Who are you and why are you hiding from customers?

Flickr cc image by mistermundo

Please do not respond to this e-mail, this account is not monitored.

I'm sorry I am unable to assist with your request. May I suggest you consult our online help center, where you will find answers to many common questions.

Sincerely,

Acme Customer Care

What's wrong with this note, besides everything? The thing that bugs me even more than the complete lack of assistance (which most customers have sadly come to expect) is the "anonymity barrier" -- an unsigned note with no contact person and no way to reply.

This customer service veil (more like an iron curtain at times) is a disturbing practice that is being used with increasing frequency. It takes many forms: Representatives using company or department names only, partial names, fake names, even numbers ("agent 3552," "operator 27" -- though this one is less common than it once was). No matter how it's done, it's bad:

- It is insulting and condescending. It says "We don't like to touch the dirty customers." Customer service in its highest form is a distinctly human interaction. If you are a customer service provider and you take your identity out of the picture, you are no better than an automated response system -- in some ways worse -- you know all about me, I know nothing about you, making me an essentially powerless participant.

Whether you are just following your company's ill-conceived policy or not, by "hiding" you're telling me you don't have enough respect or concern for me as a living, breathing customer to tell me who you are, establish an interpersonal relationship, and/or give me a way to easily reach you.

- It is evasive and shirks accountability. If a customer doesn't know who she's dealing with, or if she's given a partial or made-up name, she has no way of tracking the issue, no way of reconnecting if disconnected, and often no way of following up or escalating without telling her story to someone new (or maybe the same person with a different fake name).

I have had more than a few experiences where I got no help from a person with a partial or probably made-up name (let's call her "Anita"), wrote back and/or called to try to get more/better help, and was told "I'm sorry, I don't know who Anita is, we have a lot of departments here..."

- It is "preemptively defensive." Hiding behind the veil says "We already know it's going to take time and effort to help you, and you might be a high-maintenance customer." It is a way of protecting a company and its representatives against potentially needy people, and maintaining control over the extent and manner of customer access.

- It is counterproductive. Some companies justify the practice by saying that it is a necessary evil due to the volume or nature of customer interactions; but I'd argue that these companies are actually making more work for themselves. If a customer gets a message with no contact person or reply address and needs further assistance, that customer often has no choice but to start from scratch with a new request, repeating himself to yet another anonymous rep who may or may not have a record of the last conversation. So instead of having a start-to-finish interaction with one person, the customer may have a mind-numbing e-mail ping-pong game with 3, 4 or 10 people, all with different names, made up names, or no names.

Hardly efficient, not to mention the company's got one more ticked off customer. A lose-lose.

In the end, vague or blatantly anonymous communication of this kind shows a complete disregard for the time, intelligence and value of the customer. If the service process, corporate policies or practices, or other issues lead a company to believe that this is a necessary measure, there is absolutely something wrong somewhere in the business.

I can't think of a single genuinely positive service experience I have had with an unidentified or unreachable person at the other end. Can you? If you know of an exception to the rule, an example of quality anonymous service, or a good business argument for hiding the identities of service representatives, please share.

  • Michael Hess On Facebook»

    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at www.businesswithclass.com.

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