The Now Consumer: Fit into My Life


The NOW Consumer expects superior, personalized serviceCan I let you in on an embarrassing little secret? I’m late paying my gas bill. Again. In fact, I’m late with this particular bill so often that I’m practically on a first-name basis with the IVR that answers their 1-800-please-don’t-shut-off-my-hot-water number. (I call her Ivy.)

The problem has nothing to do with my checking account balance (honest!), and I want to pay it on time – I really do. The problem is their billing cycle. It just doesn’t work for me. Without fail, my gas bill shows up a few days after I’ve already finished paying the rest of the monthly bills that all had the decency to arrive at a more convenient-for-me time, so I set it aside and promptly forget to deal with it until I find it again at the bottom of the next month’s “pay me” pile. Late. Again.

So because I am a fan of hot showers, this month I decided to try and do something proactive about the situation.

“Hey Ivy,” I said to my automated BFF as she was rattling off numbers to press. “I’d like to see about changing the payment date on my bill. Is that something you can do for me?”

Ivy hesitated. “For all other inquiries,” she replied, “please stay on the line.”

Today’s consumers view requests such as changing a billing date, lowering an interest rate, or waiving a service charge or fee as a fairly routine aspect of customer service, but I’m old enough to remember a time when asking a company to accommodate you was not routine at all. Your due date was your due date. If you didn’t like your interest rate you could take your business elsewhere. And good luck arguing your way out of a fee once it had been applied.

My expectations are different now than they were 20 years ago, and it’s no coincidence that Millennials have been gradually taking up more and more of the market share during this period. Trends that evolved to address Millennials’ expectations have universally helped shape the highly personalized, customer-first service industry we now know. In fact, as I sat with the phone pressed to my ear listening to looping hold music, I couldn’t help thinking how much I would much rather have made this simple change online, to my own account, if the gas company had only offered me that option.

That preference places me squarely within the 73% of consumers, from Millennials to Boomers and beyond, who would rather handle customer service issues themselves than talk to an agent. Maybe in 1998, when I was first discovering that I am unable to pay the gas bill on time, companies would have filed a customer preference like that under “LOL” (and maybe thought that meant “lots of luck”). But now, businesses not only want to know your preferences, they view them as valuable insights that can lead to greater satisfaction and revenue.

What’s more, customer expectations make up norms that transcend industries. When I’m dissatisfied with the service I receive from my gas company, I’m not evaluating that service based on other utilities I’ve done business with. I’m dissatisfied because it doesn’t measure up to the service I received from my dentist’s office, or my local bike shop, or Amazon, or Disney World, or that Thai place everybody keeps talking about. Whoever sets the bar highest is setting it for businesses across the board. Customer satisfaction is a continually moving target. The more consumers demand that businesses conform to fit into their lives, the more businesses are compelled to deliver, and what was once exceptional service becomes simply expected.

Chris O'Brien