Accommodating today’s always-connected, app-enabled customers who interact with brands through multiple devices requires turning many of our thoughts about customer service inside-out.

More than two-thirds of customer experience professionals say their firms seek to differentiate based on customer experience. Increasingly, that experience occurs online through a variety of devices -- smartphones, tablets, PC’s, laptops and even internet-enabled televisions, DVD players and game consoles.

No longer is it confined to the walls of bricks-and-mortar stores or calls from telephone landlines as customers switch back-and-forth between devices throughout the day, often deciding which one to use by their goal, location or time-constraints. 

My company recently commissioned two studies to take a close look at frustration points in the online customer experience. The results confirmed that in our technology-centric culture, the highest and best use of technology is to automate as much as possible, yet facilitate human contact in the instances when it is most needed and desired.

The new industry standard for customer service is to ensure that customers are always just a tap away from speaking with a specialist who knows who they are and exactly how to help.

A Closer Look

The studies looked at two kinds of online customer interactions: financial apps used by customers to help manage their money, and online shopping apps and websites used for online purchasing.

Customer service is an especially important differentiator in the financial industry because products and services are very similar. Customers rely on financial apps to accomplish a wide range of important and time-sensitive tasks. Checking a bank account balance, transferring funds, paying bills and viewing transaction history are the top four most frequently performed tasks.

The number one and number two frustrations with financial apps are the same most-hated problems as those for users of all kinds of apps: the app freezing and a dropped internet connection. Beyond that, three major categories of frustrations were revealed: problems managing accounts, problems managing rewards and interestingly, problems getting help.

When financial app users experience a problem with an app, more than half seek help to solve the problem, either immediately or later. While some actively search for guided help, most users seek to speak directly with a customer service representative. At this point, a variety of obstacles prevents them from finding the help they need, resulting in a dead-end experience.

A wide range of causes for dead ends was identified. The most common is that smartphone calls for help are dropped or disconnected (38 percent) or customers simply hang up while waiting on hold because the wait time is too long (31 percent). Dead ends result for 28 percent because customer service lacks the knowledge or authority to help, or because they cannot reach a customer service representative at a time convenient for them.

The most common difficulty online shoppers noted is using the “captcha” -- the letter-scrambled security words used to differentiate human from computer-generated responses. But a wide range of other frustrations also were cited, from problems around promo code and/or gift card redemption to difficulty in finding answers to questions about product features, availability, shipping and return policies.

About two-thirds of shoppers said they give up or shop elsewhere online when they encounter difficulties, while about one-third seek help, most often by calling customer service. When they seek help, online shoppers are often lost to dead ends.

More than three-quarters of shoppers attempting to make an online purchase said they had been frustrated trying to obtain help when experiencing difficulty completing the purchase, while about the same number said they had abandoned an online shopping cart due to frustration with getting the help they needed.

The Consequences of Customer Frustration

In addition to abandoned shopping carts, frustration in the online customer experience costs brands in reputation, referrals and other lost opportunities. Frustrated financial app users complain about the brand or the app on social media.

Twenty-eight percent complain on Facebook while 18 percent complain on Twitter. Twenty-nine percent said they are less likely to recommend the brand to a friend or colleague, and they viewed the brand 20 percent more negatively than before they experienced the dead-end.

Online shoppers said their online purchase experience would affect their shopping or product reviews (78 percent), satisfaction with the product (66 percent), and impression of the retailer (64 percent). A majority said they would purchase more products from a website that allowed them to click or tap to receive an immediate or scheduled callback from a person qualified to solve the online purchase problems.

More than 90 percent said they were somewhat or much more likely to shop on a website that offered this clear and seamless path to help, and a third said they might be willing to pay more for products offered on such a site.

Even -- or perhaps especially -- with a full-range of highly sophisticated self-service options available through multiple channels, there are times when people need and want to talk to people. Becoming stranded during online interactions not only frustrates customers, it frustrates at precisely the moment when companies are presented with opportunities to differentiate and strengthen the brand perception and the customer relationship.

Blending automated, multi-channel self-service support with the human touch at just the right time is a win-win for customers and companies that care about customer service in the connected age.