service as we know it is changing for good. For many, it is changing for the better. For most, it appears not.

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