scuba diver breaking  the surface of the water
PHOTO: Clint Bustrillos

Fighter pilots use situational awareness. Party planners rely on themes (like Under the Sea or the Wild Wild West). Educators use what they call instructional design scenarios. Why? To deliver top performance. When it comes to customer service, we call it context and nothing is more important to critical thinking.

Context creates a “big picture” that helps us interpret individual data points and take appropriate action in support of our customers. To do this well, context must be present in three areas, all working in concert:

  1. A 360-degree view of our customer data profile that informs the service agent.
  2. Customer-centric processes that support next best actions.
  3. Enabling technology, across self-service, direct support and AI-assisted modes.

Why Context Is Even More Important Today

You might have noticed we’ve been dealing with a pandemic lately. The related health, economic and social impacts are reshaping our expectations, behaviors and customer service demands. Most of us are working from home and living a very different virtual online business (and personal) life. We see a constant flow of news — new data — being delivered seemingly every nanosecond.

We struggle to make sense of it all and determine how it might, or might not, impact what we are trying to accomplish.

The challenge is to weave all this data into a meaningful pattern. While there is good news like Apple hitting a 2 trillion dollar evaluation, there are far more news factoids that drive concern and stress. As we hear about unemployment levels, educational institutions in flux, and small businesses in jeopardy we realize news is not really useful … unless we can place it in context.

This is the environment in which our customer service operations must perform.

Related Article: Customer Service Friction: A Double-Edged Sword

Your Call Is Important to Us

With the pandemic, service center call queues are the longest in memory. We are routinely issued warnings about increased volumes and extended wait times even as we are reassured that our call is important. The queues ask us to identify ourselves and our request or problem. Never has it been more important to retain that info to provide context for our customer profiles.

Because my family recently moved to another state (yes during the pandemic) I have made at least two dozen inquiry calls to multiple financial institutions over the past few months with similar business to conduct. I am continually asked and re-asked for my data: account and security info, identification data, inquiry data. And I am asked again and again, even as I am thanked for providing the data and assured that it will be passed along to the endless specialty centers and agents that are apparently required to address my request or problem.

There are no winners in this scenario that lengthens already strained queue times and destroys first call resolutions. Both our service centers and our customers suffer.

Throughout my recent experiences, only one financial institution handled my inquiry efficiently — using a three part initial screening and identification, and then passing that information along to a knowledgeable agent who could view my complete profile, place my inquiry in context, and address all of my requests. Which demonstrates it can be done right. 

Related Article: Why Your Approach to Chatbot and IVR Projects Is All Wrong

Making Processes Customer-Centric

Companies that successfully capture information and make it available in context for key processes deliver better customer service. This establishes a foundation for effective customer interactions. The foundation however needs processes that place the customer at the center, especially under stressful conditions.

Customer-centric process improvement disciplines are ideal because they avoid (the often unexpected) myopic downside of Six Sigma.  As I shared in “The Best Way to Improve Business Performance”:

“I found that too many of the [Six Sigma] improvements, including those I was personally involved in, focused on isolated processes — even fragments — and were too disconnected from the overall improvement that might be achieved by looking more holistically at a business from the eyes of the customer.”

This is a lesson the US Postal Service might keep in mind. The USPS is in the news for a number of reasons. Facing strong headwinds from pandemic and budgetary pressures, the newly installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy recently limited overtime and prohibited workers from making late delivery trips. These initiatives (now currently on hold) were ostensibly intended to improve performance, but appear to have done quite the opposite. Perhaps that is because they focused on isolated elements of the process and did not consider the end-to-end process impact along the value chain to the customer. Though the changes might well have been driven by other motives, they clearly violate the latest best practices if intended as improvements. 

USPS is a critical element of the small business supply chain, as well as Amazon last mile service. It delivers critical drug and medical supplies to the population; it's how I get meds for my family including for our golden retriever. Moving forward, the USPS faces a tough road ahead, not the least of which is handling voting for the upcoming election, and would do well to adopt a proven lean process improvement approach which has overtaken Six Sigma as a customer-centric discipline that delivers the best results.

Related Article: How CX and UX Can Be Truly Lean

Case Management Delivers in the Time of Pandemic

If context is paramount in customer service, then it needs to be supported in the technology we use for customer interaction. Case management is tech I have written about for almost a decade and is perfectly suited to this requirement.

As I wrote in a previous pre-pandemic article:

“Data is most valuable when organizations use it to fulfill its purpose — which is to improve decision-making, operational efficiency and customer experience. That is why your choice of technology needs to ensure that data is made available in context for your key processes.”

Now the pandemic has presented heightened information and process challenges that IMO can best be addressed using case management technology. Case tech can aptly support the contextual needs of banks and government agencies, along with the demands of educational institutions and businesses as they attempt to return to on premise – from contact tracing to managing PPE supplies, to coordinating responsive action. And perhaps most importantly case management can deliver the agility necessary to survive through and thrive beyond the pandemic.