Anyone who is in charge of a business — whether that be a multinational enterprise or the local store — knows one certainty. This is the fact that customers — happy, delighted, and loyal customers — are the key to success! Whatever line of business you are in — whether you actually make a product or deliver a service, you know instinctively that the number one goal that you and everyone around you should have each and every day should be simple: how can we serve our customers better!
Now today, when we talk about, read about, or pay to attend a fancy conference on “customer service,” much of the emphasis is on the “whiz-bang” technology available to serve customers “better.” Yes, today there is more tech that enables customers to connect with companies — and vice versa — in more ways than ever before. And in many ways, the tech that we have presently — and what is to come in the near future — is the stuff of science fiction just a decade or two ago.
The Great Leap
We are really in the midst of a real revolution in terms of the technology that is available for companies to better serve their customers. And so far, customers have not just been willing and eager to make use of new ways of interacting with the companies they do business with, as in many cases, customers are themselves driving this transformation of customer service.
The statistics are simple amazing — and abundant — as to just how much the customer service game has changed in just a relatively short amount of time — and just how important the customer experience is to all businesses today! According to Microsoft’s most recent, extremely comprehensive State of Global Customer Service Report, in the U.S:
- 98% of consumers hold customer service as an important factor in choosing a brand, and over 60% of those surveyed had stopped doing business with a company due to a “poor” customer service experience;
- Americans have ever-rising expectations when it comes to their own experiences, with a strong majority of consumers expecting companies to be able to deliver better and better customer service each and every year;
- Fully 70% of Americans today expect that customer service representatives should be able to have complete knowledge of who they are and their history in dealing with the firm, in whatever form they are interacting with the company, but this only happens 30% of the time! They also consistently cite that dealing with a person who does not have the knowledge and/or authority to resolve their issue is the most frustrating aspect of their interactions with customer service representatives;
- Over half of all Americans (54%) have used between 3 and 5 different channels to communicate with companies on customer service matters, with approximately 1 in 10 every ten of us reporting that they had used an amazing 6 — or more — channels!
- Self-service is becoming the de facto standard today for customer service, and people seem, overall, to prefer to be able to access customer service features without the need for a company representative to help them do so. Fully 88% of those surveyed expect the organizations they deal with to offer self-service options. When needing customer service — for whatever the reason, 61% of Americans look to self-service options first, with a clear minority — 39% — looking to engage with a “live” company agent right off the bat.
Today, customers are literally voting with their fingers on their phones, laptops, and tablets to select their personal “channels of choice” when it comes to dealing with companies and their customer service operations. They are looking to have the best possible “total experience,” and their expectations as to what constitutes a good experience, let alone a “best in class” one, are constantly changing — and rising! They are selecting customer service on their terms — using the channels they personally prefer, whenever they want to and wherever they choose to do so in our 24/7/365 world. The days when customer service was only one channel, a toll-free number that was only staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pacific time are long gone — and to that, most everyone would simply say, “thank God!”
Indeed, one of the big buzzwords emerging today in the world of marketing and customer service is the “omnichannel” concept. This is the idea that we are not just talking about one, two or three ways in which the consumer can interact with companies and brands, but multiple channels, which can — and are — often being used simultaneously and in tandem with one another. From automated voice systems to email to text messaging to Facebook to Twitter to cobrowsing to sharing screens to live chat to chatbots (constantly improving with developments in artificial intelligence), customers and companies are finding new and innovative ways to connect — for the better. And yet, how companies perceive — and market — their customer service channels is far, far different from the perception of their customers, for whom the idea of the omnichannel literally has no meaning — or value — whatsoever. In fact, writing recently in Forbes, Shep Hyken, the author of The Convenience Revolution, observed that the bottom-line — from the customer’s perspective — is that:
“Customers don’t care about terminology; all they care about is being able to connect with the brand however they want to. It doesn’t matter if it’s online chat (or a chatbot), a social channel like Twitter, a messaging app or even the traditional telephone. To the customer it’s all the same. They just want the most convenient (to them) way to connect to the company and get what they want — quickly and easily.”
Think about how different — and better — a customer service interaction with a software company can routinely be carried out today as opposed to just a few short years ago. Five to ten years ago, when you had a problem with a program or needed help with a technical issue, you had to call into the company and describe to the firm’s customer service representative/technician — or its outside third-party provider — what you were seeing on your laptop of computer — in your language. Then, based on what they were hearing from you, he or she would have to try and coach you through steps to resolve the issue, all the while translating and interpolating the two different languages often being used by the customer and the technician. These were often long calls, which most consumers would not exactly describe as “pleasant” or “satisfying.” Aggravating all of this is the fact that only one channel — voice — was being employed. Thus, this situation was ripe for almost certain communication difficulties to ensue as both the customer and the company’s representative were essentially “flying blind” when it comes to what exactly the issue was and even worse, using uncommon language to try and “solve” the issue. Bless all those reps who had to try and resolve people’s computer problems when they were only able to tell them things like, “Well, I plugged the little thingamabob into the doohickey…”
In contrast today, when a consumer has a problem, they can choose from a variety of ways to initiate contact with the company to try and solve their particular problem — at a time convenient to them. Whether they choose to begin their interaction with an email, a Facebook or Twitter posting, a live chat with a person or a bot on the company’s website, or yes, even still a phone call, the ability to employ multiple channels to communicate makes for a much richer experience — and one that is likely to be far shorter, far more likely to resolve their issue or concern, and yes, far more satisfying. By simply having the ability to share photos or screenshots of what is happening on the customer’s side of things all the way to actually sharing a screen with or letting the representative take control of the user’s device, the bottom-line is that these interactions are far more likely to produce “successful” results in the mind of the customer. And with rapid advances in artificial intelligence, automated systems can often anticipate the customer’s needs with routine and repetitive issues, and chats with bots are likely to be even harder to differentiate from those with a real, live human being.
Take for example, Tim Sandle, writing for the Digital Journal, who recently reported that banks than employ technology that enables richer and more robust two-way communications between their call center agents and their customers have seen key customer service metrics improve dramatically. By enabling their customer service representatives to share screens with clients, exchange documents between them, and execute signed agreements online, this has produced significant gains in both customer satisfaction and conversion rates (i.e. sales) for financial institutions, along with the ability to cut transaction times in half! All this means that the tech choices being employed today — if done wisely — can make customer service not just more efficient, but more effective in producing real, tangible returns to the organization in the form of more satisfied — and therefore more loyal, more frequent — customers, who in the age of social media will tell their friends, and so on, and so on, and so on as things go in the world we live, work, and yes, compete in today.
Success is thus the key metric we should strive to achieve in customer service today, with the consumers really having control over the channel(s) used to interact with companies today. The customer service equation however has not changed from time immemorial, in that good things tend to spring from “successful” customer encounters — whether online, in person, or even with a bot!
So when it comes to improving customer service, there are three truths today that will not change, no matter how much technology is involved and how many different service channels we make available to customers and prospective buyers. These should be at the forefront of any discussion in companies of any size when it comes to how do we make the omnichannel world of customer service work best for us — and for our customers:
- Tech should be an enabler, not a goal, for better customer service. Company leaders should focus not so much on how we can add new channels for customers to communicate with us, but how we can use these channels — both individually and in interesting combinations — to better serve both current and prospective clients.
- Personalized service is key. What is hard for us “old school” people to understand is that ironically today, personalized service does not have to be personal! Often times in fact, Millennials and those who are tech-savvy can come away from a customer service interaction with a company more satisfied if they deal with an automated, but personalized system, rather than talking to a real, live human being!
- Customer service is easier — and harder — than ever before (and it will only get harder…). In an omnichannel world, there are more opportunities to make things work better. However, there are also a world of ways in which your company can fail — and fail big — in using these tech tools. And in the social media age, even one disgruntled — and motivated — customer can do great damage to your brand and your image. And so managers need to constantly strive to use the new ways that they can communicate with their customers and monitor these interactions like never before to try and work toward high quality, successful interactions with their customers.
There are more tech tools today in the customer service world than ever before — and likely, five years from now, customers will find even more new and exciting ways to connect with the companies they are or are considering doing business with. The challenge — and opportunity — for all companies is to imagine they can work with these channels to actually make for better customer experiences, both now and in the future.
There’s no choice in all of this. There’s no “if” in the matter. Your customers are expecting more. Your competitors are doing more. Right now is the time to get moving to explore how you and your company can not just survive, but thrive, in the new world of customer service.
About the Author
David Wyld (email@example.com) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness.
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