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News Flash: Tech Support Still Stinks

You can hear the most amazing things when you call a technology company for help. Just ask some of my readers: Like the Rockville resident who called Comcast and was incorrectly told that Time Warner was going to be his cable-TV provider, or the Dell user who wanted to put Windows XP on his new Vista machine and was told that the computer's "Vista specific" hardware prohibited such a move.

Yes, tech-support reps are no longer content to repeat the corporate line mindlessly; the best of them will now go a step further and pull things right out of their... USB port.

It doesn't take any elaborate research to tell you that tech-support is in terrible shape, but Accenture just did some anyway. The consulting firm published a study this morning about trends in high-tech customer service, based on surveys of customers and executives at the companies providing this help.

This survey (PDF), with the corporate-speak title of "Superior Customer Service Capabilities: Key Factors in the Journey to High Performance," does not start with earth-shattering news:

Loyal customers can have a major, positive effect on a company's bottom line, but companies' approaches to service are driving many customers away.... Those that have an extremely high satisfaction experience are nearly 2.5 times more likely to repurchase from that same company than if they had an average satisfaction experience. But stunningly, only about one-fourth of consumers said that they would buy again from a company that, in their minds, provides only average service.

The interesting stuff comes further down--senior execs at the 35 companies Accenture surveyed think everything's just ducky when it comes to their own tech support:

80 percent of executives polled said they would describe the customer service satisfaction of their overall customer base as moderately or extremely high, with 54 percent rating their service and support an 8 or higher on a scale of 1=very poor to 10=excellent.... Asked to compare their company's performance to their competitors, 54 percent of the surveyed Vice Presidents said that their customer service capabilities are among the best in the industry.

Why are the pointy-haired bosses so clueless? They don't even agree with their customers on what tech support's supposed to do. Accenture asked these 35 companies' executives about their priorities in customer service, and "keeping the customer happy" didn't even make the top-10 list. The most important priority? "Increasing revenue creation opportunities from service and support." Also popular: "Increasing customer self-help capabilities via the Web," "Improving call resolution times," and that perennial favorite, "Selling new extended support agreements."

Report co-author Brett Anderson, Accenture's managing director of customer service, said in an interview Friday that customer support is treated as little more than a line item in the budget. "In many of these companies, they believe customer service is just a cost of doing business. If anything, the budget for the people that run these customer-service organizations goes down year after year."

(That must be why all these V.P. types fly coach and buy their lunches from vending machines--because customer service doesn't matter!)

But even in the strictest economic sense, Anderson noted, it's foolish to neglect tech support when you factor in the "acquisition costs" of replacing a disgruntled customer's business. A satellite-TV provider, for example, might spend $6 or $8 to answer your question on the phone, against only 10 cents if it can punt you to its Web site. But if you get so angry at being neglected that you leave, the satellite-TV service will wind up spending $600 to sign up a new customer in your place.

That doesn't even factor in business lost when people read the rant on your blog and decide to shop elsewhere--a growing risk for companies that abuse their customers.

The report doesn't name any offenders but does spotlight some companies that Accenture thought did a good job with customer service, such as, Oracle, BEA Systems and Lexus. (So we're clear about some of Accenture's motivations in publishing this study: the report also describes how Accenture helped BEA upgrade its customer-service operations.)

You know you want to unload about your own awful tech-support experiences, so have at it in the comments! But if you've been treated right by a company, I'd like to know about that, too.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 21, 2007; 6:03 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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