Customer Service on the Phone: Netflix

An interesting piece about the move, by Netflix, to phone-only customer service.
Victory for voices over keystrokes | CNET News.com

Much of it sounds very obvious. Customers tend to prefer phone support instead of email. Customer service representatives who take more time on the phone with customers are more likely to make people happy. Many customers dislike offshoring. Customer service can make or break some corporations. Customers often have outlandish requests. Hourly salaries in call centres will vary greatly from one place to the other, even within the same area.

In other words, Netflix has done what many people think a company should do. We’ll see how it all pans out in the end.

The main reason this piece caught my attention is that I have been doing surveys (over the phone) about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives over the phone. Not only am I working in a call centre myself (and can certainly relate with the job satisfaction which comes from empathy). But several of the surveys I do are precisely about the points made in this News.com piece. The majority of the surveys I do are about the quality of the service provided by customer service representatives (CSRs) at incoming call centres for a big corporation. So I hear a lot about CSRs and what they do well. Or not so well. One answer I’ve been hearing on occasion was “I’d appreciate it if I could talk to people who are a bit less courteous but who know more about the services the company is providing.” After interactions with several CSRs and tech support people, I can relate with this experience on a personal level.

The general pattern is that people do prefer it if they can speak directly (over the phone) with a human being who speaks their native language very fluently and are able to spend as much time as it takes with them on the phone. Most people seem to believe that it is important to be able to speak to someone instead of dealing with the issue in an “impersonal” manner.

Sounds obvious. And it probably is obvious to many executives, when they talk about customer service. So email support, outsourcing, offshoring, time limits on customer service, and low wages given to customer service representatives are all perceived by customers as cost-cutting measures.

But there’s something else.

We need the “chunky spaghetti sauce” of customer service. Yes, this is also very obvious. But it seems that some people draw awkward conclusions from it. It’s not really about niche marketing. It’s not exactly about customer choice or even freedom. It’s about diversity.

As an anthropologist, I cherish human diversity. Think of the need for biological diversity on the level of species but through the cultural, linguistic, and biological dimensions of one subspecies (Homo sapiens sapiens).
Yes, we’re all the same. Yes, we’re all different. But looking at human diversity for a while, you begin to notice patterns. Some of these patterns can be described as “profiles.” Other patterns are more subtle, harder to describe. But really not that difficult to understand.

The relationships between age and technology use, for instance. The common idea is that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be “into technology.” “It’s a generation thing, you know. Kids these days, they’re into HyPods and MikeSpaces, and Nit’n’do-wee. I’m too old to know anything about these things.”

Yeah, right.

All the while, some children are struggling with different pieces of technology forced unto them and some retirees are sending each other elaborate PowerPoint files to younger people who are too busy to look at them.

To go back to customer service on the phone. Some people are quite vocal about their preference for interactions with “real human beings” who speak their native language and are able to understand them. Other people would actually prefer it if they could just fire off a message somewhere and not have to spend any time on the phone. On several occasions having to do with customer service, I do prefer email exchanges over phone interactions. But I realize that I’m probably in the minority.

Many people in fact deal with different situations in different ways.

One paragraph I personally find quite surprising in the News.com piece is about the decision to not only strengthen the phone-based support but to, in effect, abolish email support:

Netflix’s decision to eliminate the e-mail feature was made after a great deal of research, Osier said. He looked at two other companies with reputations for superb phone-based customer service, Southwest Airlines and American Express, and saw that customers preferred human interaction over e-mail messages.

Sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to me. (It’d be fun to read the research report!) I’m pretty sure that most business schools advise future executives against knee-jerk reactions.

One thing which surprises me about the Netflix move is that, contrary to Southwest Airlines and American Express, the Netflix business is primarily based on online communication and postal services. My hunch is that a significant number of Netflix users are people who enjoy the convenience of one-click movie rentals without any need to interact with a person. Not that Netflix users dislike other human beings but they may prefer dealing with other human beings on other levels. If my hunch is accurate to any degree, chances are that these same people also enjoy it when they can solve an issue with their account through a single email or, better yet, a single click. For instance, someone might like the option of simply clicking a button on the Netflix website to put their rental queue on hold. And it might be quite useful to receive an email confirmation of a “Damaged Disc Report” (SRC: DISCPROBLEM) instead of having to rely on a confirmation number given on the phone by a friendly CSR in Oregon or, say, Moncton.

Yes, I’m referring to the specific instances of my interactions with Netflix. While I’d certainly appreciate the opportunity to speak with friendly French-speaking CSRs when I have problems with plane tickets or credit cards, I like the fact that I can deal with Netflix online (and through free postal mail). Call me crazy all you want. I’m one of those Netflix customers who find it convenient to deal with the company through those means. After all, Netflix is unlikely to have such an influence on my life that I would enjoy spending as much as ten minutes on the phone with friendly Oregonians.

As an ethnographer, I have not, in fact, observed Netflix to any significant extent. I’m just a random customer and, as it so happens, my wife is the one who is getting rentals from them. What little I know about the Netflix business model is limited to discussions about it on tech-related podcasts. And I do understand that Blockbuster is their direct target.

Yet it seems to me that one of the main reasons Netflix has/had been succeeding is that they went into relatively uncharted territory and tapped into a specific market (mixed analogies are fun). Even now, Netflix has advantages over “traditional” DVD rental companies including Blockbuster the same way that Amazon has advantages over Barnes and Noble. It seems to me that Amazon is not actively trying to become the next Barnes and Noble. AFAIK, Amazon is not even trying to become the next Wal-Mart (although it has partnered with Target).

Why should Netflix try to beat Blockbusters?

What does this all mean for corporate America?

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

4 responses to “Customer Service on the Phone: Netflix

  • enkerli

    @Gwen: No idea. Did you try calling them?

  • Gwen

    I cancelled my account back in October and I sm still being chargrd monthly on my charga acct. WHY???????

  • enkerli

    People have interesting reactions to Web/email vs. phone support. Even some rather geek-savvy people I know find phone support better. My point is that we need different ways to accomplish those same goals. But, if the original item is accurate, Netflix has been switching from email/Web to phone support. Maybe this isn’t totally accurate. Chances are they’ll maintain several email/Web support features. It’s just awkward that a Web-based company would make such a decision. If, as you say, it’s to prevent customers from really communicating with the company, it’s really sad indeed.

  • Chloe

    This is NUTS. I understand them providing phone customer service, but I do NOT understand them BARRING any e-mail customer service. Especially in a web based company!! We should have that option!!! I don’t have the time to screw around on the phone with Netflix over something minor. Maybe that’s what they’re hoping – that most of us will just not report errors on the web site and stuff like that. The whole site will go to pot in short order. I already see so many mistakes in the descriptions. For example, in one description it refers to the author of the novel as a character in the movie!!! Another has 1987 on a tv series from 2005 & 2006! I’m betting 50 people would’ve reported those errors in short order if there was a web way to do it. But we’re not going to waste our cell phone minutes or our business hours or free time to sit on the phone with freakin’ Netflix Customer Service.

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