A shift towards a more proactive approach to customer service is gathering pace. Indeed, if the 2017 UK Contact Center Forum Proactive Customer Service report is to be believed, it is rapidly becoming standard for modern customer outreach. The research found that three-quarters of the companies it polled are proactively contacting customers, believing that it will reduce inbound contacts and potentially save them big bucks. While this number appears to be somewhat on the large side, there’s little doubting the enthusiasm amongst organisations to embrace a more proactive approach.
And this enthusiasm is also reflected on the customer side. A survey by inContact, for instance, found that 87% of customers would like to be contacted proactively by a company, when it came to customer service issues. And of those that had previously been contacted proactively, nearly three-quarters (73%) reported a positive experience, and one that improved their perception of the organisation that contacted them.
Thought leader and author Steven van Belleghem, meanwhile, believes its continuing adoption is an inevitability, representing another key stage in digital evolution.
He explains: “Proactive customer service is just part of Phase 3 of digital evolution, and what’s interesting about this next phase is that it will take effect much quicker than the previous two. Phase 1 required consumers to buy a home PC and subscribe to an internet service provider in order to start accessing content, and Phase 2 was based around millions of people around the world buying smart phones and staying connected, particularly via social media. Both phases transformed consumer behaviour dramatically, but because of gradual rate of adoption of technology, brands that were slow to adapt were still able to catch up and survive.
“In contrast, this next phase does not require consumers to invest in new technology, so it won’t have the same adoption curve. Phase 3 of digital evolution is all about companies using invisible technologies, like artificial intelligence behind the scenes to offer customers a more personalised, convenient and efficient service, utilising the technology consumers already have at their disposal.
“Once customers start to experience how much more convenient it can be for them, it will very quickly become the expected standard. Today, convenience has become the new loyalty, and brands and business leaders that don’t recognise this will struggle to attract and keep customers.”
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We have already seen how some organisations are doing a great job with proactive service. But in keeping with van Belleghem’s predictions about digital evolution, and the impact that AI will have, what can we expect from proactive service as it matures? What will the next generation of proactive service look like?
Like van Belleghem, Brainfood Consulting founder Martin Hill-Wilson believes that AI has a crucial role to play in proactive service’s future. The last 12 months have seen a major breakthrough in intelligent assistants and bots in the customer service space. And in a recent blog post Hill-Wilson highlighted a number of organisations that he believes are demonstrating what lies ahead as these technologies herald a new class of proactive intervention.
He points to Cleo, an AI app that helps users stay on track with their finances, while the likes of Barclays, Lloyds Bank, RBS, First Direct, Metro Bank, Natwest, Santander Bank and TSB are also offering similar services in the UK.
Elsewhere, he flags up the ‘O’ chatbot deployed by Oxxio in the Netherlands, that provides customers with information on energy consumption and proactive advice on savings.
Hill-Wilson notes: “Those of us into Fitbit culture already expect personalised advice based on real-time collection of our personal data. As we move further into a world of digital workflow and real time data capture, we have more and more opportunity to remove customer effort and increase engagement when we manage to provide them with the right information at just the right point of need.”
Going hand-in-hand with AI in the evolution of proactive service is the use of machine learning. Machine learning will enable contextual predictions and recommendations that can automate some tasks, while also enabling those tasks that are still fulfilled by agents to be more effective and efficient.
“In many, many instances, all you want as a customer is to be communicated with in a proactive way; tell me when things are going wrong, make me an offer to keep the service that I like, don’t over charge me, and let me know when my bill is unusual, for example,” says Dr Mark K. Smith, CEO of ContactEngine.
“Now you cannot have a one-to-one human to human relationship between you and your service provider – that would make the service too expensive – but you can have what I sometimes call ‘empathetic coding’ whereby a human programmer works with the benefit of a machine that learns, sets out rules to adapt and improve.
“Now this has to come with some very big health warnings: much AI is trying to do too much and this is unlikely to do more than irritate and sometimes even frighten consumers. But if you can use machine learning and AI to ‘make people smile’ because the comms is perfectly timed, the tone of voice is spot on and it’s looking after you (not in a sinister way!) then what’s not to like?”
Internet of Things
Recent years have seen a growing number of everyday items built with internet connectivity, from watches to cars to white goods. The age of the Internet of Things (IoT) is upon us, and customer service strategies will increasingly utilise the real-time data that is generated to deliver proactive support. This could potentially take several forms.
“A great example of how the data collected from a connected device can be used to create standout customer service is smart central heating systems,” notes van Belleghem. “When the system detects a fault, it not only alerts the customer that something is wrong, but also sends a message to the parent company to book an engineer appointment. The problem can then be fixed before it really becomes an issue and the customer has to endure a cold shower.
“Choosing a new boiler isn’t really the kind of fun purchase that people enjoy making – in fact, it is something we’d probably rather not think about unless we really have to. By harnessing the Internet of Things to provide proactive service in this way, brands can create remove any inconvenience, and even create the kind of magical customer experience that consumers will even pay a premium for.”
Elsewhere, products that require refills – such as drinks dispensers – could notify field service agents of their requirements, so that a delivery can be made during their current rounds, thereby speeding up service and also removing the need for the call centre to be contacted, reducing inbound calls.
In fact, the advent of the IoT could potentially transform contact centres from their present reactive inbound nature to a more proactive outbound approach. Contact centres that embrace this strategy will allow agents to be automatically notified of issues via intelligent devices that have self-diagnosed problems, so that they can then deliver proactive service to customers before the products have failed.
And this is already crystallising, with Gartner predicting that within the next three years as much as 5% of customer service cases could be initiated by IoT devices autonomously. Indeed, the confluence of the three mega-trends outlined above – IoT, machine learning and artificial intelligence – is perfectly timed to drive proactive strategies forward in the coming years.
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.