Rise of the Internet and Loss of the Human Touch

Robert Carpenter Editor Underground ConstructionRobert Carpenter | Editor-in-Chief

I’ve spent some frustrating times both calling companies and getting on their websites the past few years. Now, I’m getting downright infuriated – and that goes for both general markets and underground infrastructure companies. Quick, responsive customer service has almost ceased to exist. Just getting a phone number is nearly impossible.

I can understand the lure of everything digital – it’s supposedly fast and effective. But when it comes to dealing with people’s specific needs, the digital universe is failing in an essential part of good business. Admittedly, I’m getting a bit long-in-the-tooth, perhaps making some of my observations dated. But common sense never gets old.

My business perspectives are carved from experience with my father and his retail businesses. Being self-employed, it didn’t take him long to realize business was about relationships. We lived in rural western Oklahoma, but people came to his store from more than 100 miles away for specific reasons: everyone knew Bob Carpenter; everyone liked the way Bob and his employees treated them; and everyone trusted Bob to do the right thing. Dad rarely had only one-time customers. He had families and friends for customers. His business success began and ended with customer service.

Since the Internet took off in the ‘90s and websites became shopping centers, retail has been forever changed. Online ordering has forced the closure of many small-town American businesses. It’s the new, digital way of doing business. But sometimes with great change comes great ignorance of common sense.

We’ve reached the point now where companies really don’t want anyone calling them. Rather, they want you to go to their website. Even for complaints, they push you to a section of their website where, of course, there still isn’t anybody to talk to – you must fill in a digital message. I’m sure there are studies that show if people must go to that much trouble, they probably won’t. That means a company can spend less time dealing directly with customers, so no need to hire customer service reps anymore. A win-win for the business.

Remember when companies started shipping their tech support, complaints and all sorts of queries to offshore call centers? India became the call support center of the world. However, that industry has since cratered. One of the two biggest companies in India completely shut down a year or so ago and the other centers probably won’t last long. American business went to offshore tech support/service to save money. Now, the trend is to save even more money by letting a machine be your point of contact.

We’re forced to spend our own time wading and waiting through an automated process that’s time consuming, rarely accurate and seldom solves our needs. Generally, if I’d simply been connected to a “live” person in the first place, my needs could have been clearly stated and the situation resolved in an expeditious manner.

That’s if you can even get a phone number. I challenge you to find a customer service number on websites. Even the original telephone company, AT&T, has effectively eliminated phone numbers from its own website. Unfortunately, when checking out contractor and manufacturer websites for the underground infrastructure, far too many have fallen into the trap of letting a machine be their first contact with current or even potential customers.

Now I haven’t run the financial numbers; maybe some of these manufacturers or contractors can’t afford someone answering customer inquiries over the phone or responding to email. But I have heard customer complaints. They are very loud and clear: if they can’t talk to someone, then maybe they shouldn’t talk to them at all.

We’ve lost the personal touch in much of our business operations. Having digital products and services should be an aid for customers, not a cost-savings ploy by companies that don’t want to be bothered with customer complaints or questions.

Opportunities are lost to convert a problem into a success, a disgruntled customer into a satisfied one, and that query into new or enhanced business. That may make me a dinosaur in the digital age, but I believe great customer service is the difference between just another company and a stand-out firm that keeps customers happy – and coming back for more business.

Dad passed away long before the Internet took over the world of business. He would have been disappointed with what has happened to face-to-face and ear-to-ear methods of supporting your customers. With that in mind, I have a direct phone number and my email is publicized. It’s also why I go to as many industry events as possible for personal interaction. If you can’t listen to and meet your readers, how can you possibly know what’s on their minds? It matters to me as an editor; I hope it matters to you as a reader and customer.

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