Customer service apps: The future of service or silly fad?

MyCustomer.com
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With many predicting 2012 is the year of the customer service app, MyCustomer.com examines the adoption so far and asks whether apps are a fad or the future of customer service. 

Smartphone ownership is skyrocketing. Last month, research from the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PwC revealed that 53% of the population now owns a device and, combined with the growth of mobile tablets, this has sparked a surge in brand apps.
With so many now using smartphones and studies showing that many users spend more time using their mobile apps than their mobile internet browsers, a growing number are suggesting that 2012 is likely to be the year of the customer service app.
And this seems logical, after all, consumers are crying out for a service channel that is convenient, has unlimited availability and no call waiting, and apps would fit the bill. Meanwhile, there are also multiple benefits for brands – businesses will be able to decrease costs by deflecting calls, reduce call resolution times, and drive customer satisfaction.
Forrester analyst Kate Leggett is just one expert who is forecasting that 2012 is the year customer service apps become a must-have. She expects that a growing number of customers will use mobile devices to register products, locate stores, create support tickets, and receive value-added services and incentive offers from customer service organisations; while customers will also demand multiple service capabilities from their devices, such as reading a FAQ sent by a customer service agent whilst speaking to them.
She explains: “Companies will also move away from merely duplicating their web presence in their mobile offering and focus instead on deploying the right mobile usage scenarios that add value to customers and which leverage the native capabilities of these devices, such as camera, video and GPS functions that are optimised for the device type, operating system and form factor.”
Case studies
So what brands, if any, are rolling out customer service apps? Air Asia seems to be the pin-up for service app implementation, giving customers the ability to ask questions through their smartphone. The iPhone app has reportedly generated two million downloads, making it the number one selling app in the iPhone App store for Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and the introduction of the app is said to have resulted in a 40% reduction in contact centre costs.
Dee Roche, European marketing director at Eptica, which is working with Air Asia, believes that the project has been a “fantastic success” and demonstrates that apps “provide a quick, convenient way for people to find information and answers and engage with customer service.”
Roche continues: “For customer service departments who know that their customers are heavy users of smartphones, an app has got to be one of their agenda items this year. Not only can they enhance customer service, they can help reduce contact centre workload and costs.”
Roche also has advice for those considering rolling out their own apps: “One of the key learnings from Air Asia’s experience is that the app is part of an integrated, ‘joined up’ customer service experience. It shares the same knowledgebase as the rest of the airline’s customer service channels, so whether you ask a question through the web, Facebook or mobile, you receive the same answer, through the channel of your choice.”
KLM is another brand, and another airline, using a customer service app to alleviate issues, this time for the short-term. In April 2010, within 24 hours of the Icelandic ash cloud halting flights, the Dutch airline created an app that provided service updates.
Appy days?
But case studies of successful service apps aren’t abundant. Indeed, some are sceptical that the reported demand for apps is accurate.
For instance, Steve Richards, MD at Yomego, says: “There isn’t much appetite from either brands or customers as far as we can tell – which may explain the lack of successful big brand case studies in this space.”
He adds: “The need to download an app is an extra barrier for an irritated customer. If your TV or mobile phone is broken then the first thing you’re likely to do is either call the helpline or search online for a solution. Downloading an app isn’t part of the customer service process, and it can’t be built into it easily. It’s simply not a natural action in the process and it creates another silo for content and information, that in an ideal world, would all be easily searchable so that solutions can be found with the minimum of stress.”
He continues: “Unlike customer service communities on Facebook etc (ASOS is known to do them well), there isn’t an immediate benefit to the brand here either. Social customer service communities mean that discussion and complaints can be removed from a brand’s main Facebook page and resolved with minimum brand impact. Whereas asking an already annoyed or upset customer to download an app is going to annoy them further.”
Clearly as with any project of this ilk, some good thought needs to be behind it before it is undertaken. Unfortunately, service apps will lure those susceptible to Shiny New Technology syndrome, and so while some businesses will bury their heads in the ground, others will throw money at apps without thinking of the customer’s needs.
Scott Storey, MD of CTS Retail, provides the following advice for businesses that want to take action right away.
“If brands are keen to offer a CS app quickly, they should opt for a simple solution that is focused on delivering what the customer needs – perhaps including similar information to an FAQ section on the website. Rather than try to create something flashy and hi-tech, keep it simple but informative.
“Ultimately, customers want to find an answer to their problem and if you can provide them with an easy to follow route map to that solution (and that doesn’t mean solving the problem via the app itself!), they’ll remain a satisfied customer.”
What do you think? Will customer service apps take off or is there simply a lack of appetite from brands and/or customers?

About Natalie Steers

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14th May 2012 18:15

I can see a place for customer service apps, but as a proactive tool for customers - something they might download in advance of a problem, rather than because of one.

The article already makes a strong case for why using them as a reactive tool is weak - the whole purpose of smart accessible online feedback channels is to reduce the hurdles to being heard, not add to them. Existing channels such as Twitter and Facebook are a far more natural digital domain for customers to ask (and find) help.

But if customers download an app as part of everyday interface with that brand, and then use the same app to deal with CS issues, that's a convenient way for them to interact. For example, if you're a commuter, and use an app to check train running status, then linking thru' that app to customer service would be seamless and familiar.

I'd highlight the Amazon app (iPhone) as a good example of how this works. Their app is most commonly used to search for, order and track items, and all of this functionality works reliably. But there is also a link to customer service, which either takes you directly thru' to the contact page on the website (no need to leave the app to fire up the web browser) or call Customer Service (on an 0800 toll free number which dials automatically on your phone - the only downside to this is that mobile operators still charge you for 0800 calls, but this isn't Amazon's fault)

As ever, the secret to good app design is to understand the customers' needs and emotions, and be clear about how fulfilling them matches the brand's own values and differentiates them in the process.

-- Rick Harris - Owner, customerfaithful.com

PS: see my blog article for futher details on app design at: http://customerfaithful.com/3-tips-for-an-winning-app/

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15th May 2012 09:23

Excellent point, Rick. Using customer service apps as a proactive tool rather than reactive seems much more valuable to both company and customer.

 The Amazon example is also a good case study for brands looking to integrate customer service into their existing apps.  Thanks for your comment.  

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17th May 2012 09:24

This is a great piece, and certainly highlights an important issue for customer service providers at the moment. As you said at the beginning of your piece, smartphone ownership is skyrocketing, and 2012 could certainly be the year of the customer service app. The evolution from passive to empowered mobile tools has undoubtedly been slow - largely due to the fact that mobile is often treated as a separate, stand-alone capability inside many organisations. But we are starting to see more vendors step up and provide interaction for mobile users.

Consumers are used to using their mobile devices for browsing on the web and for completing sales with a brand. At the moment, when live assistance is required, customers have to exit the mobile application they are using and call the contact centre number provided. As a result, they are forced to wait on hold, re-authenticate and provide all of the context which could be found within the app itself.

Effective mobile customer care requires a seamless transition between self-service applications and live assistance. It also requires companies to raise the bar on personalisation, and deliver a customer experience which is increasingly dictated by the customer - when they want service, where, and over what channel. The technology is now available to do just this.

One example of this is American Airlines, which offers an app to help its customers check into flights, make reservations, request upgrades and generally interact when travelling. This summer, American Airlines will be enhancing its app to add the ability to chat live with a representative in the airline's contact centre, even at 35,000 feet. This will be invaluable for re-booking, checking upgrades and generally changing the nature of customer service from being reactive to proactive, and serving customers at the time of need.

I don't think that customers will see these apps as an extra barrier - if smart phone users can get instant access to agents in a company's contact centre, all at the press of a button in a mobile application, customers will feel empowered and will gain from a highly personalised experience. At the same time, customer service agents will also feel more empowered as they will have the information and context at their fingertips ready to drive an effective experience and outcome across the mobile app.

Lucille Needham - Genesys

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17th May 2012 16:08

There is a certain inevitability to the fact that mobile apps will, over time, drive customer care interactions. Consider the math - around half of calls to contact centers (in the US, at least) are made from mobile devices today. As of a few weeks ago, half of all US mobile phones are smart phones.

Most call centers can't track the device from which calls are originated, but the math suggests that ~ 20 - 30% of calls are coming from smart devices today. This number will likely double in the next few years based on growing smart phone adoption and decreased landline usage.

If people are setting up calls from smart devices, a world of possibilities presents itself for improving the experience for callers and, as an aside, saving money for enterprises. 

Alas - and importantly - the industry will lag significantly behind consumer expectation. Consider the example you cite as the "pin-up for service app implementation" - Air Asia. Apologies for being a bit of a curmudgeon but that's far from a panacea of customer service.

I posted a brief blog about some specific observations of that app after reading your article on the Opus Research site.

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