Customer Service Faces a Rapid Evolution. What Does It Mean for Consumers?


Customer service has rarely been a field that earns raves from the people it assists. Long hold times and maddeningly frustrating conversations that result in being transferred from department to department tend to antagonize people, even if the resolution is ultimately satisfactory.

But customer service is seemingly at the start of a major evolution at some businesses. And whether those changes will benefit customers or further infuriate them is still a big unknown.

Frontier Airlines has made what could be the boldest step of any company: The carrier announced in November that it was doing away with its human-manned customer service phone lines and would instead steer flyers to a chatbot on its website, a 24/7 live chat, its social media channels and WhatsApp.

“Our Customer Care function recently transitioned to fully digital communications, which enables us to ensure our customers get the information they need as expeditiously and efficiently as possible,” the airline said in a statement. “We have found that most customers prefer communicating via digital channels.”

Frontier’s not the only airline to do away with a call center. Breeze Airways, another low-cost carrier, lacks one as well, but it is a rarity in the industry. Frontier’s argument is that the online channels help customers get the information they need in the shortest amount of time. That’s possible, but many consumers, especially older ones, still like to interact with humans, who can sometimes bend the rules a bit when the situation calls for it.

Of course, there are other factors at play for companies like Frontier that are cutting back or eliminating live customer support lines. The payroll and other savings are significant. And it eliminates a potential staffing issue — let’s face it, people aren’t exactly lining up for a fairly low paying job where they’re often yelled at for things out of their control.

But critics say companies that take this approach are transitioning from customer service to self-service, and that doesn’t always work.

Customer service, despite the name, has never been about the customer. It’s about how companies handle and manage those customers. Sometimes, that can be an adversarial relationship. Other times, it can be an enjoyable one. It often comes down to how much freedom and decision-making the company empowers their workers with.

Take, for instance, the legendary customer service at Disney parks. Employees are allowed to make decisions that other companies might require a manager’s approval in order to resolve issues and keep customers happy. That can mean anything from offering a free treat or skip the line privileges at a popular ride to a comped park admission.

The end result? A human touch that makes customers feel appreciated (or even special) and more likely to pay whatever the cost for park admission.

By relying on bots, though, businesses risk a backlash. Customer satisfaction at Amazon has fallen to its worst level in more than 20 years, in part because of increased automation in the customer service space. A recent study by Ujet, a contact center platform company, found that 80% of consumers get more frustrated when they’re working with chatbots, with 63% saying automated customer service agents were unable to resolve the issue.

That frustration has real world side effects. A separate study by the company found that 87% of consumers will spend less or stop spending altogether with brands who skimp on customer service. And PWC found 32% of customers will switch companies after a single negative experience.

“Brands cannot provide great customer service through simply adopting automation,” said Justin Robbins, senior director of corporate communications, in a statement. “Leaders must be intentional on how they design and implement automation to add value to the consumer, service workers and the business’s bottom line. The key to success is achieving the right marriage between virtual and human agents in managing those consumer interactions.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.


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