Jasper Bell
Jasper Bell 27 November 2017

Proactive customer service in the age of assistance

Proactive Service is an ethos to customer support in which businesses make the first move to help customers. This requires businesses to identify and deal with problems before they escalate and increasingly, predict when problems are about to take place.

This may sound like a novel approach but it’s actually a very shrewd one. Research carried out by New Voice Media with 2,000 US consumers identified that 49% of respondents reported switching on account of poor service and of these, 67% switched more than once.

A New Voice Media study in the UK revealed that UK Companies are losing £11bn a year due to poor customer service. The biggest problems cited were having to call and being put on hold (48%), not being able to speak to a ‘real person’ (42%) and having to repeat information to multiple agents (39%).

In short, consumers want help faster, they want to be listened to and they don’t want to have to repeat themselves.

The age of assistance

Despite the bleak picture painted one thing is clear, the technology is emerging to revolutionise customer service.

According to Google we have arrived at ‘the age of assistance’. The trifecta of mobile and connected devices, voice and messaging is changing how we interact with one another, how we navigate our world and how we buy goods and services.

Whilst technology is starting to become prevalent and more invisible, for now it’s largely restricted to technology innovators and is not the mainstay of most customer service organisations.                                                

The challenge for business is clear, technology is rapidly becoming invisible and with voice assistance people won’t need to learn how to use it. We are nearly at the point where delivering proactive service will no longer be a nice-to-have choice for customer service departments, it will be an absolute requirement.

So how should businesses get ready for a proactive future?

1. Understand customer expectations …

To quote Roy Williams, ‘the first step in exceeding your customer’s expectations is to know those expectations'. When customers have high expectations and the reality falls short, they will likely rate their experience as less than satisfying. This is a risk for service and luxury focused brands that fail to tailor their service solutions accordingly. An example given by Marketing Metrics (2017) illustrates this well, a luxury resort might receive a lower satisfaction rating than a budget motel, even though its facilities and service would be deemed superior in ‘absolute’ terms.

Research from MIT Sloan suggests that customer expectations have two levels: desired and sufficient. The desired level is the service the customer hopes to obtain while the sufficient level is the service the customer finds acceptable. Whilst this will vary by brand, service organisations need to understand the balance for their business and benchmark to ensure service standards reflect these levels.

In the case where the retailer has a physical presence it may be the case that most customers are focused online on research or purchase planning rather than actually making a purchase. Conversely, users visiting low cost pure play online stores may be closer to a purchase decision and want an expert CSR to talk product detail not simply send them links to product pages or returns policies.

The key to success is two-fold, firstly, ensuring that customer service representatives are trained to quickly detect and respond to customer motivations and secondly that mechanisms are put in place to gather and share knowledge to improve service competitiveness.

2. Get data ready …

Much of the innovation seen today in proactive service is limited to how organisations are able to bring service options to the user and the technologies they use to achieve this as opposed to the quality of service offered. Going forward data-driven forces such as AI, machine learning, voice and hybrid bot-human experiences will take service to a completely new level.

Natural language forms and voice search will make it quicker and simpler for customers to tell businesses what they want and encourage a shift away from 'product search’. Buyers will revert to relying on the brand (rather like an old-fashioned shopkeeper) to get back to basics and offer them real recommendations based on their profile, need or behaviour and powered by machine learning, brands will be in a position to make recommendations that are much more relevant.

The traditional contact centre model will evolve as AI-driven and automated service becomes fused with human service and consumers. Customers will expect the conversation to be progressed as the baton is passed between machine and man and they wont expect to repeat themselves.

As businesses start to grow their capability to capture and operationalise mobile and IoT data we will expect to see more brands offering location based service, potentially in conjunction with local retail networks or partners.

Developing the capability to capture, analyse and take advantage of structured and unstructured data will be critical to the future of any customer service operation.

3. Develop the business case …

To develop a business case customer service organisations should benchmark and model the benefit of introducing proactive service interventions at key points in the customer journey and be ready to explain how added investment in people, process and technology will deliver returns to the business.

This model should define the proposed blend between human and automated support but also look at the expected return from each channel taking into consideration when each should be used (research, sales, store information, after-sales, complaints, technical support for example). Beyond the impact on sales and revenue look to quantify the impact proactive service could have on reducing complaints, increasing satisfaction scores and on referrals.

The speed of change in technology presents as many challenges as it does opportunities for service organisations seeking to remain relevant.

Businesses should think of the process as a journey. Embarking on this journey they need to ask themselves where they are today and develop a strategy that is both brand appropriate and measurable.

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