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Consumers search for customer service with a human touch

Outsourcing and automated phone systems can make customers cranky. But some firms are trying to improve.

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As a frequent traveler, Amanda Williams assumed it would be easy to book flights from Charlotte, N.C., to Jackson, Miss., to attend her grandfather's funeral.

But when she called an airline to request a bereavement fare – common in such circumstances – problems began. The customer service representative, based in another country, was the first of four agents who had what she describes as "extremely heavy accents." None of them knew how to handle her request.

"Apparently 'bereavement fare' was not translating well for them, and no one could understand what I needed," says Ms. Williams, who works in advertising. Noting that it took nearly two hours to book tickets for herself and three relatives, she says, "I had to tell the story four different times. I finally broke down crying on the phone, partly from grief but also out of frustration."

More Americans share Williams's frustration these days as they encounter two contentious customer service practices. One is outsourcing, in which calls are routed to agents overseas. The second involves automated telephone systems that send callers through a maze of recorded menu options – "Press 1 for English," "Press 5 for account information," and so on. Aware that they are alienating customers, some companies are scrambling to do better.

"Outsourcing has been quite an issue," says Roger Nunley, managing director of the Customer Care Institute, a resource organization in Atlanta. "Early on, it was not handled too well by outsourcing service providers. Today there are some very good outsourcing providers that do an excellent job." Overall, he adds, "the state of customer care seems to be improving."

But part of the challenge for customers stems from a two-tier system of service.

"Companies call it 'segmentation,' " says Jay Galbraith, author of "Designing the Customer-Centric Organization." "They know who's calling because of caller ID. If you're a top customer, they'll send your call to the US. If you're just an ordinary customer, you'll probably be routed to India or another outsourced site. It's not democratic at all."

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