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The Irony of Customer Service in the Digital Age

Pick any consumer-facing business — from dry cleaning and food preparation to oil changes and car buying — and you’ll see accelerated attempts to create a more efficient experience. This acceleration is driven largely by technology offering a better way: through app-based mobile transactions, leveraging of customer data and preferences, and intricate geo-based algorithms to connect suppliers with users quicker than ever before.

The car rental industry is on this path too, using technology to put a renter in a car without having to wait in a line and talk to a human behind a counter. This evolution is absolutely necessary in this new world of on-demand everything. Sure, any company would jump at the chance to use technology to reduce labor costs. But it also comes with some big, red, flashing warning lights.

In a digital environment, a transaction that goes smoothly needs little to no human interaction. After all, technology is designed to automate those rote, menial tasks. It’s when the customer has an unexpected request or a process breaks down that they’ll need you.

In the traditional scenario, your frontline staff processes the transaction in front of the customer, an obvious opportunity to “take the customer’s temperature.” As a result, unexpected issues are dealt with through an already established relationship. In the digital realm, staffers are dropped in immedius res into a human situation that needs attention.

If technology enables you to streamline your staff, you’ll need to concentrate on the remaining staffers you crown as worthy of handling your customers. You may even have to rethink your hiring and training strategies. Technology can never replace human empathy — so in this digital realm you’ll have to work extra hard to satisfy and keep that customer.

Let’s bring up a fictitious example: In the car rental industry, no transaction is more iconic than Steve Martin’s scene at the “Marathon Car Rental” counter in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. (Here’s a refresher, with language warning.) It resonates because it epitomizes how we all imagine a bad car rental experience to transpire.

The movie was released in 1987, yet the car rental experience hasn’t changed that much since. The Marathon counter rep shouldn’t get hired today; she embodies the negatives of the old way. (Granted, no staffer should put up with Steve Martin’s behavior, albeit understandable.)

The world has shifted into a new mindset on how to treat the customer. While Millennials ushered in the age of the digital transaction as default, they also expect bend-over-backwards customer service in ways Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers never would have.

Photo courtesy of Bobit Business Media.
Photo courtesy of Bobit Business Media.

Think of the new digital-age brands, from Casper Mattress and Dollar Shave Club to Bombas Socks. This is how Bombas positions itself online: “Our #1 priority here at Bombas is your happiness. Which means we stand by our product 100%, no matter what, no questions asked, no holds barred, no ifs, no ands, no buts.”

Their customer service defines their culture, and their culture defines their customer service. This is an imperative for any business to prevail today. But they’re just socks, right? Well isn’t it more than “just a rental car?”

Think of the Steve Martin transaction in today’s environment. Overlay it with 25% added fees to the rental customer to pay for an airport facility or a football stadium, understanding too that other transportation choices are available to that customer. You see how urgent the matter becomes.

The irony of a digital transaction that excises human interaction is that the human component of your customer interaction becomes infinitely more important. You may be able to reduce your staff count, but your customers’ expectations will rise in greater proportions.

There will be a day when that movie scene will no longer resonate, because that type of transaction will be a thing of the past. It can’t come too soon.

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Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. He covers all aspects of the fleet world.

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