Picture this … I need to cancel my internet because I have sold my home and have moved to a place that already has it. Thinking it will be a painless process (I know, I’m kidding myself, but I can dream, right?), I log into my account and start to search for how to get this task done quickly — it doesn’t exist (dreams shattered).

I click on the “Contact Us” link and look for a phone number to call as I know talking to a human would be faster. That, too, doesn’t exist. Instead, my only two options are to:

  1. Mail in or fax a letter.
  2. Use the messaging service.

I guess I’m going with the one that will get this done in the same day, so I click on it, opening up a chat window that brings a slight nostalgia to the early days of instant messaging.

Immediately, I am prompted to type the reason for my contacting them, which I reply with “cancel service.” I am then quickly greeted by a woman who asks what I need assistance with. Slightly confused by this question (since I had already stated it), I tell her I’m canceling my services because I’ve sold my home. She (kindly) transfers me to the cancellation department.

Customer Service Fail No. 1: Inefficiencies and Nonsense Responses

Now, at this point, my customer experience hat is firmly attached to my head, and I’m starting to take mental notes of the inefficiencies happening:

  1. The keyword bot isn’t working correctly in that there’s no workflow for automated routing behind it.
  2. Hiring a human to only route customers to specific departments creates a time inefficiency that could be costing the company millions of dollars. 

About 25 seconds later, I am greeted by another member of the support team who we will call “John.” John introduces himself and says that he is happy to help. He then asks me how he can assist me. For the third time, I explain that I am looking to cancel my service as I’ve sold my house and my other house already has service with this company. I’m not kidding when John’s response is, “What has you making these changes today?” I stay silent for a few seconds to see if he is reading my responses. He confirms it with an “Oh.”

Related Article: Customer Experience Conundrum: Fix Bad Experiences or Make Good Ones Better?

Customer Service Fail No. 2: Endless Repetition, Wasted Time

We move onto the standard qualifying information to prove it’s me, including asking me for a PIN number I’d never remember because I’ve never needed it. After five minutes of playing the guessing game (I saved the conversation for the purpose of this article and it included time stamps), success! I am who I say I am. 

Then comes the “fun” part — a series of questions that I already foresee to be the wrong set and, in fact, are what prompted me to write this article.

John: “Who in your household is currently using services?

Me (hoping this will be quick): “No one — my house sold, and I’ve moved out.”

John: “What types of activities do you and your household use the Internet for? e.g., Online Shopping, Streaming, Gaming, Email, Social Networking, Video Chatting, Surfing, Working from Home, etc.?”

Me (realizing marketing had a hand in this Q&A session): "All of the above."

John: “Could you give me an estimate of how many devices connect to your internet at one time? e.g., Smart Phones, Smart Appliances, Laptops/Computers, Smart TV's, Security Cameras, etc.?”

Me (realizing he’s either selected the wrong reason for my support request or their AI logic is faulty): “Well nothing now, but it was upwards of 10 max.”

John: “And you’re moving, right?”

Me (now glad this isn’t a video chat as I’d not be able to hide my facial expressions because I’ve now answered this five times): “Already did.”

John: “Will this be a permanent or temporary move?”

Me (now wondering if John is a bot): “Permanent.”

John: “Is anyone staying behind at this location that would like to take over the account?”

Learning Opportunities

Me (completely bewildered by the logic of this question given my response): “No. Again, the house has sold.”

John: "When is the exact date you’ll be needing services at this place?"

Me (slightly amused at my suspicion being right): “You mean canceling services?” — to which he replies, “Yup.”

From there, I get instructions on how to return the equipment, and that was it.

Related Article: If Bad Customer Experience Were a Hit Country Song...

Customer Service Failed Result: 23 Minutes, 4 Seconds of Cancellation Fun

It took 23 minutes and four seconds over instant messaging to get this request completed. Aside from wait times, completing that request over the phone could have taken nearly 50% less time, and, if an automated form existed as an option, could have taken 75% less time. In addition, I became increasingly frustrated as the interaction went on because I felt the support rep wasn’t fully engaged.

So why are more companies shifting toward the instant messaging model that is still filled with spotty AI and sub-par virtual support? 

The more people I talk to in the industry, the more I’m hearing the same four reasons: Mental relief for their support teams. They are able to help more people at one time so that less support staff needs to be hired. It’s “the trend,” and/or it allows them an opportunity to review conversations for both training purposes, as well as for gathering trends on the kinds of support needed to better serve customers in the future.

While I can see the benefits of instant messaging in all the above reasons, I can also foresee the eventual erosion of customer experience and what that does to an organization’s bottom line.

With my experience above as one example and through those conversations I’ve had with colleagues in the industry, I’ve developed pros, cons and tips on how to carefully think through your own customer instant messaging strategy and workflows for each reason I listed. 

Customers Can Be a 'Mental Drain' on Support Staff

There’s no doubt about it — people have far less patience and tolerance these days, which certainly increases the risk for support staff burnout when it comes to treatment from short-fused people. 

  • Pros to instant messaging in this case: Removing tone of voice from a conversation can certainly help staff not feel as drained at the end of the day. In addition, it does allow companies to keep record of those customers who put themselves on “the naughty list” for poor treatment of their support rep.
  • Cons to instant messaging in this case: Support staff tend to not be trained as well on how to administer customer service, via instant messaging. In many cases, I’ve felt this method of communication was less professional with typos, slang being used, typing the next thing without waiting for a reply, and in many cases, no courteousness or manners on display.
  • Tips to make instant messaging work in this case: If you have customer support phone training, modify it for instant messaging — don’t rely on automatic response workflow to do the human interaction work for them. Remember, humans want to connect with other humans — this is how the world evolved. Also, make sure that when you’re laying out support interaction scenarios and their journeys, you’re including how you want the customer to feel every step of the way — that should be the goal. If they can leave the IM conversation happy, you’ve done it right.

Do More With Less People in Less Time

There’s a whole bunch of sayings out there on how shortcuts actually take longer than the originally planned routes, and I find that to be true. Right now, it seems the whole world is on a “do more with less” mentality, and as we’ve seen time and again, it just doesn’t work — staff are overworked, and customers are frustrated with getting less service than they expect, and it’s costing organizations far more money than they expected.

  • Pros to instant messaging in this case: You can solve more support requests in a day with this solution, whether that be through robust AI or a human solving multiple support requests at once.
  • Cons to instant messaging in this case: Customers do not get the level of service they may need to solve their request. In the case of AI and what has previously happened to me, the AI logic wasn’t robust enough to understand my needs, and I ended up wasting a lot of time looking for a phone number to call instead. In the case of a human, I’ve seen long delays between responses and customer support reps get confused on who they are interacting with and what the need is because they are trying to help too many people at once.
  • Tips to make instant messaging work in this case: If you are using AI to solve for a lot of common customer questions that don’t necessarily require a human to answer, first take a look at your website and see how you can improve the flow of information so it’s easy for customers to access. This includes your search and return capabilities, as well as clear organization/navigation of information on those pages. Next, take a look at the customer journey and workflow you’d like to see with an AI bot, a human or a hybrid of both. This means taking your most common customer support scenarios and mapping out the logic of questions, how long a support journey should take, and how they should feel by the end of the interaction. Finally, be realistic on support resolution goals. Does it have to be how many requests a rep can solve in a day? Perhaps take a look at time-to-solve for each customer scenario and find ways to improve that first before overwhelming your staff.  

'Everyone Is Doing It'

Sure, more organizations are jumping on this bandwagon every day — especially if they are overloaded with requests and feel this is more efficient. But that bandwagon effect has detrimental ramifications if a great strategy isn’t in place that is tailored to your customers’ needs.

  • Pros to instant messaging in this case: This may become the norm for customer communication one day, given just how many organizations are adopting it. If that’s the case, then you’re in a great position to define/refine your strategy to meet industry standards (perhaps develop them) and provide great service to your customers, putting you ahead of your competitors.
  • Cons to instant messaging in this case: In this case, being reactive to a “trend” leads to less focus on strategy and the correct build of a tool like this, which leads to poor customer interactions, a poor Net Promoter Score (NPS), customer effort score (CES) and customer satisfaction score (CSAT) — and eventually, higher customer churn. 
  • Tips to make instant messaging work in this case: In the case of this kind of investment, you absolutely need to have a strategy in place, along with the aforementioned customer scenario workflows, a deep understanding of AI logic and how it can work well for your organization from the start, as well as continual staff training on how to best interact using this method. In other words, take your time in developing the entire program to get it right. 

Customer Data Collection and Training

Gathering data is something marketers salivate over, and customer experience professionals are eager to have. It helps us shape and reshape our approaches to customer experience.

  • Pros to instant messaging in this case: It allows us to create more tailored experiences, upsell the customer base and refine our customer journeys. It also supplies us with “written” proof of interactions used in teachable moments.
  • Cons to instant messaging in this case: While the data can supply quite a bit of information to us that is of great benefit, there’s two large disadvantages to consider: 1. Support staff do not want to be “spied on,” which can create a toxic culture of mistrust among team members and their managers, which then results in poor customer interactions. 2. Throwing in more marketing-related questions, like what happened in my story, only causes the customer more frustration when their own time is valuable. No one wants to be forced into answering questions, especially if they aren’t applicable to their request. 
  • Tips to make instant messaging work in this case: Define the kinds of data you want to gather and what your goal(s) are for use of that data. Look at the customer scenario workflows and see what two-to-three relevant questions you can include in the customer interaction. If there are more you’d like to ask, have the rep or the bot ask the customer if they have time to answer a few more. In the case of training, make sure you are clear about your intentions on training and that this isn’t a monitoring exercise. If you feel that it is/needs to be, work with your HR to determine the best approach to ensure employee culture is kept in-tact.  

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