There’s a fascinating scene in a recent episode of Mad Men in which Lane, the VP of Boorish British Backscratching, tells Resident Persnickety Weasel Pete Campbell why he loses the Head of Accounts promotion to gleaming competitor Ken Cosgrove.
“You have a delightful way of making clients feel their needs are being met,” says Lane. “But Ken possesses the rare gift of making the clients feel they haven’t any needs.”
Having just begun work at a tech start-up centered around an automated marketing platform (thus eliminating the “need” for outside assistance with campaign set-up), this of course got me thinking. While this moment was poignant for the sputtering Pete, the advent of the modern era with its many “little gray helpers” (SaaS platforms, dashboards, applications, oh my!) makes the question of seamless self-service versus spectacular customer service even more stark. What’s better: a stellar support staff on hand to meet your every question and need? Or technology so intuitively developed you can manage it without help? In addition to self-sufficiency, there’s a sophistication issue at stake. Why settle for service with a smile when you could have service with a suite of real-time metrics? Yes? No?
The current rash of little gray helpers (an app for identifying animal backsides? really?)would certainly imply society’s leaning toward the latter. And no, I’m not just saying that because I work here. Look at the evidence: From SaaS technologies springing up everywhere you turn, to the marked decline of traditional customer service, it seems like the former model of “beck and call” butler-esque client service is being replaced with a brave new world of bootstrapped “step aside, I’ve got it from here” superhero autonomy. Don’t believe me? Read on….
First, Google Analytics broke ground with their amazingly intuitive platform, which essentially transformed industry gibberish like “pay-per-click” and “CPM” into common business terminology. The rise of MySpace and blogs means that thirteen year olds are easily teaching themselves html without the need of a tech expert. Then there’s WordPress, where “customer service” is confined to a user-managed forum with no moderator (that I know of) and certainly nothing akin to the “live 24-hour support” model that seemed so popular, even crucial, in the last few years. No doubt about it, the rise of intuitive technology is being accompanied by a decidedly, well, British attitude toward traditional spirit-finger style customer service. How do we feel about this as consumers?
Is this “ah, you can figure it out, you smart cookie!” slap-on-the-back approach empowering or isolating? Or both? I think it all depends on, as Lane points out so astutely, whether the commerce system in question has the “rare gift” of making the customer feel like they already have everything they need. Just as Ken Cosgrove’s golden boy charms provided the “tools” to assuage customer anxiety: insert winning smile, confident lope, boyish floppy hair, a tool has to have that elusive mix of accessibility and scalability to put the customer at ease. WordPress accomplishes this with a wildy friendly interface, including everything from a cheering squad of jolly little quotes on each page to literally billions of “help” prompts to assist you in easily overcoming your own obstacles. Google Analytics has a similar suite of video tutorials, etc, plus the universally soothing orange-and-blue color palette proven to rock even the most platform-agnostic into a coma of analytics obsession. Or maybe “comfort features” have nothing to do with it, and the Internet has just made everything so simple that, as the famous commercial puts it, “even a caveman could do it”?
Then of course there’s the E-word, which I try not to use in blog posts as a matter of principle. But as questions of cost loom in the modern workplace, the question becomes, not just do you still want/need customer service, but what are you willing to pay for it? Many “personalized” services today (personal shoppers, personal trainers) charge an arm and a leg for their services, so even if people were inclined to take a more personalized approach, the premium costs make customer service feel more like pampering than a practical business decision. To put in Mad Men terms, three hour martini lunches complete with feather-soothing and ego-stroking are great-as long as they aren’t getting secretly tacked on to your bill at the end of the month. With the E-word (I’m not saying it!) on everyone’s mind, every CEO is thinking about how to streamline departments, and how to use technology to augment or in some cases replace the salivating, card-swiping customer service reps of yesteryear.
So what do you think? To reposition the Mad Men question slightly: Is it better to have all the help you need? Or is it better not to need help? Do we want to be masters of our own transaction destiny? Or do we all just want someone to hold us and tell us, as only Don Draper can (pause for deep meaningful stare and throaty baritone) “Everything’s going to be ok”?