Monday, October 19, 2009

Customer Service and VSD: Should we put our trust in real people?

Liz Foster
October 19, 2009

Problem space: Customer Service phone systems

Implicated Value: Trust

Direct stakeholders: Customers of any company that uses a phone system for customer service, Customer service representatives

Indirect stakeholders: Businesses, potential customers

Customer Service support systems are a minefield of potential values abuses. Whether you are contacting support via phone, email, or chat, the very fact that you are contacting customer services presumes that there is a problem, and raises the potential that the user/provider interaction will at least start with a negative tone. In most large companies, customer service organizations are separate from sales representatives, so a situation that results in an interaction with customer service (some malfunction of a product, failure to ship on time or at all, or some billing mistake) has a much different mood than the hopeful interaction that takes place with the sales organization. This is compounded by the possibly deserved bad reputation that so many companies’ customer service organizations have earned.

Different types of customer service interaction – phone, email, chat – come with their own pitfalls or constraints. There have been studies conducted that indicate that sociability-related design mistakes such as lack of personal interaction create “suspicion, a sense of distrust in the mind of some subjects, and a lack of confidence in the company behind the website.”1 It follows, then, that phone based customer services would be more effective at building trust than email or even chat, where there may be a substantial delay before a customer receives a response. I make a distinction here between customer service phone lines that have actual people at the end of the automated menu, and those maddening systems that require you to follow a lengthy push button menu chain (press 1 for English, press 3 for billing questions, etc.), only to end up with a recorded message directing you to a webpage. Research indicates that in a phone based system with living, breathing customer service representatives, customers feel that the interaction is more personal, and if you can build a rapport with customers with personal interaction, you can build trust. My own personal experience contradicts these findings.

I usually choose to contact customer service via email or chat. I realize there is a delay in response time when I choose email, but I find I can express myself better in writing, and I like having an electronic “paper-trail” that I can refer to, so the time lag is a trade-off I can live with. I recently had to contact my cable/internet/phone provider’s customer service organization via phone to correct a billing mistake (I was being billed for a service I didn’t receive). Ironically for an internet provider, the company did not have an email or chat option, so phone was my only choice. After wrestling with the interactive voice response system for the first 10 minutes (which affected my frustration level, but not my capacity for trust), I was connected to a live person. It became apparent as we discussed my problem that it was more complicated than it seemed on the face of things, and resolution would involve two internal departments. But, the representative assured me, action would be taken and I would see a correction on the next bill. At the end of the call, I asked for a problem ticket number for the case, because having something concrete to refer back to would have increased my trust that the issue would be resolved, but the operator was not able to give one.

When I received my cable/internet/phone bill for the next month, the charge in question was still there. I called customer service again. The representative who assisted me the second time pulled up my record and said “I see you contacted us last month, for a password reset”. I was, understandably I think, furious. “Password reset” had never entered into the previous conversation, but because the billing problem was complicated and beyond the representative’s ability to correct, she had documented a problem with a simple resolution and closed out the ticket. I felt powerless, but perhaps more alarmingly for the company in question, I lost all trust in the organization. This loss of trust was compounded when the second customer service representative was also unable to provide a problem ticket number for confirmation. When the same mistaken charge appeared on my bill for a third month, I decided to forgo their phone based customer service, and instead wrote letters to their corporate office and the Better Business Bureau. The error was finally corrected.

Friedman et al define trust as “expectations that can develop between people who can experience goodwill, extend goodwill toward others, feel vulnerable, and experience betrayal” 2 The words “vulnerability” and “betrayal” sum up my customer service experience nicely. “Goodwill” can be defined as kindliness or generosity, and although neither representative fixed my problem, each was unfailingly courteous. The goodwill they projected wasn’t enough to erase my feelings of vulnerability and betrayal, but a few small changes in the process could have increased my confidence in the company’s competence and trustworthiness, and possibly prevented the mishandling of my case. The telephone conversations with customer service could have been followed up with email confirmation of the discussion, allowing the customer to correct any misrepresentations. Customer services representatives type notes during conversations with customers. Making these notes available to the customer at the conclusion of the discussion would increase the perceived trustworthiness of the company. Copying these notes, and subsequent customer responses, to supervisors would have ensured that representatives would be held accountable for their actions.

Direct Stakeholders

Existing Customers: Customers are the most obvious and most important stakeholders in the customer service game (after all, it is called customer service). Customers should be able to feel that they’ve left their problem in competent and trustworthy hands. Calling customer service is time consuming when it’s done once (writing a letter to the BBB, as I did, actually turned out to be faster!); its torture when a situation requires several calls. Fostering trust between support and customers could cut down on repeat calls.

Customer service representatives: Customer service representatives are direct stakeholders because improvement to the response process from the point of view of the customer could increase their workload and the complexity of the process, and make them more accountable for resolution of the customer’s concerns. On the plus side, if more can be done to ensure that the customer develops trust in their relationship with support personnel, interactions between client and support will be less acrimonious. There is a saying that happy employees make happy customers. In the customer service business this may be a cycle – interacting with happy customers will make the representatives’ job more pleasant, and in return it will make the reps future contact with customers more satisfactory.

Indirect Stakeholders

Potential Customers: My evidence here is anecdotal and personal, but soon after the experience I described, I found myself shopping for a new cell phone provider. My first research was not directed at the types of phones offered, or even package prices, but was instead directed at finding each companies’ customer service rating, and checking out their websites to determine how easy it was to get in contact with customer service. The fewer clicks required to reach support online, and the more methods of support offered, the higher I rated them. (For me, AT&T won out –customer service pages were easily accessible - one click - from every page, and support was provided via email, phone, chat and customer forums.) I’m sure I’m an extreme example, but there is no doubt that a having a reputation for bad customer service will drive at least some potential clients to other companies.

Businesses: Organizations that provide customer service via phone have an interest in attracting new and retaining old customers. But when the goal is increasing the bottom line, the values we imagine businesses hold (thrift, stewardship of shareholder interests) may seem to be in conflict with customer’s values. It is expensive to hire, train and retain good customer service personnel. However, good customer service does have monetary value. Good customer service retains existing customers and attracts new ones; bad customer service drives customers away. It may be tempting to cut costs by outsourcing or automating support to the point where personal interaction is completely removed, but these types of cost cutting can damage the reputation and the value of the business.


1 Andrews, Dorine C. and Haworth, Karla N., “Online Customer Service Chat: Usability and Sociability Issues”

2 Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Borning, A. (2006). Value Sensitive Design and information systems. In P. Zhang & D. Galletta (eds.), Human-Computer Interaction in Management Information Systems: Foundations, (pp.348-372). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Jarvenpaa, S.L. (1998) Communication and trust in global virtual teams. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 3, (4). Available at:

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