“Death to helpdesks” – and thanks to the Service Science Factory

Banging your head against a brick wall. This is a saner option than trying to deal with a big company helpdesk, so it appears from the latest report by the Service Science Factory of the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE). The report, which analysed thousands of customer complaint emails, was published in a special magazine sold with the NRC Handelsblad on 1 December. It was found that nearly 40% of the complainants had received an unsatisfactory response from the service provider in question, 12% had been treated coldly or insincerely, and 26% had been told that the company accepted no responsibility for the issue. Almost 12% had received no response whatsoever.

Furious: Youp van ‘t Hek
The emails were prompted by a campaign started by Youp van ‘t Hek, a Dutch comedian and columnist for the NRC. Fed up witnessing his son’s Kafka-esque experiences at the hands of T-Mobile NL’s “merciless” helpdesk, on 20 October he vented on Twitter: “death to all customer services and impenetrable multinationals. time for a jolly revolution”.

The comment prompted a veritable Twitter storm, and three days later Van ‘t Hek published a full column on the saga in the NRC: “My account there [on Twitter] is no whiney little clique; I’m followed by more than 40,000 people, who immediately recognised my problem because they themselves have all been embroiled in conflicts like these with Ziggo, Eneco, UPC or some other unreachable T-Mobile …”

Van ‘t Hek called on anyone who has a grievance against a large corporate helpdesk – and who doesn’t? – to send him an email describing their experiences. “I’ve since become a sort of national registration point for the helpdesk reign of terror, and I’m also showing that the patience has run out. People are sick to death of this. Customer service means customer service, that is: service for customers! And that doesn’t start with hanging on the line for an hour having to listen to soul-destroying elevator music. Not to mention the impotent follow-up. Revolution? Absolutely, as far as I’m concerned … And once more: not only against T-Mobile, but against all of them! We’ve begun!”

Enter: the Service Science Factory
It didn’t take SBE dean Jos Lemmink long to swing into action. Van ‘t Hek and his managers would be buried alive in emails, Lemmink figured, and so he offered the help of the Service Science Factory to digest all these. A multidisciplinary, multicultural think tank recently established under the umbrella of SBE, the Service Science Factory brainstorms and offers solutions to all sorts of companies facing all sorts of challenges – for example, in the fields of service provision and complaints management. In this case, its staff analysed the flood of emails sent to Van ‘t Hek and produced a report published in the recent NRC magazine, De Help.

What are helpdesks most often contacted about? How did the service provider respond, and how satisfied – or unsatisfied, as the case may be – was the client with their handling of the matter? These were the key questions that the report’s authors, UM professors Lemmink and Gaby Odekerken-Schröder, aimed to answer. The complaints ranged from product defects and administrative errors to the utter failure to deliver the promised service. Nearly 20% were money-related complaints, such as the debiting of incorrect contract charges. This was particularly the case in the financial sector and among telecommunications providers. And close to 16% reported issues with trying to reach the service provider; long waiting times and severely restricted opening hours were a key source of frustration here.

Around 72% of people had complained via telephone, while about 10% had written an email or submitted an online form. Only 5% or so had sent a letter per post or tried to make face-to-face contact. The most successful line of approach appeared to be by telephone or in person; the majority of the complaints dealt with in this way had been resolved, whereas most of those made by email or letter were still ongoing. Which would seem ironic, given that Van ‘t Hek and his son had been repeatedly – and almost robotically – advised to “write a letter, and you will receive a response within six weeks”.

Crucial: customer loyalty
So what should businesses learn from this affair? Given the fierce competition that characterises our day and age, the Service Science Factory report emphasises that the key to success is customer loyalty. “Our analysis shows that 18% of the customers had switched to a different service provider or were currently considering doing so … There are still customers who have the feeling that their complaint is not being taken seriously. In response, they withdraw their loyalty. For this reason, it is useful to regard an error in service provision and the subsequent complaint not only as a nuisance but also as an opportunity and a rich source of information.”

Social media research agency Buzzcapture has estimated the damage to T-Mobile’s reputation as a result of the Van ‘t Hek affair as somewhere in the ballpark of €200,000 to €300,000. “Youp van ‘t Hek is right”, said the company’s spokesperson Henny van der Heiden. “We made mistakes with his son and didn’t deal with it well. For that, we are sorry.” In the short term, T-Mobile has stated that it aims to reduce waiting times and amend its servicing procedure. And all around the country, those who have watched the saga play out are hoping that the current unrest among customers will make a difference once and for all. As Van der Heiden concedes: “The call for big companies to listen to their customers and not just shunt them away is clear.”
Does your service organisation face a problem or challenge? The Maastricht Service Science Factory is here to help! For each project we compose a team of multidisciplinary experts consisting of a representative of your organisation, researchers, academics and students. Within six to eight weeks, we provide you with a brand new or revised service solution.


For more information about the Service Science Factory and how it can benefit your organisation, please visit www.servicesciencefactory.com or consult Professor Jos Lemmink ( j.lemmink@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Professor Gaby Odekerken-Schröder ( g.odekerken@maastrichtuniversity.nl).

You can read Youp van ‘t Hek’s column in the NRC Handelsblad here: http://weblogs.nrc.nl/youp/2010/10/23/klantenservice/


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