Will Customer Service Disappear With The Elimination Of The 'Middle'?

In response to my original column on disintermediation, Joel Snyder worried about the impact on customer service: The worst casualty is relationships and people skills. As consumers circumvent middlemen, they become harder to deal with. As merchants become more automated, customer service people have less power and less skills (and lower pay).

Cece Forrester agreed: Disintermediation doesn't just let consumers be rude. It also lets organizations treat their customers rudely.

So, is rudeness an inevitable byproduct of disintermediation?

Rediscovering the Balance between Personalization and Automation

Technology introduces efficiency. It streamlines the “noise” and marketplace friction that comes with human interactions. But with that “noise” comes all the warm and fuzzy aspects of being human. It’s what both Joel and Cece fear may be lost with disintermediation. I, however, have a different view.

Shifts in human behavior don’t typically happen incrementally, settling gently into the new norm. They swing like a pendulum, going too far one way, then the other, before stability is reached. Some force -- in this case, new technological capabilities -- triggers the change. As society moves, the force, plus momentum, moves too far in one direction, which triggers an opposing force which pushes back against the trend. Eventually, balance is reached.

A Redefinition of Relationships

In this case, the opposing force will be our need for those human factors. Disintermediation won’t kill relationships. But it will force a redefinition of relationships. The challenge here is that existing market relationships were all tied to the “Middle,” which served as the bridge between producers and consumers. Because the Middle owned the end connection with the customer, it formed the relationships that currently exist. Now, as anyone who has experienced bad customer service will tell you, some who lived in the Middle were much better at relationships than others. Joel and Cece may be guilty of looking at our current paradigm through rose-colored glasses. I have encountered plenty of rudeness even with the Middle firmly in place.

But it’s also true that producers, who suddenly find themselves directly connected with their markets, have little experience in forming and maintaining these relationships. However, the market will eventually dictate new expectations for customer service, and producers will have to meet those expectations. One disintermediator, Zappos, figured that out very early in the game.

Ironically, disintermediation will ultimately be good for relationships. Feedback loops are being shortened. Technology is improving our ability to know exactly what our customers think about us. We’re actually returning to a much more intimate marketplace, enabled through technology. Producers are quickly educating themselves on how to create and maintain good virtual relationships. They can’t eliminate customer service, because we, the market, won’t let them. It will take a bit for us to find the new normal, but I venture to say that wherever we find it, we’ll end up in a better place than we are today.

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3 comments about "Will Customer Service Disappear With The Elimination Of The 'Middle'?".
  1. Ron Stitt from Fox Television Stations , October 18, 2012 at 12:33 p.m.
    This all sounds good in theory, but the reality is for most businesses...big businesses anyway, marketing is based on spreadsheets, not relationships. As anyone who has ever tried to resolve an issue with a big bank, phone company, health insurance company, airline, etc (which is to say pretty much everyone) knows, good customer service is the exception, not the rule. As a marketer, I know how much money is being spent on customer acquisition. As a consumer, I marvel at how disrespectful, incompetent and rude customer service so frequently is...often even as the company doing the disrespecting continues to spew marketing messages at me that are a complete disconnect from my actual experience. Recently, I've had a couple of Twitter interactions with these big brands, where they register my complaint and "feel my pain", then...nothing (probably their community manager is in the PR department, not ops). I hope there is a breaking point as you suggest. If there is, it will probably be in the form of a massive collapse of huge, quasi-monopoly businesses/money machines. You don't casually move your banking business away from a big bank for reasons ranging from convenience to security - but at some point, yeah...I'm going to do it. Citi, are you listening?
  2. Robert Gilmour from Innfinite Hospitality Ltd , October 19, 2012 at 6:48 a.m.
    In the case of online travel companies/intermediaries like Booking.com, Expedia &c - there is virtually no customer service, no value added to the hotel experience by these companies, so cutting them out would have little or no effect
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , November 18, 2012 at 6:24 p.m.
    Rude and disrespect begins at home. And no, you use anything mobile within a private conversation while entertaining a personal conversation with someone else for business or otherwise. That is just the beginning. Greed runs deep.