Tag Archives: efficiency

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?


PC Tip#1: Get RAM

I admit: I am a User. A Mac User.

Oh, not that I use a Mac right now. But I’ll probably remain a Mac User all my life.

“Hello, my name is Alex and I’m a Macaholic.”

One year after being forced to switch to an entry-level Windows XP desktop computer, I still have withdrawal symptoms from my days as a full-time Mac User. I get goosebumps while thinking of the possibilities afforded users of Mac OS X. I occasionally get my fix of Mac goodness by spending time on my wife’s 2001 iBook (Dual USB). And, basically, I think like someone who spent the last ten years on a variety of Macintosh models (Mac Plus, iBook, SE/30, Mac IIvx…).

With this addiction, it might be unsurprising that it took me so long to do what any Windows user would have done while buying a computer: getting more RAM.

I finally did exactly that, when I got my first paycheck for the semester. Got a 512MB DIMM a couple of weeks ago and it transformed my PC-using life from a nightmare into something comfortably dull and uninteresting. Not bad for an $80 purchase:

CompuSmart.com – Product Information – eXtreme Memory Upgrades DDR PC2700 512MB

What took me so long? Well, when I went from running Mac OS X 10.3 on a 2001 laptop with a G3 at 500MHz, 384MB, and very little free disk space to running XPSP2 on a 2006 desktop with a Sempron at 2GHz, 512MB, and quite a bit of free disk space, I assumed the new machine would run at least as fast as the old one. When it failed to do so (I would get unbelievably slow response with only Firefox and iTunes as the main apps opened), I started blaming myself more than the lack of RAM. I had noticed a similar lack of performance on some Windows machines in offices in which I had worked in the past. Though I did notice that my pagefile was growing frequently and that many issues I had seemed to be related to memory, I still thought that the fault was in my pattern of use. “Maybe running a browser and a media player at the same time isn’t a common thing to do, in the Windows world.” Oh, it wasn’t an actual reflection. But it’s a set of uneasy impressions I had.  And because I didn’t have much money for RAM (and the machine didn’t cost me much in the first place), I wasn’t particularly interested in buying a DIMM just to make sure the machine is working properly.

Then my friend Alain came over, right after I had installed Office 2007. For some reason, my machine was even slower than it had ever been in the past. Extremely frustrating. Alain, a former Mac User, tried to help me investigate the problem. We did talk about RAM but we focused on defragmentation and such. Nothing really made a difference, at the time, but I gained some hope in making the machine somewhat useable.

When I bought the DIMM, the difference was immediately noticeable. In every single process. My machine is no speed demon (that’s really not what I wanted anyway) but it’s not making me want to yell every time I use it. At this point, using a few apps at the same time is almost as efficient as using the same number and type of apps on my previous iBook.

So I now have a full 1GB of RAM on my emachine H3070 and it’s performing semi-appropriately when I have two or three apps open at the same time. My life improved drastically. 🙂