man sitting on a park bench in winter
Customers have a clear preference for digital channels — and don't want to talk to your customer service representatives. PHOTO: Joscha Nivergall

In the digital age, customers will do just about anything to avoid interacting with a live person unnecessarily, especially beyond the purchasing process.

Eighty percent of the buyer’s journey is conducted online through self-education, and Forrester reports a clear preference for digital channels as people turn to web or mobile self-service more than they utilize phone agents.

In response, companies have developed a proliferation of technologies designed to help customers help themselves, from online FAQs to live-chat capabilities.

As automated solutions and big data continue to rule in business operations, organizations are taking advantage of advances in cognitive computing and machine learning to optimize customer self-service options even further through customer portals that allow users to independently perform high-value transactions and gain real-time visibility into the status of their account.

This entails tasks that are necessary for supporting the customer relationship but don’t need a high touch such as updating account information, viewing order history or submitting questions and support requests.

In turn, the portal enables customer service representatives (CSR), supply chains, IT support staff and other internal stakeholders to address and resolve customer issues with the most efficient use of resources.

The Personal Touch

Providing a good customer experience is essential to effective brand building, and a well-designed, thorough web portal can give just the right impression to your customers.

Modern automation technologies can greatly enhance the customer experience by providing a robust, cognitive discovery process. For example, once your customers make a purchase, they can turn to the portal to reference the status of the order, estimated shipping time and a list of related frequently asked questions.

Automation completes routine yet impactful tasks such as automatically populating an invoice with account details or providing supplementary support content. Just as with live customer service agents, the goal is to “surprise and delight” customers by going above and beyond.

But the knowledge base that automated technology provides is vastly more extensive, accurate and intuitive than what human CSRs can provide.

Leveraging Opportunities for Customization

When a document automation solution integrates with a client portal, it brings nearly unlimited opportunities for customization.

Upon login, the platform recognizes the customer by name, immediately creating a personalized experience, and can even generate customized quotes based on their account status and preferences.

And the personal touch continues even when escalated or complex issues necessitate phone interaction with an agent because CSRs can see archived activity and communication. Automated triggers flag potential issues to customer service before the order is ever communicated to the ERP, ensuring a smooth, frictionless buying process.

Benefits on the Back End

Customer portals aren’t designed to replace CSRs, but empower them to add more value to the organization. On the back end, automated technology is working hard to improve communication between all internal and external stakeholders.

By automating document-heavy workloads such as accounts payable and sales order processing, automation moves critical operations along faster and with far greater accuracy. Client portals greatly reduce manual touchpoints on the customer side, and the document processing automation that supports those portals virtually eliminates them within sales and customer support teams.

Customer self-service portals do more than just help cut costs on support staff and resources, however. Leveraged correctly, they can generate true profit through the data they collect.

Next-generation automation technologies can identify cross-sell and upsell opportunities from customers’ purchase history and profile. And by continually analyzing macro purchasing trends, sales managers and supply chain leaders can more accurately stock inventory, schedule shipments and leverage bulk-buy and other discounts.

Customer service should be about more than optimizing buyers’ experiences. It should generate leads and actionable data to show how to grow market share and revenue.

An Added Benefit: Happier Employees

Finally, when CSRs can automate routine assignments and dedicate their energies toward more fulfilling and productive work, job satisfaction increases.

This is key to the customer service industry, where turnover rates can be high. Managers can analyze data to best determine where to place and utilize resources — and happy CSRs lead to happier customers.

As we move into 2017, emerging technologies such as data analytics, automation and customized APIs are coalescing into cost-effective and accessible systems that are becoming best practices for business in the digital age.

Organizations that are laggards in the customer self-service space will find themselves at a significant competitive disadvantage.

Customer service can add immeasurable value to the bottom line, as long as companies invest in the digital tools that lead to such market differentiation.