The Many Unheralded Perils of Automating Your Customer Service

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It was five minutes to 6 p.m., which meant that we had five minutes to rent a car.  For some reason, all the rental car offices in Ottawa close at six o’clock sharp.

Our engine had overheated, and we were going to have to call AAA. But first we had to arrange a car rental so that we could get home. As luck would have it, we found one that was a 10 minute walk from where we were parked. But it was five to 6 p.m. We had only five minutes to get there.

The obvious thing to do was to call the rental office. Most people would keep the shop open an extra five minutes to make a sale. All we had to do was to call them.

And reach a real live human being.

In other words, all we had to do was move mountains, redirect rivers and recalibrate the orbit of the moon.

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The rental car office did not have a phone number. One has to call a global number that probably gets answered in New Brunswick or New Delhi or New-New York. Or Antarctica.

After several minutes of working our way through the automated system, we were finally put on hold.

After eight minutes, we realized that it was pointless to remain on hold.

The benefits of automation are easy to find.

That day, automation failed us as customers and it failed the company, which lost a sale. Search Google, and you’ll find hundreds of articles praising the benefits of automation in sales, marketing and CRM. Those benefits include:

  • Increased productivity
  • Predictable actions
  • Easier tracking and measurement, due to more consistent data collection
  • Better targeting of effort through use of more robust data
  • More effective follow-ups and upselling
  • An end to human error (unless human error is built into the automation)
  • More robust and consistent processes or products
  • Time savings and shorter sales process
  • Reaching a wider audience with more targeted messages
  • Lower cost of wages, benefits and office space
  • Staff who are better able to focus on areas that can't be automated

These benefits are not just for sales and marketing. They apply as much to manufacturing and other processes.

You’ll find services offering to automate everything from customer relations to payroll to lead generation to marketing. Everybody on the Internet seems to be in love with automation. Either they sell automation software or they feel more productive when things are automated. 

Nextiva CEO Tomas Gorny calls automation a tool, neither good nor bad.  

"There are two ways you can go with automation. You can use it to replace customer service and watch your business erode. Or you can use it to replace mundane tasks, freeing everybody from the CEO to the customer service reps to focus on the boss -- the customer," he said.

The risks of automation are tougher to find.

What you won’t find much of in a Google search are the warnings. You won't find articles about replacing people with machines. You won't find articles about automation being a barrier between the company and the customer -- warnings of how that means trouble.

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In the case of rental car companies, there is huge value in having one national phone number. Frequent travelers can memorize the number or add it to their speed dial list. People can access rental cars in one location while they are still at a previous location. And it is easy to coordinate multiple rentals.

But there is also huge value for customers to be able to speak directly with the location they are renting from. My story is a case in point, but in many other cases a renter might have a unique situation. For instance, one might want to know specifics about a vehicle. That requires somebody onsite to walk out the door and look at the vehicle. In other cases, the customer simply wants to speak with a real live person where they will be picking up the vehicle.

What's your workaround?

One key step in any plan to automate is to go through the scenarios where automation could fail. Ask yourself this: "What if it fails? What if a customer's technology or situation doesn't fit the 'profile' on which we are basing our system? What backups do we have? What options does the customer have?"

Walk through each scenario one by one. Simulate the customer experience. Do tests with real people, having them run through various scenarios. Find out what works and what doesn't.

On a website a 1-800 number or an instant chat can be great options for many automation pitfalls. It gives the customer an option, a failsafe. In a rental car store, a local phone number would do the trick.

Why didn't I think of that?

Related: 4 Steps to Choosing Marketing-Automation Software That Actually Works

The more attention to detail, the more loyal the customer will be. When a customer called Paramount Roll and Forming about a staircase that wasn't fitting properly, company president Kenny Moscrip sprang into action. He drove to the jobsite:

"I took the time to show the client how to how to make the transition from the landing to the stringers. We won a loyal customer not just by the quality of our work, but by the quality of our service. It's a relationship," Moscrip said.

You cannot automate CRM, because the "R" stands for "relationship". You cannot automate your relationships. If it goes through a machine, it's not a relationship, it's not personal. 

Have you ever been spoken to by a machine?  Uttoran Sen, who runs blogging promotion platform AmplifyBlog, has -- every Mother's Day. Although he uses email automation to keep in touch with his users, his experience as a consumer should raise alarm bells for every marketer:

"However, this same automation on every Mother's Day makes me sad because my mother is dead. I get several emails from people suggesting -- 'How wonderful these Mother's Day gifts are,'" he said.

His tale is mild compared that of some stories he heard from would-be parents he interviewed. One couple of a stillborn child recounted two years of email agony: "It was like re-living the horror every time a guide pops up in the email with - 'Hey, your child should be 2 years old now, this is what you need to do now.'"

If the first rule of building relationships is "Don't be rude" or "Don't piss people off", automation can be a great way to break that rule.

When a message alienates your customer, it's not doing relationships right.  And if the customer gets stuck in automation -- eight minutes before I gave up, for example -- there might never even be a chance for a relationship.