May 06, 2002

As I write this column, I am in the process of moving and the 101 tasks it entails.

I can truly say I'm sick of going home each night and wading through eight years of collected detritus, trying to decide what stays and what goes. I think George Carlin had it pegged when he said people move just so they can get more space for their "stuff."

To make matters worse, although I'm only moving about 20 miles from where I currently live, it's in another state, which means having to close current accounts and open new ones with the phone and electric companies. And, of course, I also have to call my bank, broker, and insurance company and inform them of my new contact information.

I figured it would take the better part of an afternoon to wade through various automated call center menus before I talked to a person capable of changing my service or altering my address. In many instances, that was the case. But a few businesses did surprise me with efficient call center services.

One of the more pleasant experiences came from the telephone companies I had to deal with to get a new phone line. The menu selection directions were clear, succinct and accurate. When the call center worker eventually came on the line, they were friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. They knew exactly what I had, what I would need at my new place, and even attempted to cross-sell me other services.

This experience was in direct contrast to the various financial institutions I called. Menus were incomplete. Directions were unclear. The wait was interminable. When I finally got a live person on the line, they were either harried or rude.

The worst by far was a call center for a credit card bank. It did not even offer a change of address option, and when "0" was pushed, it returned you to the beginning of the menu instead of patching you through to a live person. The only way I was able to get someone to help was by choosing the "lost or stolen" option on the menu, which got me through to a live person, who I eventually cajoled into taking my new address info.Suffice to say, I'm seriously considering whether I should remain a client with this company.

Why the different experiences? Well, it makes sense that the phone company would be strong on the phone-after all, it's their main line of business. But I also think competition plays a part. Phone companies were deregulated years ago. There are a lot of new entities on the scene, offering similar services at lower prices. In this type of scenario, customer service becomes a way to differentiate business and keep clients. Established telcos came to the realization that they could not afford weakness in any of their customer touch points for fear of losing patrons to less expensive alternatives.

Don't get me wrong, I know financial institutions are also under intense competitive pressure. But deregulation, in the form of Gramm-Leach-Bliley, is still a fairly recent event. Like the telecommunications business, the financial companies that thrive long-term in a deregulated market will be those that pay attention to the details that keep customers content and loyal.

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