There have been many incorrect assumptions made about customer preferences as the world has grown a digital core; chief among them is that customers will no longer want human assistance with the brands they patronize. In fact, the opposite has been shown to be true, assisted contact volumes have not dried up, and never will, and customers value assisted service more than ever before. The problem was just that customers didn’t want to have to call (or email or chat) for every. single. little. problem. Though it’s not perfect, we’ve begun to find balance in the ways we interact with customers, and the average customer is comfortable engaging in a multitude of channels, depending on the issue they’re trying to solve and stage of their journey. For example, a customer may initiate an action like a return via an assisted chat and then follow up to track their exchange online.
However, one thing has become a clear trend in the wake of the pandemic (can we say wake yet?): assisted service has a distinctly digital path forward. The long-standing love/hate relationship with live chat seems to be in a love phase once again. Customers and service organizations are increasingly utilizing the channel, fueled by a desire amongst younger generations to communicate in non-voice mediums. Live chat as a stand-alone is, however, becoming rapidly obsolete, being replaced with messaging that supports a variety of digital communications. How humans connect has also changed, by the end of 2021 over 90 percent of the global internet population use a mobile device to go online according to Statista.
This move toward digital communication has put a feeling of disconnection in the relationship between brands and their customers at a time when they’re critical to growth objectives. This relationship is increasingly at risk as costs of switching brands continue to decline. So how can you keep connected with customers in this digital-first age?
If customer service is to transform from “necessary but unsightly cost-center” to “center stage in the company growth strategy” we must be willing to embrace digital-first connection and focus on creating continuous conversations which are driven by contextual data. In order to fulfill our potential as a growth lever, service leaders must harness these four approaches to deliver value to customers in the digital world:
1. Pursue a Human-Centric Technology Strategy
Technology has always existed to enable humans to achieve outcomes faster and easier. At some point, we diverged from this mission and many in the service industry sought to replace humans with technology. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the application of chatbots and virtual assistants. While these technologies hold immense potential to improve our organizations, that will be achieved through reduction of redundant and low-value tasks and enablement of better human-to-human connections. The next phase of improvements should begin from the inside-out, focusing investments on the agent experience and identifying the roadblocks that get in the way of your agents building or deepening relationships with your customers. Begin by observing agent workflows and noting when they’re focused on the screen/system/tab instead of the customer. For many customers, that interaction with your agent could be the only time they truly engage with your company, and you want your agent’s attention to be entirely on the customer.
2. Put Your Data into Action
It’s no secret that an experience which feels tailored to the customer’s needs is better. When companies are able to show customers that they understand their situation and educate them on the ROI of being a customer, not only is the experience lower effort but it’s also higher value to the customer (and company).
To create personalized experiences brands must be able to acknowledge past contacts, reference context on their relationship and recommend relevant next steps; in other words it needs to be driven by data. But even more importantly, customer data needs to be presented to agents in ways they can actually use. Information such as a timeline of recent contacts (with access to notes), the last few purchases and overall customer spend, must be embedded within your agent interface to be useful. But data should not just flow into customer conversations, each interaction presents an opportunity to learn insights which can be used well beyond customer service. Analysis of customer intents should lead other parts of the business to investigate root causes and make fixes. Changes in customer sentiment or perceived personal ROI should be used to create more effective Marketing messages. And customer frustrations with products or policies should lead to changes. When brands put their data into action, using insights to teach customers how to maximize the value they get from the products or services on offer, customer trust and confidence grows. When customers trust your brand, they stay longer, spend more and happily tell others about your brand, the trifecta of customer loyalty.
3. Create a Dialogue
In the digital-first world, service cannot be transactional, and customers do not appreciate when they’re treated as tickets (really, they never have). As new means of communication have been introduced into the market customers have tried, and will continue to try, each and every way of connecting with a company. Unfortunately, as new channels have been added, they’ve often been added as “bolt-ons” creating silos in both our customer and agent experiences. Customers using many different channels is not necessarily a bad thing, it only becomes a high-effort experience when it feels fractured, with customers frequently stopping and starting (over) on their journey to resolution. Leaders must embrace this journey and view their contacts as an ongoing dialogue, the simple back-and-forth which happens in any other type of relationship. Humans today communicate in fluid ways. Imagine texting a friend, getting to a point in the conversation where it just makes more sense to give them a call, but when you do, they have no idea what you were texting about. That’s often what it feels like to customers who need (for a multitude of reasons) to “pick resolution up” at a later time. Perhaps the issue required some investigation on your part. Or the customer had to go pickup their child from school during the middle of a chat conversation. Creating an ongoing conversation means that customers & agents must be able to flow between channels without losing a step. Taking a channel-agnostic view of your customers is a good start to avoiding siloed contacts. This will allow your organization agility in workflows and workforce – quickly able to meet shifting customer needs and transition conversations from one channel to another. Such an approach should also focus on easily adjustable customer flow builders, options for “same agent” routing and embedded contextual information to make conversations personal.
4. Get Proactive!
Though customers may not be asking for you to reach out to them, they value proactive service when they get it. Proactive outreach puts the company in the driver’s seat, giving leaders control over the conversation and potential avenues to engage with customers. In line with approach #2 above, service leaders should be utilizing their customer data platform to identify opportunities to engage customers with service agents. The best use cases for proactive contact will not be surprising: solving problems customers are not yet aware of (or where they have not taken any action) and teaching customers to appreciate unused aspects of your products. In both cases, an initial digital outreach is the most logical first step. Leaders should have predefined, and measurable, actions which they would like to achieve through proactive contact. This should include both a company-preferred channel path which can be self-service, assisted or some combination of both. Company outreach should be triggered by some type of action, or inaction, by the customer. For example, you’re a meal-box delivery service, and begin noticing a spike in contacts about an ingredient in your latest box; let’s say it was an unfamiliar ingredient. Despite the spike in volume, it’s more likely that you’re not hearing from even half the customers experiencing this issue. Adding an automated email to “impacted” customers, with assurances on the ingredient, and a clear pathway for the customer to take action (such as a replacement ingredient) will build customer confidence, even if no action is taken.
While many customer service norms have changed in the transition to a digital-first world, one thing has remained constant. Great service is built on a foundation of clear communication, helpful humans, and easy resolution. Keeping these principles at the forefront of your strategy will help you to build long-lasting relationships with your customers, no matter what new technological advancements come next.