Call centers in their current incarnation were developed to solve customer issues in the most efficient and scalable way possible, assuming that customers wanted to call or email companies. Today, we have way more channels than phone and email, and the “call” can come from anywhere -- putting employees nowhere near a call center in a position to directly interact with the customer. Sometimes, customers don’t even want to talk to the company -- they want to tap into existing knowledge or talk to someone else.
Quite separately from call centers professing that our call is important to them, exist other call centers that interrupt our dinners to hawk their wares at us. But is that still effective? As customers, we no longer think of service and marketing as compartmentalized experiences – we think of a brand as one experience, and if we like it, then we buy it again.
Certainly at this point, companies are onto it, right? Not always..
Customer Service Fail
I needed service from a company that will remain unnamed. After tweeting and calling them a few times, I was pointed to a web form (which I had found on my own, but was hoping to avoid). Reluctantly, I filled it out -- I felt like I was throwing a note into a bottle and setting it to sea, hoping that someone would find it. A few months went by, and I hadn't heard back from the company. I tweeted again. They sent me to the form – again. When I told them I filled out the form, they said that I should fill out the form about the original form and mention the reference number.
A few weeks went by, with no response to my “form about the form.” When I tweeted, they asked me to wait. Another month went by, another tweet and another invitation to fill out the form about the form about the… well.. you get the idea. It’s been 5 months.
What Can We Learn?
I shared this story not to complain -- rather, to illustrate the gap between what companies think they should be doing with technology vs. what we want them to do. With cutting-edge technology in our arsenal, how can a customer message activate the right people to come together and act -- without burning up expensive 5-month cycles of paperwork and alienating the customer?
It’s no secret that I love communities -- whether I’m building them or helping others build them. While communities aren't going to solve all issues for companies, they help get companies unstuck by putting human creativity to work on problems directly -- without getting buried in corporate myopia. Whether they are internally or externally oriented, communities accelerate businesses by pulling the right resources towards the problem, by giving people visibility into the issue at hand, and the tools to deal with it.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you create your next generation of customer experience through communities:
1. Work from a single source of truth.
A top reason for customer attrition is the number of times it takes to resolve an issue. Accenture estimates that 67% of customers do not reach resolution at first contact, and 50% of consumers find it “extremely important for customer service people to know their history so they don’t have to repeat themselves each time they call.” Ideally, the company should have known I’m the same person across tweets and emails and forms -- or at the very least, the forms should have been linked together.
2. Liberate information to liberate people.
When every relevant employee has access to my entire customer history, and when information moves freely between departments, I get my problem solved faster. Break down the silos and silly rules that are holding your customer experiences back. When communication is stuck between the customer and the agent, no one else can step in and help. The company burns money with repetitive actions, and the customer gets frustrated.
3. Wire and empower to solve for exceptions.
A company like the one in my story, even after getting on the same page across departments, still can’t act. Clearly, my case got stuck somewhere, and in order to act, someone has to get it unstuck. To do so, each employee must be able and willing to act in the best interests of the company and customer. This, of course, means that the employee must know what that entails. When no manual exists, or when existing process doesn't fit, the employee must solve for exceptions -- and the company must be wired to support this kind of work.
4. Use service as a wedge to bigger and better things.
How many times have we heard the saying “Service is the new marketing?” Well, it is! In my example, does marketing even know what’s going on between me and the service team? I spoke with Simon Terry and he pointed out ‘It is now more obvious than ever to customers and companies that sales and service are a continuum’.
At any moment one can switch into the other. Every experience influences the brand and the ongoing customer relationship’. Multiple research has shown that it’s far cheaper to retain a customer than to get a new one -- so why not use the opportunity to upsell or cross-sell every time you service me well? Why not keep in touch with me via your community? Why not expose me to other parts of your company and other customer stories? Why not include me in product ideation if you see me clearly frustrated with your business? If I see other parts of you, and think you’re at least trying -- I’ll be more likely to forgive you.
5. Help people help themselves and each other.
Sometimes, customers don’t even want to talk to you -- they just want to use existing information. This information can be created by either your company, or by anyone in your ecosystem -- from your partners, to your customers. Even when a phone tree produces an answer, the answer will help only one person, and will remain trapped in that conversation. Why not “productize” answers to simple, recurring issues and reuse them in the future? There’s also the added benefit that reusable knowledge can be built upon, and involving multiple viewpoints dramatically improves quality.
6. Move faster.
Customers tire quickly and complain faster now that there are so many ways to find better alternatives of service and even more ways to share their opinion. Make sure your people have the ability to respond at a speed that meets customers needs. Simon Terry suggested the following key steps ‘Eliminate rules, escalations or process steps that get in the way of a quick response. Push power, information and decision making to the first point of contact. Support that person with all the resources of your network. The customer has reached out because they want a solution now. Make sure you deliver one.’
7. Work with your entire ecosystem.
Internal infrastructure is important, but it’s not enough. Knowledge obsolesces faster and faster, and the best resource may not be inside of your company walls. In “The Power of Pull", John Hagel and John Seely Brown explore a system with porous walls that pulls the right resources towards each other to solve a problem. For example, tracking a shipment for a customer is easier when the supplier, the brand, the retailer and the shipping company have visibility into each other.
8. Know your role as a company.
A customer centric company views any interaction with a customer is a gift, whether it’s positive or negative. If the customer took the time to interact with you, she is invested and engaged -- so help her channel her passion towards something productive. Treat customers with dignity and empathy, and don’t “cop a ‘tude” or get defensive. Unfriendliness of service agents is still a top cause of customer attrition -- cited at 65% by Accenture. Know what to automate, and what needs to remain high-touch, when to step in and resolve right away, and when to activate the larger community.
9. Be consistent.
Broken promises are a top area of frustration for consumers. Quoting the same Accenture study: 78% of consumers would switch providers if company delivered a different service experience from what is promised upfront. Thus, it’s critical to get on the same page internally, so that the sales team doesn't over promise and the service team over delivers.
10. Invest in your communities.
Launching technology for people to work together better is not a panacea; the behavioral change that follows is just as important -- if not more. To truly create an environment where people are willing and able to do the right thing for the customer, it must start with your executives and extend far beyond your company’s walls. To help people internalize these values so that they can work with limitless and fearless fluidity, you’ll need a community manager. Sure, you can launch without one, but how many endeavors have you seen without someone responsible for them? A community manager is the person ultimately responsible for the health of your business community -- an internal connector, educator and enabler.
Editor's Note: Looking for more from Maria? Check out A Connected Business is Simply Good Business