Customer service via the gig economy is a hot mess. Here's how and why.

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer January 30, 2017
First hand experience of the gig economy as the way brands are subcontracting essential after sales services is proving to be little short of a nightmare. Here's my salutary tale.

Customer service as represented by the gig economy is an #epicfail. My wife and I recently bought a newer home – my first in 27 years. While it’s a great place, we needed to get some things fixed, changed or installed before the furniture gets moved. In the last month, we’ve needed a number of tradespeople that included:
  • Electrician
  • Plumber
  • Curtain /blinds retailers/installers
  • Water Softener installer
  • Carpet installer
  • Furniture delivery
  • Appliance repair
  • Cable/Internet install
  • New bed delivery
  • Movers
  • Satellite TV
  • Floor repair

How did we find them? Online review/referral sites, big box home improvement store referrals/installation services, contractor referrals, realtor referrals, company websites, etc. It's the way of the 21st century - right?

In the process, we got a crash course in the gig economy and at scale as fewer companies today use any of their own employees to do much of anything in these industry segments. Huge numbers of people are doing this work but aren’t really employed by these companies.

How did it go? Badly. Here’s what I/we learned and the lessons the gig economy doesn’t get right yet:

  • Accountability must be there or the gig nation will collapse – Of the dozens of people we contacted and arranged to have visit our new home, approximately 40% of them never showed. Worse, when they did arrive, only a handful ever bothered to follow-up with quotes/prices. If you won’t show up or follow through, what are you doing? If a firm wants us to take their independent subcontractors seriously, then they need to find subcontractors who take their service delivery seriously!
  • A number of independents balk at larger projects – These folks will come out and talk about the work but won’t quote it as they can’t do it (and do their full-time job) or can’t get anyone to help them complete it. By the way, none of these projects would even last one day. The gig-sters we dealt with often had other jobs and were very picky about which additional ones they may or may not take on. The result for the customer is a frustrating experience that wastes the customer’s time. It also hurts the brand of both the independent and the firm that acts as the general contractor.
  • A number of independents are jack of all trades and masters of none – One person who advertised himself as a flooring expert told me that he needed to “do some internet research” to see if he could learn how to fix our floor. When I mentioned that this wasn’t acceptable, he then tried to sell me his house painting, drywall repair and other capabilities. I saw a few of these folks and didn’t hire a one.
  • Companies that use subcontractors must understand how poor subcontractor behavior adversely affects their brand – This is clearly one major area that firms have got to get right. At this point, neither my wife nor I will do any additional business with a couple of big box home improvement stores as their subcontractors have repeatedly done us wrong. One badly damaged our new wooden floors and won’t accept responsibility for the damage he and his colleague did. We may have to sue them (as the big box retailer refuses to get involved). The first (yes, that’s right, the FIRST) cable provider I chose came to my new house and was more than 3 hours late. While in my attic, the installer pushed a light fixture through the ceiling of the master bathroom. Then, he told me that it was getting late and I’d have to get another installer to finish things. The second installer told me that he didn’t fish lines down walls and I’d have to get a third installer. The third one arrived hours late and high as a kite (Apparently, one of the advantages of being an independent subcontractor is that you don’t have to take a drug test). At that point, I gathered up all of this company’s equipment and dropped service with them. I’ll never do business with them as their subcontractors are major liability risks to me and my property.
  • Scheduling of services should be painless, not painful – When we dealt directly with several firms/contractors, we were able to agree on a service date and, thankfully, it usually happened (although delays were quite the norm). When we contracted for services that were going to be delivered by a ‘qualified’, ‘authorized’, ‘certified’, etc. subcontractor, we almost never knew when the service would actually occur. It turns out that many retail firms (i.e., home electronic, home improvement, furniture, etc.) contract all of this work to subcontractors but do not have access to the resource management, scheduling or skills databases of these subcontractors. What this means is that you, the customer, pay for services in the store but can’t get scheduled. It shouldn’t take me four additional trips back to one store to get someone to light a fire under the dispatcher to get the services I already paid for. Likewise, my wife and I have made over seven calls and visits to a major home improvement store to learn when our carpet is going to ever get installed. In re-engineering terms, all of this wasted time and effort is called non-value added (NVA) time. I’ve already accumulated weeks of it and will likely encounter a lot more, too. NVA is like a bad omni-channel retail experience – they both are avoidable and do irreparable brand damage. Clearly, the executives at these firms have never used their own ‘services’. If I have to come back to a retailer twice, I should be dealing with a regional Vice President. If I have to come in three times, I should be talking to the CEO. If I still can’t get things moving, I’m going to social media and the press. Troubleshooting and problem solving should be store level competencies not well-guarded dodges.
  • Don’t allow employees to pass the buck – Store employees love to tell me excuses like:
    • they can’t do anything as dispatching is centrally controlled
    • they can’t do anything as they must follow the chain of command (Oh, and whoever you/they need to speak to is never there!)
    • they can’t do anything as this rests with the subcontractor (although they sold it as their service!)
    • they can’t reach the subcontractor but they’ll leave them a voice message and maybe they’ll respond
    • their dispatchers keep bankers’ hours
    • their subcontractors keep bankers’ hours
    • their management keeps bankers’ hours
    • they don’t know what’s happening to our order
    • the dog must have eaten our order….

No matter what the problem is, a business must have information as to a service request, and, equally important, a means to escalate the matter. Without escalation and adverse consequences, there is no visibility into problems and nothing is getting resolved. The customer, without a doubt, is the big loser here.

  • Unskilled workers are getting dispatched – My second television service provider sent out a person who had never completed the kind of work I needed with my work order. Yes, he had taken a class on the matter but who wants their house, walls, wiring, etc. to be the one someone is learning on? I wanted to see the credentials of everyone coming into my home. I didn’t get this. I did learn to quickly interview the people who arrived and sent some home as they did not convince me that they had the requisite skills and knowledge to complete the work professionally and accurately. I was fine though with one firm that sent an installer and his new apprentice. I respect the need for people to learn and gain experience but there are ways to do so that mitigates potential downside risk to the customer.
  • Not all referrals are good – We’ve learned that the best referrals often came from other trades people and not online systems. One tradesman tipped us off to a great plumber who tipped us to a great electrician. Online referral sources have been poor at best. One of those top picks showed up to complete a 10 minute door reversal on a dryer. An hour and a half later, that person, whose dispatcher swore he’d done dozens of these projects on that equipment, had to call in another tech. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the two of them tried to make the transaction become an under the counter deal. UGH! We’ve been disappointed with online ‘experts’ in floor repair and other trades.
  • Businesses are using independents as a way to shield them from any liability – This is particularly insidious. While companies brand these services as theirs, they really aren’t. You might pay money to the retailer and the delivery/work truck might have their logos on it, but, the harsh reality is that it is an independent contractor who will do the work and is responsible for any damage they create. Do all of these independents carry insurance? Are they bonded? Will they stand behind their work? What I’ve experienced is that they won’t and that I will no longer deal with them. I will only contract directly with firms who use their own employees and carry appropriate insurance.
  • Processes are clearly broken in these firms - Some of the breakdown points include:
    • Customers are placing orders and leaving stores without a scheduled service date. This requires additional calls and visits by the customer and the store – verdict: #epicfail
    • Customers can’t check on the status of their service request online – You have to go back to the store and raise a stink – Even then, they might not know – verdict: #epicfail
    • Store employees don’t know the order or service delivery status – verdict: #epicfail
    • Service providers can’t provide adequate delivery windows (if they provide any information at all) – verdict: #epicfail
    • Service providers don’t clock in to your work order when they eventually arrive on site – They don’t get reprimanded for being hours late (or not showing up at all). No one cares. Worse, the retailers that co-brand them don’t seem to think this is a problem either. – verdict: #epicfail
    • There isn’t a way to report damage caused by service providers – If you can’t report it, then it’s like it never happened – verdict: #epicfail
    • Service providers don’t respond to phone calls or don’t do so in a timely fashion – verdict: #epicfail
  • Systems are missing – How can firms sell services without visibility into the experience, skills and availability of the service professionals? PSA (professional services automation) software has been around since the late 1990s but it doesn’t appear to be in wide use. Schedulers don’t really seem to know how long it takes projects to be completed (another project management or scheduling software deficiency) nor do they collect statistics and estimating factors to get better numbers in the future. Add this to the schedulers’ lack of geographic knowledge (they have no idea how long it will take a person to travel from one service call to another) and you’ll understand why the best guesstimate you’ll get as to a service time is 12-5 pm plus or minus 3 hours. Let’s get some GPS smarts into these scheduling systems and the windows down to a 2 hours or less!
  • Systems are getting gamed – My confidence in online ratings or referrals is non-existent now. These sites don’t really vet the providers and/or contain bogus rankings. What good is an independent you source from one of these sites if they don’t show up or won’t return calls? These people/firms should be removed from these sites until they can demonstrate a real customer-focused attention to business. All of these bad apples are ruining things for the great independents and the potential customers who would like to use them.
  • Systems are not integrated – The retailer, dispatcher, subcontractor and other systems clearly are not integrated in most firms I encountered. Islands of automation are everywhere but cross-system visibility is non-existent. Can someone please get a quality systems integrator into these companies!?
  • The standard for service should be excellent (and not abysmal) – On several different occasions I told the big box folks that “my clients expect perfection from me and I only expect retailers to rise to the level of mediocrity”. Unfortunately, these firms did not meet even that low standard. It’s clear that retailers and service firms don’t really know how to measure an excellent customer experience (CX). Hint: it begins at the order taking and ends after the successful completion of the service. Quit asking me every single time I call in to complain, schedule service or get a problem resolved if I’d like to take a short interactive phone survey. Your firm clearly doesn’t understand or use the data it collects. Worse, it isn’t measuring the right things at the right time.

My take

This month-long, intense peek at the independent services world was sobering, disheartening, frustrating and eye-opening. I have new respect for the likes of Uber and others that try to build whole product solutions and work to eliminate friction from the customer experience.

What I often experienced were poorly thought-out processes, incomplete systems and a recipe for further brand damage. When I did encounter a great professional, they were a breath of fresh air. Thanks to all the good people in that category.

If you are a systems integrator, mobile/web app designer, etc., you should find a lot of work in the services space as companies desperately need solutions that VERY closely tie them to the systems and people who perform these critical front-line services. The in-store systems don’t talk to the contractor solutions and neither of these talks to any kind of mobile application.

All of these retailers need a refresher course in business process re-engineering and in what it takes to create a real, positive customer experience. To do this though, they will need to crowbar the executives of these firms out of their ivory tower, put them in someone’s living room and have them wait there for a few days to see if any service provider actually shows up.

Recognizing that different service professionals cover different geographic markets, I chose not to single out any of the people or firms in this piece. Instead, I kept this professional and instructive. However, if you want more detail, you’re more than welcome to contact me via email and I’d be happy to add the missing color.

Editor's endnote: Brian might want to take some lessons from Den who has a similar and rather more extensive set of upcoming house related issues. He's got a project manager on the case.