Please hold -- your call is important to us. If you've ever heard that sentence then you know what it's like to be on hold for customer service. Journalist and author Emily Yellin found herself suspended in customer service no-man's-land when she tried to get her home warranty company to honor their commitments. The experience propelled her to explore the inner workings of the customer service industry, and to write a book about it entitled Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us. Yellin was a featured speaker at the 20th Annual Compete Through Service Symposium, hosted by the Center for Services Leadership at the W. P. Carey School of Business. She talked with us about the state of customer service today, and how companies might improve. Symposium podcast coverage was sponsored by IBM. (5:54)

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Please hold your call is important to us. If you've ever heard that sentence then you know what it's like to be on hold for customer service. Journalist and author Emily Yellin knows. She found herself suspended in customer service no man's land when she tried to get her home warranty company to honor their commitments. The experience propelled her to explore the inner workings of the customer service industry and to write a book about it entitled, Your Call is (Not That) Important to Us.

Yellin was a featured speaker at the 20th Annual Compete Through Service Symposium hosted by The Center for Services Leadership at the W.P. Carey School of Business. She talked with us about the state of customer service today and how companies might improve.

Knowledge: Your first book was called, Our Mother's War. This new book is called, Your Call is (Not That) Important to Us. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this new book about what it's like to be a customer on the phone.

Yellin: Well, I'll comment first on the two books I've done and then I will get to what motivated me to write this book. I've been asked this, how is it that I wrote a book about women during WWII and then I wrote a book about customer service. I had to think about that. I also covered the southeast for the New York Times. I found a thread in all three things and that is I like to write about people or place or issues that have been marginalized.

I think the southeastern United States was marginalized through the history of this country. Women during WWII had gotten no recognition for all that they have done and have been marginalized. I truly believe that within corporations, customer service has often been marginalized and the function of customer service has not been valued in the way that it should be. It's changing now and that's really an exciting thing. It was a fun thing to write about because I saw -- I think we're witnessing a bit of an evolution, if not a revolution.

Knowledge: This customer service experience is universal. Everybody at some point is the customer, even the CEO of a company. We've all had experiences where things haven't gone well and you have to get on the phone or whatever and it's not great. Can you tell me quickly about the experience that triggered this book idea for you?

Yellin: Yeah, it's pretty simple. I always -- when I get in front of crowds, I say, So where do you think I was when I decided to write this book? Where I was was on hold. It was during a really bad experience I was having with a home warranty company. My furnace was out and I'd been passed around. I'd gone through all the things that we hate as customers. There I was sitting there waiting, not getting what I needed.

I was so angry. I said, This is just ridiculous. This is unfair. Somebody should look into it. I realized I'm a journalist and I can look into it, so that was the spark. That's what really made me say, This is something that is wrong in our society. I really believe it is. It's something that as a journalist I wanted to say, Why is this happening?

I couldn't believe that the head of customer service at this company that I was having trouble with went to work every day wanting to do a bad job because I've been in corporations. I know. A lot of times you want to do a good job, but there's some reason you can't, so you do the best you can with what you got. That's really what spurred me.

Knowledge: We're sitting here in the lobby and this conference is hosted by Our Center for Services Leadership and all of the attendees here are either customer service or service professionals or they're academics who study service. Given all the attention that's brought to bear on customer service and service, how could we still be doing it wrong?

Yellin: I love that question because that's really a question that we can all ask. I think what's happened is the way that customer service started -- it's really only 30 years old as we know it. I really looked at customer service in call centers because now that has become the main way that we, as customers, experience it. That industry, the call center industry, is only about 30 years old. It's a young industry. There've been mistakes made. They've been corrected in many instances. The technology is much quicker than the implementation of the technology.

I think that it's not a matter of nobody's paying attention to this and they haven't fixed things. It's that things move very quickly in this industry as I've come to see. When you fix something, something else comes up. What I think The Center for Services Leadership and other like minded people are trying to do is really take a much more sophisticated view of customer service and really look at it as integral to every part of a company and have it be a driving force instead of a reactive thing. It's proactive. That takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of thought.

I talked in my speech about the things I noticed at great companies. One was that the companies that are really getting this right have a real attention to the design of their service. They also, once they've designed it well, they follow through and they make sure that their words and their actions align and that what they say is what the customer hears. You might think you're saying something, but we're hearing something very different.

Thirdly, they have a set of values. They have the -- I don't want to get too heavy, but I think they have a moral sense, so they don't just stand for numbers. You have to have numbers. You have to have the financial aspect of it. You have to measure things, but to pay attention to what you're measuring. Those are the kinds of concepts and innovative thinking around service that I think are changing things, but not everybody's changed. As technology develops, as new channels develop and as the world even gets faster, it gets harder. An answer to your question, I think that it is still bad because not everybody has really seen the problem clearly and seen the problem in a holistic way.

Knowledge: In your research, I'm sure you've come across instances of companies that do it really well. Are there any key learning points that you've been able to pull out that you might be able to share with a company that's trying to improve?

Yellin: Yeah. Every company is different. It has to come from within. It has to come from the top. It has to come from the bottom and it has to come from the middle. What I mean by that is there has to be some sort of commitment. Again, you have to run a business. You have to be able to meet your numbers and you have to be able to make a profit. You have to do those things. People, from what I see and what I've experienced in my own career, people think a lot about that. We think so much about that.

What has happened, and this might even be an answer to the question of why it's still wrong, I think in our society we have slowly but surely dehumanized customer service. We have gotten it to where it's not actually living up to its name. It's not about the customers. It's not about service. It's called that, but the truth is I think what customers feel and the rage, the actual rage that we feel as customers, is that you're saying one thing and you're doing another. You're telling me it's customer service, but it's actually all about you and it's all about what you as a company want and need and then you make me fit into that.

Knowledge: Can you think of a specific example of a company that has managed to internalize it the way you described and has also been able to focus on the customer instead of itself?

Yellin: The darling right now, of course, of all the customer service people is Zappos. They really didn't do anything that revolutionary, but it was revolutionary in this world we're living in now. They said customer service is first and foremost. When they needed to move their customer service because they were in San Francisco and it was very expensive, real estate and employment costs were too expensive, they said, We have to. We can't afford to keep our customer service in San Francisco.

Instead of moving the customer service somewhere else, they moved the entire company with customer service and they went to Las Vegas. They said, We're not going to outsource our customer service. That's not -- not every company can do that, but the commitment is the point, not exactly how they did it, because how they did it was unique to them. What they said was, We don't want the CEO and the top management to be that far removed from our frontline, because really with an internet retailer that's all you've got is customer service. That is your storefront. That is your front facing part, so I think that kind of commitment.

Another company that I saw that really was built with service as they said, baked in is FedEx. I know that company well. It's from my hometown of Memphis. When I wrote for the New York Times, I used to cover them. They don't do everything perfectly and people have had bad experiences with FedEx. They'll be the first to admit that, but what they do is they are vigilant in all aspects of their corporation about trying to instill this idea that we are working to make these experiences that the customer has with us good.

A lot of the innovation that FedEx has done has been about the customer. A great example, just briefly, is package tracking. They invented that. First of all, they invented overnight delivery. Then they invented package tracking because they said, this is what I was told over and over again, It's not just packages that we deliver, it's information about those packages. When you know -- part of the assurance you have is that the second it leaves you, you know where that package is and you can follow it. It's really fun sometimes.

When I got my first iPod, I was able to see it come from the factory. I think it was in China. Then it arrived somewhere, and then somewhere else and then I saw it come to me. That's kind of fun, but it's also really important in ways that you need to know. If there's a snow storm, they can tell you it's right here and you don't worry as much. That was really developed with the customer in mind because that takes a lot of research, a lot of development and it also took a lot of making sure it was for the customer and not for the company. Although, it serves the business need because then it provides more value.

Knowledge: I love package tracking. What about cost? Have you thought about what this would cost a company? What does it cost a company to do it really well?

Yellin: In business, talking about cost is always about what can we do -- you start with the cost and say, okay, what can we do for this cost? I get that. That's really important. The thing I saw across the board -- I didn't come in this with one attitude or another. I came in it objectively as a journal -- as objective as you can be in my training as a journalist and I said, What's going on here? Why is it so bad?

I really started with the idea that the biggest cost of bad customer service is a human cost. I don't just mean a person has a bad experience and they leave the company. That is a very, very important business cost. Time and time again, every study I saw said that when a person has a bad experience they leave the company. The cost of getting new customers is so much greater than the cost of keeping the customers that you already have. The idea that you're not going to pay attention to that, to me, is crazy.

I came to this saying what is the cost of not doing this, not what is the cost of doing this. That's not to say that I don't recognize that there are things you can't do because it costs too much. I don't say -- I'm not somebody who says, Oh, don't ever outsource. I understand the value of outsourcing. It's doing it intelligently. It's not just looking at the cost and not just looking at the human side of it, but looking at them both as equal partners, so that you're not saying, Oh, well, that's pie in the sky. We can't possibly do that. That's making your first response no. I think it's equally important, so you can't have one without the other.

I believe as a customer and having looked at this industry and looking at the history of the industry and how it evolved, I believe that this industry has gotten into a rut where cost is the number one thing and it is alienating customers and people hate customer service because they feel that they are being nickeled and dimed. They've paid you money and you're not helping them. That is a huge cost.

Knowledge: What advice would you have for businesses after doing your research and talking to all these companies? What would be the first thing that you would suggest that they do to turn around mediocre customer service?

Yellin: That's a hard question. Well, I think, unfortunately, it's like anything, first admit you have a problem and really admit it. That's hard to do. It's hard for a person to do and it's hard for a business to do. I say first admit there is a problem and then get curious. Don't get defensive, get curious about the problem. If you've ever been in a fight with somebody at a certain point you are either going to part ways or you're going to try and figure out what's wrong and work it out.

I think that the climate of the last couple of years, decade or so, two decades, whatever, has gotten to where customer service has in our minds, in our culture evolved into something where it's pitting the customer against the company. There's such a wide area for improvement, so it's a short walk. If you just do a little bit of something, people will be thrilled because they're so used to being treated badly. When I see people used to being treated badly, my sense of injustice kicks in. That's really what I think a company needs to do is recognize that, yeah, we could get away with this -- the cable industry is a good example. They now have competition, but there were companies who had no competition.

Basically, Comcast is one of the companies that I write about and I spoke to them. The head of customer service admitted to me that one of the reasons that we were able to neglect customer service is because we had a monopoly. Somebody else put it a lot more bluntly. They neglected customer service because they could still make money by doing it, but you're not going to sustain that. You're just not going to. You could do that for many years and they did. At some point, it's not going to work anymore.

The thing that I've seen with every company that really has this service mentality and this idea that we are here to serve and that then the money will follow, if you build it they will come, is that those are the ones that are sustaining success and sustain it through hard times and through good times because they have an underpinning that it's something more than just making money. They have to make money.

Tony Shay of Zappos said to me, Our call center is completely inefficient. If somebody were to come in and look at it just by the numbers, it is the most inefficient thing. We don't care if one of our agents spends an hour and a half on the phone. We recommend that they have -- they can look at three other of our competitors if we don't have a product that somebody wants. They send their competitors -- the old Macy's Gimbels thing, for those of us old enough to remember it, they send their competitor -- their customer to their competitor. What that does is it's a relationship, it's a long-term relationship. If you look at your customers as a long-term relationship and not a short-term profit -- a sort of crude, but it's a pretty valuable analogy I make or a metaphor I use is it's the difference between a one night stand and a real relationship and maybe a marriage.

Knowledge: I would think especially in down times it would be important to make long-term relationships with your customers.

Yellin: It's important to already have them. That's what I'm saying. It's actually in the good times that it really shows the people who have that commitment because, now, yeah, sure, everybody's freaked out because suddenly they realized that the economy has gone bad and maybe their customers aren't that loyal. What about those companies that have been doing this all along? A lot of them are doing okay.

I think it's really important, again, to have a long-term view. I'm not saying that's all you do. I'm never saying that all you do is have a long-term view and all you do is not pay attention to numbers and pay attention to the human needs. I don't think it's overstating it to say that right now we as a culture and then business in general and then customers service within business has not paid enough attention to the human side and the cost of creating bad feelings among people and what seeds that sows really in our society.

I can get very -- I can pontificate a lot about this, but I feel very strongly after three years of looking into this industry that it is very important because this is the crossroads of our culture. It's of our commerce. People from all walks of life have to go through customer service. We bridge nations. We bridge class. We bridge race. We bridge gender. I saw all of those issues in call centers every day. It really is a barometer for our culture. If we're treating people that badly in customer service, I think it says something about our society.