Having just suffered at the hands of a combination of technology and customer service I feel justified to vent. It always staggers me how bad most B2C technology-led companies are, and 1.5hrs with my broadband provider today only compounded that view. Yes, dumb users and mystifyingly random technology glitches make it hard sometimes to be consistent, but when you’re told the immediate solution is to pull the power cable out of the modem box you do start to wonder.

I decided to give up when I was told that it was only a temporary solution and the real fix won’t happen for 7 – 10 working days.

Following this incident I tried to join a conference call. A nice automated lady told me to enter my details and after saying ‘thank you’ she told me that the lines were busy and hung up…all done in that matter-of-fact, yet extremely positive Californian tone that makes people from this corner of the world think they should be the ones apologising.

At times one is left with the impression that the technology companies either don’t care or just don’t have the answers. “Yes you’re our customer, yes you pay quite a bit of money, but hey it’s fickle technology…” I can even see the call agent shrugging his or her shoulders, muttering “I’m not paid enough to go the extra mile.”
I realise that’s a rather sweeping assumption and I do acknowledge it’s tougher for B2C companies working with technology. The perfect storm of the volume of inbound calls, combined with inconsistencies of scaling technology and the ‘capabilities’ of the average technology user make life very hard.

Good Customer Service
As a result I decided to do a bit of dubious research. If you type “customer service” and “technology companies” into Google, guess what? None of the major enterprise software companies appear on the first or second page. When you change the terms to “customer satisfaction” and “technology companies” again none of the big technology vendors appear.

Good customer service can be done, as this Business Week article shows: http://bit.ly/2gTBA4. And major technology companies do try to win awards, eg: Service 800 Awards (http://bit.ly/2ror56) or the SSPA Star Awards (http://bit.ly/3LmRcm), or the JD Power Awards (http://bit.ly/KhJy9).

And yet I can’t think of any major IT company that has customer service or satisfaction or loyalty at the heart of its values. For example, I’ve seen nothing to compare to this http://bit.ly/2xkAJW from Marriott Hotels. Perhaps it’s obvious that they put customers first, but they really emphasise the point throughout their culture, as does Southwest Airlines (http://bit.ly/3G6kIt).

Bad Customer Service?
I can’t think of a technology company – especially the enterprise guys – who spell it out that bluntly. Tom Siebel famously built his company around ‘always the customer first’ (http://bit.ly/23V2dw) and PeopleSoft used to be known for putting the ‘human’ in human resources.

You could say, “Where are these companies now?” and that Oracle has taken on/evolved their approach to customers. Charles Phillips, President of Oracle Corporation, is often heard emphasising the commitment to customers and to give them their dues they do get recognised (http://bit.ly/45lJu9). (Disclaimer: Oracle is my former employer)

That said it doesn’t help perceptions when its executives adamantly refuse to consider altering their approach to maintenance revenue (http://bit.ly/2hGa5q), especially when – unfairly or not – customers see articles like this one (http://bit.ly/23OWcE), showing how well paid Larry is…

Times they are a-changing…
Oracle isn’t alone in facing this challenge of balancing customer service against profitability. As an industry it has done very nicely, thank you, out of recurring revenues from customers and it is a very tough habit to break. To an extent vendors are right in that some of the revenue is needed for R&D, but are they resisting the inevitable?
I refuse to jump on the cloud bandwagon, but market stats show the likes of Salesforce rapidly growing their market share (http://bit.ly/3oASpr) – even if it is from a low base. Similarly, Government departments are becoming more and more robust – particularly in the UK, where many central Govt departments are rumoured to be facing 15% – 20% cuts (minimum) in budgets. The policy document on open source and open standards (http://bit.ly/1Ww1ka) demands greater flexibility from vendors, allowing departments more rights to transfer licenses between departments, something that would be unspeakable for most IT companies.

The suppliers would come back with that dreaded word ‘choice.’ With enterprise wide, perpetual & universal licenses, nevermind SaaS models, the vendors would claim that customers have choice. Yet, ‘perpetual’ is only as perpetual as a vendor is willing to support a platform. ‘Universal’ may have in the fine print ‘everything except the one piece of software you want…’

Additionally, vendors have the awkward habit of ‘inspecting’ or auditing their customers for under or over-licensing, which often leads to further grumbles. A practice that is on the increase in these straitened times.

Alarm Bells Ringing?
Bottom line, the technology industry isn’t helping itself. With major IT embarrassments seemingly never out of the headlines (http://bit.ly/apoCE), it is understandable that customers are becoming less (http://bit.ly/gv9Zb) and less tolerant (http://bit.ly/2ruBAF). Also the open source vendors are rightly seeing this as an opportunity to stoke the fire, as the CEO of Ingres does here (http://bit.ly/3vjaB0).

Yet the alarm bells should be ringing for the big guys. SAP said the recovery would be ‘U’ shaped last week (http://bit.ly/2AUkhV), yet is it too much of a leap to ask whether these companies are missing the point? Companies like Red Hat are much more ebullient (http://bit.ly/2AYwH3). After all the doomsayer comments about Red Hat the irony isn’t lost on its CEO, Jim Whitehurst, when he sees his share price rise above Microsoft. (http://bit.ly/1EYjMz)

Please hold the line
The major IT companies are in a strong position. Big cash reserves and large customer bases make for strong defences in these tough times. But that is breeding a touch of complacency or they are simply dragging their feet. The recession has forced customers to re-think their pre-conceptions about technologies such as SaaS. The concerns about security and reliability are gradually subsiding as platforms become more robust and the benefits outweigh the costs.

If a new era of software delivery models and support mechanisms are allowing customers to be more flexible, then shouldn’t the major vendors being responding with greater flexibility in their customer strategies?
I know what they vendors will say – they have significant customer strategies in place. But are they the right ones for today’s market? Sure the systems integrators and the vendors pull out all the stops when something goes wrong, but it shouldn’t go need to wrong for a customer to feel they are getting the attention they deserve. Certainly, automation of software asset management will help, but there is a great opportunity for companies to shamelessly promote the value of their services.

Particularly, if you are buying into the view that IT products (hardware and software) are eventually going to become more and more commoditised, then won’t the vendors have to find something more than ‘speeds and feeds’ to differentiate? Surely, a radical overhaul of customer service approaches – and more importantly how that’s communicated to the market – is an excellent opportunity to stand out.