Will customer service disappear with the elimination of the middle?

In response to my original column on disintermediation, Joel Snyder worried about the impact on customer service: The worst casualty is relationships and people skills. As consumers circumvent middlemen, they become harder to deal with. As merchants become more automated, customer service people have less power and less skills (and lower pay).

Cece Forrester agreed: Disintermediation doesn’t just let consumers be rude. It also lets organizations treat their customers rudely.

So, is rudeness an inevitable byproduct of disintermediation?

Rediscovering the balance between personalization and automation

Technology introduces efficiency. It streamlines the “noise” and marketplace friction that comes with human interactions. But with that “noise” comes all the warm and fuzzy aspects of being human. It’s what both Joel and Cece fear may be lost with disintermediation. I, however, have a different view.

Shifts in human behavior don’t typically happen incrementally, settling gently into the new norm. They swing like a pendulum, going too far one way, then the other, before stability is reached. Some force — in this case, new technological capabilities — triggers the change. As society moves, the force, plus momentum, moves too far in one direction, which triggers an opposing force which pushes back against the trend. Eventually, balance is reached.

A redefinition of relationships

In this case, the opposing force will be our need for those human factors. Disintermediation won’t kill relationships. But it will force a redefinition of relationships. The challenge here is that existing market relationships were all tied to the “Middle,” which served as the bridge between producers and consumers. Because the Middle owned the end connection with the customer, it formed the relationships that currently exist. Now, as anyone who has experienced bad customer service will tell you, some who lived in the Middle were much better at relationships than others. Joel and Cece may be guilty of looking at our current paradigm through rose-colored glasses. I have encountered plenty of rudeness even with the Middle firmly in place.

But it’s also true that producers, who suddenly find themselves directly connected with their markets, have little experience in forming and maintaining these relationships. However, the market will eventually dictate new expectations for customer service, and producers will have to meet those expectations. One disintermediator, Zappos, figured that out very early in the game.

Ironically, disintermediation will ultimately be good for relationships. Feedback loops are being shortened. Technology is improving our ability to know exactly what our customers think about us. We’re actually returning to a much more intimate marketplace, enabled through technology. Producers are quickly educating themselves on how to create and maintain good virtual relationships. They can’t eliminate customer service, because we, the market, won’t let them. It will take a bit for us to find the new normal, but I venture to say that wherever we find it, we’ll end up in a better place than we are today.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider October 18, 2012