‘The Breakpoint:’ Why Everyone Hates Customer Service. Plus: Easing Anxiety in the Waiting Room

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CUSTOMER SERVICE

New technology helps companies push their customers right to the “breakpoint,” which may be why everyone hates customer service: “Today, companies crunch data and use artificial intelligence to determine exactly how angry a customer has to be to bolt. Many are walking right up to that line. Technologies can track how long a customer will wait for a human to answer the phone and how many ads they will tolerate. They can monitor the tone of a customer’s voice. Companies know what steps they must take to keep shoppers loyal—and which they can skip. This knowledge has contributed to a decline in how customers are treated, say analysts, consultants and former executives. A smaller number make the counter case: that companies are using their better read to improve the customer experience. …

“Some companies now equip call centers with software that analyzes a caller’s tone of voice and pace of speech to determine how upset the person is. Angrier callers get routed to agents skilled at de-escalating conflict, who are in turn warned in advance. San Francisco-based cloud communications provider Dialpad Inc. transcribes call-center conversations in real time, sensing when a call is taking a turn for the worse. That can help prompt a manager to listen in, view the transcript and step in if necessary without having to ask customers to repeat themselves.”

MANAGEMENT

Can you imagine how much money Uber would lose if it compensated its drivers fairly: “Uber set two dubious quarterly records on Thursday as it reported its results: its largest-ever loss, exceeding $5 billion, and its slowest-ever revenue growth. The double whammy immediately renewed questions about the prospects for the company, the world’s biggest ride-hailing business. Uber has been dogged by concerns about sluggish sales and whether it can make money, worries that were compounded by a disappointing initial public offering in May.

“The ride-hailing industry has faced scrutiny in recent months for the way its businesses burn money with no imminent likelihood of profits. Companies must constantly spend freely for incentives to attract passengers and drivers and to fend off competition. Both Uber and its rival Lyft were questioned by investors this year about their business models as they prepared to list on the stock market.”

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STARTUPS

New apps are easing anxiety for relatives in the hospital waiting room: “EASE—which stands for Electronic Access to Surgical Events—buzzes every 30 minutes to remind nurses to send a text, video or photo update to waiting relatives. The updates can include anything from a notification that the patient is under anesthesia to photos of the patient being wheeled into the recovery room. NICU nurses use the app to send photo and video updates to parents when they can’t be at the hospital. Offering families a peek inside the operating room or NICU is part of a broader effort on the part of hospitals to provide more transparency to patients’ families. … EASE co-founder and CEO Patrick de la Roza experienced firsthand the pain of waiting a few months ago when his sister-in-law had a lengthy surgery at a hospital that didn’t offer such a tool. ‘We went six hours without an update,’ he said. ‘If I can track my food on Uber Eats or my package on Amazon, why can’t I track my family member’s condition in the O.R.?’”

CurbFlow is partnering with Washington, D.C., to make street parking less chaotic for businesses, and downtown traffic less congested, through dynamic pricing and real-time alerts: “For the three-month pilot, CurbFlow has established nine locations throughout Washington that … are the most frequented by commercial delivery drivers. T-shirted company ‘ambassadors’ will be stationed at those locations, recording when those spots are occupied, and by whom. … Meanwhile, companies participating in the pilot, which also include some local restaurants and delivery services, will be able to see if those spots are occupied, and reserve them in advance for 30-minute slots. At the end of the pilot, CurbFlow will submit a heat map, showing city officials who’s using those parking spaces, and when. Eventually, it would like to charge to use the spot, just like a parking meter.”

Statespace looks to capitalize on the growing esports market by providing gamers a place to train: “In 2017, Statespace launched out of stealth with their first product, Aim Lab. Aim Lab is meant to mimic the physical rules of a game to give gamers a practice space where they can improve their skills. Moreover, Aim Lab identifies weaknesses in a player’s gameplay—one person might struggle with their visual acuity in the top left quadrant of the screen, while another might have trouble spotting or aiming at targets on the bottom right side of the screen—and allows gamers to focus in on their weaknesses to get better.” 

RETAIL

James Daunt, who saved Waterstones, the UK’s biggest bookseller, from bankruptcy, is now trying to save Barnes & Noble: “He has said little about his plans, but his playbook at Waterstones offers clues about what’s coming. His guiding assumption is that the only point of a bookstore is to provide a rich experience in contrast to a quick online transaction. And for now, the experience at Barnes & Noble isn’t good enough. ‘Frankly, at the moment you want to love Barnes & Noble, but when you leave the store you feel mildly betrayed,’ Mr. Daunt said over lunch at a Japanese restaurant near his office in Piccadilly Circus. ‘Not massively, but mildly. It’s a bit ugly—there’s piles of crap around the place. It all feels a bit unloved, the booksellers look a bit miserable, it’s all a bit run down.’ … 

“Barnes & Noble flailed, in part, because it contested Amazon’s turf, investing heavily in e-commerce and losing more than $1 billion on the Nook, a competitor to the Kindle. Waterstones has spruced up its website ‘on a shoestring,’ Mr. Daunt said, and it now accounts for five percent of sales. But the company has largely persisted by selling the pleasure of bookstores first and books second.”

CANNABUSINESS

Arizona Beverage, the maker of Arizona Iced Tea brand, is getting into marijuana through a partnership with Colorado-based Dixie Brands: “Plans for the Arizona line are in the early stages. It is likely to start with vape pens and gummies, followed by a variety of beverages that could include tea, lemonade, soda, coffee or seltzer, officials said. … Arizona, a privately held company, is hoping to get a head start in the US cannabis market over big, publicly-traded beverage makers that are taking a more cautious approach. … ‘You’ve got to be willing to try things,’ said Don Vultaggio, Arizona’s chairman and CEO, who runs the company with his two sons. ‘The upside is we’re one of the first ones in an emerging space.’”

OXFORD STRATEGIC ADVISORY DEAL OF THE DAY

The Vitamin Shoppe, a specialty retailer of nutritional products has agreed to be acquired by Liberty Tax, a provider of tax preparation services. The Vitamin Shoppe will be acquired for $208 million, .18x revenue and and 3.18x EBITDA. “Liberty Tax said it intends to continue to evaluate the acquisition of franchise-oriented or complementary businesses, including businesses that are not presently subject to franchising arrangements but that have the potential to be franchised in the future.”

COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE

Retail spaces in Boston are being repurposed into game rooms, museum spaces, and social media meccas: “Reality Zombie, a mixed reality shoot-’em-up game, appeared at CambridgeSide. Why? Virtual reality is suited for a larger space where you can move freely; the smaller-square-footage living that predominates around here isn’t naturally amenable to this kind of at-home play. Trapology, Escape the Room, and Room Escapers have all taken up space in Downtown Crossing. And there’s Boxaroo on Court Street. It’s a natural next step to see virtual reality games and escape rooms take over larger spaces formerly occupied by big-box retailers.”

SUSTAINABILITY

Wood pellets might be an alternative to coal, but researchers say they actually create more air pollution: “The growth has been focused in Europe, where many utilities receive incentives for using power sources the European Union deems carbon neutral. Those sources currently include solar, wind and wood. … A lawsuit filed with Europe’s General Court in March charged that the EU policy will increase greenhouse-gas emissions and damage forests, one of the world’s largest natural absorbers of carbon. The lawsuit was filed by a group of scholars, advocacy organizations and European and US landowners who want the EU to make the burning of forest wood ineligible for member states’ renewable-energy targets and subsidies.”

FOOD AND BEVERAGE

Not to nitpick, but are plant-based burgers actually nutritious? “The Beyond Burger has less saturated fat than the beef or Impossible Burger (six grams), but a similar calorie count, with 250 calories per patty. But a turkey burger has only four to five grams of saturated fat, and 220 to 240 calories, depending on the brand. And a grain-based veggie burger that’s not attempting to mimic meat has only 150 to 160 calories, and only about 1 gram of saturated fat, and is therefore healthiest overall from a fat standpoint. … The faux-meat burgers also rank higher in sodium than the beef and turkey burgers, with the Impossible Burger containing 370 milligrams of sodium, and the Beyond Burger containing 390 milligrams.”

And that’s what’s ahead.

Please send comments and suggestions to mattg@oxfordcenter.com and lfeldman@oxfordcenter.com.

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