Southwest’s “Unsource” definition only tells part of the story

Blog ideas can come from anywhere, but this is the first entry I’ve written inspired by an inflight magazine.  When TSIA’s VP of Marketing, Trisha Bright, headed down to our San Diego office last week, she ran across something interesting in Southwest’s Spirit magazine and forwarded it to me. Here is “entry 627 in the Spirit lexicon:”

unsource \ ‘ən-sôrs \ verb [trans]

1. To shift customer support responsibility back onto the consumer in an effort to cut costs. USAGE: No longer satisfied with the budget benefits of outsourcing their customer service to overseas call centers, corporations are savings up to 50 percent on such costs by embracing the cut-rate option of hosting enhanced discussion boards on their websites, where frustrated consumers turn to each other for answers to common questions.

After reading this, I went thru a wide range of emotions, from violent agreement to anger and frustration. Here’s my attempt at capturing those reactions.

Obviously, I get it from a consumer standpoint. I’ve blogged before about how difficult it is to find the solution to consumer technical FAQs. But for a company who is constantly introducing new fees to make higher profits from customers, one wonders if Southwest should be finger pointing on customer service. But let’s look at the two issues in this faux definition and see how they can be a blessing….or a curse.

First up is outsourcing. Let’s be clear: sending support interactions to a service provider, onshore or off, does not automatically mean poorer service to customers. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my 25 years in customer service, it is that not every company has it in their DNA to do customer service well.  Are there terrible examples of bad outsourcing deals? Yes, and I’ve experienced them. And I’ve written about how frustrating it is to deal with a support technician with few English skills. But I’ve seen many examples of companies that improve customer satisfaction scores by going offshore. Especially in the B2B world, outsourcing is common, and CSAT and loyalty scores are high and growing higher.

I just said to a member last week that outsourcing is like implementing CRM:  You have to get it wrong once to know how to do it right. We all remember the rush to offshore in the financial crisis following 9/11, and companies learned a key fact about outsourcing:  You get what you pay for. When a company asks me to recommend an outsourcer with the lowest cost-per-call, I know they are headed for disaster. Yes, you can save costs by outsourcing, but high quality providers (such as Convergys and Sykes), balance cost and quality. If they can’t do a good job for the price you want to pay, they won’t bid on the business. They have no interest in providing mediocre support–it isn’t good for your brand or theirs.

But while I can at least understand Southwest’s sentiment regarding outsourcing, I completely disagree that providing customer discussion forums is bad for customers. In my snarky opinion, whoever wrote that is clearly over 50, and in the demographic that still thinks that phone calls are the only channel customers really want. As I am constantly saying, channel choice is largely demographic, and the younger the customer, the more likely they prefer forums over phone. In fact, the 18-34 demographic which most product companies target rate phone as one of their least likely support channels, preferring self-service and peer-service (forums) over assisted service. Even “Google search” rates higher as a support channel than phone calls with younger customers.

Would companies prefer that customers use lower cost unassisted and peer-assisted options to cut costs? Absolutely. But what consumers may not realize is that phone call, email and chat volumes are NOT going down. Support volume increases year-over-year dramatically, and companies are trying to find ways to resolve more issues without live agents because they can’t possibly hire enough agents to address 100% of support volume. While assisted support volumes may go up 10-20% a year, TOTAL support volume, meaning all customer questions including those answered via self-service and online communities, goes up 50% or more a year. The more complex the technology, the more questions customers have. Providing options other than phone to get these questions answered is not “unsourcing” support, it is providing the channels that customers demand.

Now, about that $50 fee you charged me for being 3 pounds over the baggage weight limit even though I purchased an expensive ‘business select’ fare? That’s more frustrating to customers than offering a community discussion forum. I look forward to seeing that pop up in the Spirit Lexicon. How about “gouging” as next month’s term?

Explore posts in the same categories: Consumer Support, social media, Technology

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