Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.
My cell phone is malfunctioning in many ways. Top four problems: it no longer recognizes my fingerprint; I seem to have misplaced my AppleID, which together with the fingerprint recognition problem, makes it impossible to do many things; it does not sync properly with my laptop; and I have to retype my password many more times a day then is sensible.
So today I tried calling the main downtown Apple store, in the Toronto Eaton Centre, to make an appointment with a “genius”. In the past, I have reached someone there, or perhaps in Toronto, or at least in Canada, who had some idea of the geography. Today I first had to fill out a form on my cell phone, which wanted me to choose one its options with a canned support answer on the site.
Given that complexity of the four somewhat interlinked problems, I managed to finesse this by indicating that it was “none of the above”. Finally, after 5 minutes, I was given a link to click which was supposed to get me to a human.
Quite quickly (often it is not quick, and often the waiting time is not communicated), I reached a call center in Virginia, and spoke to a well-intentioned woman with a thick southern accent. I had to spend 5 minutes convincing her that the cluster of problems was not solvable on the phone, and I needed to come in to the store.
She then spent 5 minutes trying to give me an appointment. Hooray, there were lots of slots available tomorrow. But, because she had no idea of the geography — several times I had to insist that I could not give her a zip code because Canada was a separate country — she was having trouble finding me a convenient store. I gave her the name Eaton Centre, and the postal code, whereupon she soon said that she had booked me the desired noon appointment. “Please don’t hang up”, I pleaded, because I wanted to first check the email confirmation which was already in my inbox.
Whoops … the appointment was for the following store … Apple Eton, 28849 Chagrin Boulevard, Woodmere, OH. Chagrin indeed! Wrong spelling on Eaton, wrong city, wrong state/province (although OH looks a little like ON), wrong country. So, for the third time I repeated the location and the postal code … M5B 2H1 … and after 2 more minutes got an appointment at the right store in the right city and country. Total time elapsed: over 20 minutes.
Such incidents are repeated billions of times daily as multinationals such as AT&T centralize technology call centers in places like Virginia, New Brunswick, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Is this economically compelling? Does it really save time? (In my case, had someone at the store answered the phone, all could have been finished in a minute). Does it please customers?
Numerous articles have chronicled advantages such as cost savings and flexibility versus disadvantages such as damage to reputation, poorer customer service, and the kinds of linguistic and cultural mismatches illustrated above. One disadvantage not mentioned in the articles is the rich and useful feedback about product quality, features, and documentation that a service function well integrated into a firm can provide.
FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION
How could you quantify the advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing your customer service function versus keeping it in-house?