From Abacus to Zendesk: Customer Service through the ages

January 10, 2019

Once upon a time, there was a man named Nanni. One day, he bought copper from another man called Ea-nasir. The transaction didn’t go well for Nanni. Not only was the purchased product mediocre, but the customer service Ea-nasir provided was equally lacking. Upon sending his messengers through enemy territory to seek a refund, Nanni saw them return empty handed. He wrote the sly business man a letter, penned on a clay tablet, to complain.

This story took place in 1750 BC in ancient Mesopotamia. The letter Nanni wrote to Ea-nasir is the oldest complaint ticket ever discovered and can be found at the British Museum. It goes like this:

Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

When you came, you said to me as follows: “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

Looking back 4000 years, it’s reasonable to think that, as long as there have been customers, there’s been customer service. Which essentially means people have been complaining for a very long time.

New phone, with whom am I speaking?

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. He used it for the first time to call his assistant, saying “Mr. Watson, come here — I want to see you.” Up until that point, customer service had been done face to face. It might mean walking to your nearby market to ask why your recently acquired chicken was not laying eggs, or, like Nanni’s men, traveling through enemy territory in the hopes of getting your money back after you’d bought a faulty item.

The telephone single-handedly changed the way customers interact with businesses. Well, not quite. The first telephones were sold in pairs and would only work between each other. Unless you gifted all stores you shopped at with a personal telephone that was connected to your home, they were useless. The real game-changer was the switchboard. In 1894, if you were lucky enough to have been born into a wealthy American family that owned a telephone, complaining got a whole lot easier.

Time went by, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that companies started investing a significant amount of money in departments that were dedicated exclusively to taking the ever increasing number of customer calls and answering their queries. It was the birth of the call center, made possible by the invention of the Private Automated Business Exchange (PABX), the technology that allows for the same access number to provide several lines to outside callers while providing a range of external lines to internal callers. One phone to rule them all, basically.

In 1967, AT&T created the toll free 1-800 number, making it not only easy to contact companies but also free. Yet the call center we’re more familiar with only came to be a few years later, as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology evolved. We know this as the robot voice who picks up the phone when we call our internet provider and lays out a range of options, we can choose from by pressing different numbers. Initially, it was limited to just a small vocabulary but as years went by and newer technology surfaced in the 1980s, it was possible to build more elaborate and complex phone trees.

Towards the end of the 1980s, businesses could no longer afford not to have a call center, so they saw the need to reduce the operational costs this implied. They started moving or setting up teams in low cost locations such as India or the Philippines. Bigger companies would alternatively resort to Business Process Outsourcing (BPOs) that would take over all call center operations for them. While they initially proved to be more cost efficient, BPOs have since faced a lot of challenges trying to keep up with technological advances and customers’ expectations.

Just as humans were perfecting the art of the customer service call, along came the internet, marking the shift from call center to contact center.

Customer Service Agent

You’ve got mail

Contacting customer service nowadays doesn’t take that much effort. Compared to the struggles of Nanni, picking up a phone is pretty straightforward. And compared to talking to a stranger on the phone, writing an e-mail is a walk in the park.

The exponential growth of the internet since its emergence, in 1991, has been helping customers avoid all kinds of unwanted human interaction.

In 1996, when businesses started to build websites, they made it possible for people to contact them in written form via e-mail (regular mail was never a viable option, for some reason). It quickly became a favored communication channel and, by 1997, about 10 million users had a free email accounts.

At this point, the electronic mail had already been around for a while. It was developed back in 1971, by Ray Tomlinson, as a means to send messages from computer to computer on the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, the predecessor to the modern internet).

Despite its popularity, the email was a much slower method than the phone when it came to solving customers’ problems. It implied waiting for an answer for hours, maybe even days, as opposed to calling someone and having them immediately handle your query. Even today, a lot of internet users still find email to be more useful in non-urgent cases, while phone works better in critical situations.

The second half of the 1990s was also the time when companies ventured into the up until then unknown world of live chat.


Computer says yes

Remember when we reached the year 1999 and thought computers wouldn’t be able to deal with dates beyond December 31st? I think we hugely underestimated them.

With the help of computers and the internet, humans have since the turn of the millennium developed CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and other Customer Service systems such as Zendesk. These have made it possible for agents to not only communicate with customers but also have an overview of their interaction history through a range of different channels.

We have also gotten into way too many social networks for our own good, but they’re now a vital part of our daily lives. Customers and businesses alike have naturally turned to social media to interact with each other, share information and solve queries. While phone and email are still the preferred channels in a lot of countries, both social media and live chat are quickly catching up.

It’s hard to predict what will come next in customer service. Will bots fully replace human agents in contact centers? Will companies offer such good products and services that we will no longer need to complain about them? That’s difficult to envision. But I like to think of a better world, where Nanni wouldn’t have had to risk the lives of his men to get a refund. Can you imagine how much easier it would have been for him? Press to consult our return policies, press to speak to an agent.

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