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Don't lose service as you tech-up

Book Review: Automation, compliance, and service must co-exist

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  • By  Chris Caldwell
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Your Call is (Not That) Important to Us: Customer Service and What it Reveals About Our World and Our Lives, by Emily Yellin, Free Press, 304 pp., 2009. Your Call is (Not That) Important to Us: Customer Service and What it Reveals About Our World and Our Lives, by Emily Yellin, Free Press, 304 pp., 2009.

Early in my own banking career, “customer service” seemed to rule all.

What happened? Was it a passing fad? Did we do so well with it that we no longer beat that drum? Or, is it a drum that has been beaten so often, and so loudly, that we have grown deaf to its call? In Emily Yellin’s book, customer service comes back to life, in a very balanced appraisal of where things stand.

Two sides to  bad service

Yellin delves into the world of customer service by immediately launching into examples of various customer service gaffes. These stories include the now-famous Comcast escapade whereby 76-year-old Mona Shaw took a hammer to a local Comcast office after a week of frustrating service from one of their technicians. (She couldn’t use her phone as it was part of the Comcast service that was not working properly.)

But this book is not just a one-sided complaint-fest.

In fact, Yellin gravitated towards the subject of customer service to help the reader see the issue from both sides of the coin. Yes, as she points out quickly, Comcast and others certainly have deserved some of the reputation that they earned as a result of their actions (or lack thereof). However, Yellin makes the case that in many situations, the client is also just as much at fault. During one hectic period, JetBlue experienced a storm on the east coast that caused back logs across the country. As one of the service agents pointed out “I had never heard things out of people’s mounts like they were saying. They were vicious—cursing, swearing, calling us idiots.” Somehow, while being called names, the agent is still trying to deliver the best service possible under the conditions.

Certainly, she finds, the civility seen among earlier generations seems to be lost. Yellin writes for major publications and among other works is the book, Our Mothers’ War, a discussion of the role of American women in World War II.  She has some insights on that past.

From the demise of the “telephone girl” to voice-response hell

Yellin’s motivation for writing the book, she states, was this:  “To seek out the humanity and reason behind the customer service experiences that many people find to be inhuman and nonsensical.”

That resonated with me. I hate automated phone response systems. I found myself discouraged recently when I had to have my laptop fixed. All I could do was call the local “big box” retailer that was servicing it,  to then get stuck in the queue punching this number and that until I finally reached a human being.

Yet, once I was able to talk to someone, I found that the customer service was refreshingly friendly and helpful. So why is it that I dread the automated system so much? 

Yellin answers this with a quote from an article: “ . . .  the process of evolution always tends to eliminate the personal factor as much as possible, substituting mechanical means for manual operations.” 

The article that Yellin quotes from appeared in The New York Times—in 1906!

The story lamented the loss of the “telephone girl,” the operators that connected early calls in the telephone industry.

Yellin does an admirable job of discussing the technology behind the systems that eliminated the telephone girls. But this is no historical work.

Yellin then spends a great deal of time discussing various call centers and their successes and failures. She explores the world of JetBlue, Verizon, Amtrak, Credit Suisse, and FedEx. Many of these companies, she notes, have dealt with a variety of issues as they have learned how to do customer service over the phone, in person, and now through the Internet. In analyzing each company’s approach, she empathizes with the person providing the service while at the same time keeping compassion for those who are seeking the service. She provides multiple examples of those situations where the service agent is able to help diffuse an otherwise awkward or difficult circumstance.

Timely lessons to learn

What does this mean for the banking industry?  It points the way for a mid-game reassessment of where our service stands, something each bank must answer for itself. We try to get people to ATMs; we route calls through call centers; we score loans; we do all that we can to automate the processes,; and more. And in so doing, we risk eliminating the personal factor. 

It’s a continual balancing act. As our industry struggles with the current economic malaise, we need to continue to think about the process of service and how it is that we may be ignoring the customer. As I was starting my career, the management guru Tom Peters helped us all see the power that customer service might add to our industry (whatever industry that happened to be). Somewhere along the way, many industries, banking among them, seem to have forgotten some of the pleas made by Peters and others regarding customer service. Perhaps too often we have fallen in love with the technology and forgotten the customer.

This book is a wakeup call.

Remembering the essentials amid the transitions

We also face the challenge of being a heavily regulated industry, moreso than ever, that must abide by procedures that sometimes irk the very customers they are protecting. We have clients that do not understand why we ask for so many pieces of identification We have others who do not understand new lending guidelines. (“It didn’t use to be this way!”)

It is understandable that there is some gravitation towards operational goals, which can distract from customer service. Yet, as Yellin reminds us, now it is more important than ever for us to find ways to ensure that the call IS important to us.

This is a very good book for a very difficult time in our industry. Yellin’s study helps us remember how we can serve our customers better. Maybe customer service is not so passé after all.

As she concludes, “[o]ur billions of everyday transactions are both simpler and more complicated than they appear. But while the infrastructures that support them are continually in flux, the intangibles at the heart of each positive encounter remain constant on all sides: trust, respect, empathy, caring, and even some fun—within the companies, and between companies and their customers.”

You may also enjoy our podcast interview with bank futurist Brett King. Listen now.

If you'd like to review books for our online book column, or have recently read a book that you found helpful that we haven't already reviewed, please e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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