Muzak filters softly across the telephone wires. Your frustration builds. A woman makes promises she can't keep: "We will be with you as soon as possible."
You've heard her voice a thousand times before. Just a few minutes ago, she said your call was important. You knew it was a lie, but you had to believe her anyway; you are at her mercy. So you continue to hold, hoping that perhaps this is the moment when a real person will pick up the other end of the line.
Sound familiar? This was a common experience ten years ago, and it's just as common today. Despite technological improvements like voice recognition and instant chat, consumers hate call centers as much as they ever did.
- Slideshow: Customers' Top Ten Call Center Frustrations
- Slideshow: The World's Best Customer Service Providers
In a new Accenture survey, 48% of U.S. consumers reported wait times of five minutes or more; that's up from 43% last year.
"In most industries, we're spending more money on call center technology than ever before," says Jeff Gordon, who leads research and development at Convergys, a customer relationship management firm. "But satisfaction levels continue to remain stagnant or decline."
For corporations, good service is more than just a frill -- it's a necessity. Globalization has taken corporate competition to a new level, as Asian firms have started to compete on playing fields previously left to the Western world.
Consumers, particularly those under 40, no longer hold the same brand loyalty that they did a generation ago. In Accenture's survey, half of the respondents said they had switched brands within the previous year because of poor service. The stakes have never been higher -- so why hasn't service improved?
To some extent, it's a perception problem. Consumers have higher expectations than they did ten years ago, so they may perceive service as poorer than it really is. "The expectation of customers continues to rise at a faster pace than the ability of organizations to respond to those expectations," says Vafa Akhavan, executive director of diversified solutions at J.D. Power & Associates, the consumer research firm.
Take voice recognition, for example. Customers no longer have to listen to a tedious list of ten possible options ("Press nine if you were rapaciously over-billed") before making a choice. Now, at some companies, an automated voice asks the customer what she wants (Answer: "A real person").
This saves time and improves service. In fact, firms that use this technology double the rate at which they actually solve customer problems, according to Zachary McGeary, an analyst with Jupiter Research. But the new technology doesn't increase customer satisfaction, McGeary says.
The average consumer uses a lot more gadgets than she did ten or 20 years ago. Cellphones, BlackBerrys, cable, Internet service: All the conveniences of modern life come with a monthly bill and a toll-free number for customer complaints.
Consumers have been overwhelmed, but corporations are also struggling to keep up. "Companies are essentially just treading water at this point," McGeary says. "They're deploying these technologies to keep up with demand, not to stay ahead of it, not to actually improve customer satisfaction."
Companies haven't fully utilized new technologies. Many firms now record calls "for quality assurance purposes." The information gleaned from those recordings could help companies train their agents. It could also allow them to solve some problems before consumers even pick up the phone.
But companies don't always use the information they collect. Some firms, after all, are recording 300,000 calls a day, so it's impossible to monitor every one. "These call centers have tons of data, but very few actually dig into it for insights," says M.S. Krishnan, a professor of business information technology at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.
There may be a solution. A new product from NICE Systems, an Israeli company, can listen to calls and identify certain words. FedEx, for example, screens for words like "Wow," in order to identify instances of superior service. But companies can also screen for curse words, competitors' names and raised voices.
By identifying the worst calls, companies can start addressing their customer service woes. "Most corporations still look at call centers as cost centers, as a necessary evil," says Eyal Danon, NICE's vice president of global marketing. "The more enlightened corporations actually use it as a source of business intelligence, finding insights in the information."
Technology alone, however, can't solve the customer service problem. "I can put in all the greatest technology, but if I don't answer a call in ten minutes, that's a scheduling problem, that's a lack of head count problem," says Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst with Forrester Research.
If a customer has to call again next month for the same problem, she won't be impressed by the company's fancy voice recognition system. "It's like putting a clean dress on a dirty body," Herrell says. "It's not going to work."