Yellin's Book on the Problem with Customer Service

After death, taxes and inclement weather, it's one of life's most inescapable downers: the customer-service call. Getting help can be an automated hell, an eternity of Muzak, code punching and security questions. Which is why the title of Emily Yellin's customer-friendly romp through this unfriendly world rings so true: "Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us."

The Idea: Americans make 43 billion "help" calls each year, making customer service a crucial part of business. But for corporations, it's often an afterthought or a chance to save a buck. The result is widespread dysfunction, far-flung call centers and operators paid for the number of calls they take rather than the quality of their service. But in an era when bloggers can exact public revenge, Yellin argues, customer service should be treated like "the new marketing."

The Evidence: Employing a live American agent costs about $7.50 per call, compared with just 35 cents for a machine. But the kings of customer service (FedEx, Zappos) still build their systems around humans—like the Mormon housewives Yellin finds on the other end of JetBlue's 1-800 line. Some of the worst offenders (Comcast, AOL, Sprint) use people too, but they tend to thwart customers and cancel service for those who complain too much.

The Conclusion: As companies look to cut costs in a down economy, they should think twice about slashing service. Otherwise their phones might stop ringing altogether.