Seth Godin has an itriguing proposal in his blog today, suggesting that customer service move from real-time to asynchronous service. He writes:

“I think the single factor that is killing this process and that is under the company’s control is this: the desire to perform all customer service in real time.

In fact, most customer service can be done quite well overnight….Given the choice between amazing, guaranteed service with a one day wait or interminable waits on hold with people who can’t really help you right now… well, the choice is pretty easy.”

While this may work in may cases, it assumes the customer already has a well-defined problem or very specific question that can be answered in one response. Unfortuanately, customer service is often iterative, requiring some back-and-forth dialog to properly identify the root cause, which is best done in real time.

If there is a charge on my cell phone bill that I don’t understand, the customer service represenative has to first explain that charge to me (first iteration). Only then can I decide if I want to dispute the charge (second interation).

If an asynchronous customer service model is going to be successful, the company needs to make it exceedingly easy for customers to self diagnose their issues in advance in order to reduce the number of iterations… or even eliminate the need to contact customer service.

Yesterday, I had a question about a charge on my Cingular (ahem… the new AT&T) bill. The bill was higher than I expected, so I printed my online statement to review it. I finally found the culprit on my son’s account detail — a GPRR transfer using the MBRA rate code. What?! I did not know what a “GPRR transfer” or an “MBRA rate code” was, but I thought it would be a no-brainer to find this information on their support site. No such luck.

I finally resorted to calling customer service. She pointed out to me that the codes are included within the header. I did not see that information because the header does not print at the top of each page, and thus was four pages removed from the detail I was looking at. Perhaps I should have been able to find the information, but it was not obvious to me.

If Cingular had made it easier for me to answer my own question, I could have avoided the customer service contact altogether.