The Slow Decline of Customer Service by Humans

Where shall we start?

I had a problem that needed to be fixed inside my bank. I now do so much of my banking with my iPhone, and at the drive-through. But, the drive-through computers were down, and there was another problem with a replacement debit card, and I had to go inside my bank. I have only banked at this location for… 24 years. (Through at least one name change, maybe more – hard to remember).

But, nobody knew me; and I knew none of the folks inside. So, I got misinformation, and some “since I’m new working here” delay… The “new here” was the teller. And, the manager had only been at that location for a few months.

Yes, there are rules. I think I understand that. But I’ve been a customer for just under a quarter of century at this very location. Apparently that does not matter.

And then, I had to return a gift (got the wrong size). At the second stop, I actually got great customer service. A nice young woman (yes, everybody seems younger and younger to me) went into the dark recesses of some stock room and emerged later with the right size. Victory! And, yes, appreciation!

But at the first stop, in a large, well-known national department store, they have these stations called “service centers” I think it was. One had no service folks in sight – just sitting empty. When I got to the next one, “service” is a really generous word for what I received. I finally flagged down a person on the move, explained my problem, and with her magic computer scanner found out they had the right size at the other location (that second stop that ended with success).

Here’s my observation. It seems that more and more of our excellent customer service is found in the technology, and not found among the humans.

We’re reading about this in more and more business writing: the only future for people at work is to do work that robots and software can’t do. And that is to interact well with people.

Humans Are UnderratedIt is especially well-presented in Geoff Colvin’s excellent book Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will. From the book:

We need a new term: The most valuable people are increasingly relationship workers.

And at the heart of this modern need is “empathy.” Again, from Colvin’s book:

Empathy is the foundation of all the other abilities that increasingly make people valuable as technology advances.

Empathy is the first element of how all that happens, the basis of every significant relationship.    

Empathy was at its heart… “Customers know instantly when a service professional really cares.”    “Waiters who are better at showing empathy earn nearly 20 percent more in tips” and “debt collectors with empathy skills recovered twice as much debt.”

One more factor increases the power and importance of empathy in today’s world: Empathy seems to be declining.


Genuine empathy comprises two parts: discerning the thoughts and feelings of others, and responding appropriately.   

When, increasingly, we can no longer rely on the training of the “mama taught me” variety, we’re going to have to do a lot of remedial human interaction training — customer service training that is simply human interaction training.

(One company where they do this very well is The Container Store).

Training with instruction on when to say “I’m sorry/we’re sorry” (hint – it needs to be much more often!), and when to just stop and try to feel what the customer feels.

We’re getting the technological customer service down just fine. It’s just that the human variety seems to be increasingly rare these days.


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