The Washington Times - February 22, 2012, 05:40AM

Almost every reader “of a certain age,” as the saying goes — and probably many younger readers, too — can relate a story, or a dozen, of lousy customer service online or on the telephone. It’s not just “outsourcing,” it seems; it’s also the fact that people don’t know how business works.

One example: a pizza delivery outfit in my neighborhood really messed up an order. I complained, and got a call back from the store’s “manager.” It took 20 minutes of back-and-forth on the phone before said manager got the idea that maybe, just maybe, they need to retrain certain people in how things are done.


Now there may be an explanation for some of these issues: We’re all so busy tweeting and texting each other that we’re forgetting how to, well, speak with other people. If you’re younger than 25, a study in Britain reveals, your “phone phobia” may keep you out of some jobs, or at least require some retraining.

But if pizza is an annoyance, think about what happens when it comes to technology. Yes, as I pointed out in last week’s “On Computers” column, you can noodle around on the Web and find many answers to tech problems. At the same time, a small (or large) enterprise rightly expects a level of service for things such as Web hosting, networks and large computer installations that goes beyond a “FAQ” page on some website.

Here’s how British data firm UKFast put it:

Young people in business are less likely to pick up the phone than their older counterparts, which could be putting their employers at a financial disadvantage.   

The millennial generation has become accustomed to digital communication and developed a fear of the phone that could cause businesses to alienate their clients — particularly older customers who associate quality customer service with a personal approach.

“For so many businesses, their main contacts within client-businesses — the key decision makers — are from the generation where a phone call or a face-to-face meeting is valued more highly than an email,” explained Jonathan Bowers, communications director at hosting and cloud specialist UKFast.

“Being able to pick up the phone and chat with someone, or have a face-to-face meeting with people is a rarity in the younger-generations,” Bowers continues.

Those on the “front lines” of customer relations clearly eye the “smartphone” as something that’s dumbing people down, according to the UKFast news release:

Ronnie Brown, managing partner at marketing agency Quirk London, explained: “I think it’s a misnomer to call them phones now — considering 23% of global Web traffic last year came from mobile devices.

“With email and instant messaging services, getting a 25-year-old to pick up the phone is a real challenge. The younger generation feels rude calling people because they are interrupting their day. They would rather send an email and give the opportunity to deal with at their convenience than disrupt their day with a phone call.”

Rob Smith, Marketing Manager, Blue Leaf described how although young people’s attitudes towards two-way communication have changed, there is still strong demand from clients for a personal approach.

“My clients and the people that we deal with on a day-to-day basis really appreciate the telephone contact that we have with them — we do use email, but this is generally for admin and such.

“I may be a young dinosaur, but for me there is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation.”

What are the consequences? You may be technically brilliant, but if you can’t speak clearly and confidently to a customer, your career success may be somewhat limited, the UKFast people say.

The generation gap between preferred methods of communication for younger and older people is causing a continued struggle within the workplace as phone-friendly employees become harder to find.

Bowers explained: “We look for a certain type of person when recruiting for UKFast and we’re finding it more and more difficult to find people who can translate the sparkle that they have in person over the phone.

“Even in a fast paced digital world, businesses need to maintain that personal touch. UKFast sets targets for its account management team based on time spent on phone calls with clients and the number of face to face meetings that take place to make sure it lives up to its promise to deliver a dedicated and personal service.

“More and more we have to retrain people to be confident enough to use the phone over other forms of communication.”

Like Rob Smith of Blue Leaf, I may be a “young dinosaur,” but I can see both trouble and opportunity on the horizon here. Trouble for companies that need to service customers and customer accounts; opportunity for those who figure out how to help solve this.