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With the effective use of technology, a customer service exchange can occur without any human interaction. This promise and the development of automated customer service offers benefits and harms, to both consumers and service providers.

For customers, the do-it-yourself component of customer self-service is convenient and appealing. Consumers can visit kiosks, websites, or chat rooms to find quick solutions to mundane problems.

For the service providers, greater technology means lower costs, because they can hire fewer workers to respond to customer complaints and questions. In addition, they can provide more consistent service, no longer depending on the inherently variable human component.

Yet technology cannot solve advanced customer service problems or provide empathy to consumers in the midst of a service crisis. When consumers need the complex problem-solving skills that only a human can provide, the limitations of technology-based responses are frustrating. By the time they reach a human customer service representation, their expectations have jumped exponentially: They want perfect, expert assistance. Thus firms must give them more professional, highly trained service representatives. The increased expectations also enhance opportunities for service failures, to the detriment of the firm.

Zappos.com seems to have found a good balance. It uses automated technology to handle approximately 75 percent of its customer service transactions. But it also prides itself on hiring and training the best employees available to handle customer service. The other 25 percent of calls that go to a human respondent constitute powerful and influential customer service interactions. By effectively navigating these customer service issues, Zappos has built remarkable brand loyalty and a strong reputation as a customer service leader.

Discussion Question:

1. Do you find customer service better or worse than in the past?

2. What elements of Zappo’s approach seem most likely to explain its success?

Doug Stephens, “The Declining Need for and Escalating Value of Human Service,” Retail Prophet, September 26, 2011.