Six steps to building a proactive customer service strategy

Leader strategy
Claudia Thorpe
Writer and editor, Call centres and customer service
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Leading-edge companies around the world are now practicing proactive customer service, where customer needs are anticipated and met, rather than simply reacting to requests for service.

This is great for customers, as little or no effort is required to maintain their relationship with providers and they are presented with a solution before they even knew there was a problem. Surprising and delighting customers in this way is key to breeding loyalty and advocacy and it provides a huge competitive advantage as so few businesses are currently doing it.

However, perhaps the most compelling reason for engaging proactive customer service is its impact on the bottom line. Using it to eliminate the need for service and reduce inbound costs can make for an extremely powerful business case.

But before you go jumping in unprepared, it’s essential to build a thoughtful, long-term strategic plan to make sure proactive service is doing its job and has the sticking power to become entrenched as business as usual.

Just as with any other strategy, proactive service needs measurable goals. As brand and product consultant, James Field puts it: “Definitions, goals and measures are important because there needs to be a consistency of approach and a common purpose for the work force. Goals and measures also help define the success (or not) of the strategy.”

So, how do you begin? What are the key things to consider? We asked a number of customer service experts for their advice on the six steps to the perfect proactive service strategy:

1) Get buy-in from the board
Customer management and brand protection expert Steve West says: “Creating, developing, and improving a proactive customer service programme takes time and money, so it’s imperative that the business decision-makers at C-suite and board level fully understand, support and commit to the strategy. Too many proactive customer service strategies fail simply because the business priorities change and the CX programme gets shelved due to lack of commercial credibility.”

2) Map out processes to discover why customers are calling
“The contact centre industry mindset is to work harder not smarter,” asserts Martin Hill-Wilson of Brainfood Consulting. “The instinct tends to be to turn to workforce management solutions to improve resourcing rather than question why customers are making contact and what can be done to reduce that demand.”

You also need to examine the behaviour of your customers and look for patterns. “It’s essential to use data,” continues Martin Hill-Wilson. “You need to know what the customer is trying to achieve, how many customers have this need, whether or not this is a one-off or repeated need.”

If implemented successfully this kind of strategy could transform your service offering, leading to lower costs and increased loyalty

Gregg Kilkenny, commercial services manager at VoiceSage agrees that it’s essential to look operationally at what needs to improve. “If you have staff taking care of a lot of low value customer engagement touch points, map out what it might look like if that contact demand was removed. What extra resources will that free up? What time will be saved? You can then get a clear understanding of the scope of your proactive strategy.”

Richard Stollery has been a customer experience leader at many well known brands, including Lego, M&S, and Adidas. He suggests that planning is the trickiest stage of any strategy: “This is when the difficult conversations need to be had,” he says. “Focus on whether you have the right operating model, the right people and the right processes to support the new strategy.” He also recommends looking at what your competitors are offering in terms of proactive service and think about how you need to match it or better it.

3) Talk to your customers and think about channels
“It never fails to amaze me how many companies still base their customer service strategies on assumptions rather than factual evidence of customer expectations,” says West. Before you devise your proactive strategy, do some mystery shopping, do some surveys, really talk to your customers about their experiences with your company - what do they like? What irritates them? Is there anything they would change?

James Field states this will help you tailor your strategy to your customer needs: “At its core your strategy must focus on what the customer wants to see, hear, and feel - not what you think they want.”

And don’t forget to ask them which channels they prefer to be contacted on while you’re at it. Gregg Kilkenny says: “You need to be open and willing to try other avenues of contact and have this availability where and when you need it.”

4) Listen to the frontline
Analytics software can be a huge help in identifying patterns of behaviour, but if you don’t have that option, conducting workshops with staff who have direct contact with customers if the best place to start. “Contact centre agents, retail assistants, helpdesk operators, social media support and receptionists will have much better insight into the mind of the customer than a creative marketer or business process specialist,” says West.

5) Carefully choose what to be proactive about
“Ideally, you want to be telling customers about things that are useful to know,” says Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures at BT. “Otherwise proactive strategies can simply be annoying, like someone continuously tapping you on the shoulder to inform you about things you aren't interested in.”

A BT study of financial services customers revealed that 82% would welcome proactive service in the event of the suspicion of fraud (e.g. if there was unusual activity on an account). Much less popular were overly proactive prompts for webchat sessions when on a website, and prompts to review pension contributions. “It seems that customers welcome proactive service when there is something in it for them, but annoying if it adds little,” muses Millard.

So when you are thinking about where to provide proactive service, be honest about whether or not it is truly valuable to the customer or if it is simply convenient to the company. Equally, we are not talking here about marketing. Prompting customers to think about extra products they may want to purchase from you is not proactive customer service.

In their book, Extreme Trust: Turning Proactive Honesty and Flawless Execution into Long-Term Profits, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers hold up the following as great examples of proactive customer service:

•   Amazon: When a video doesn’t stream well, rather than waiting for the customer to call to complain, Amazon proactively emails the customer with an apology and a credit.
•   JetBlue: When a passenger is due a refund for any reason, rather than making the passenger go to the website to apply for the refund, the airline proactively credits the passenger’s account with the amount of the refund.
•   Vodafone Turkey: When you could save money by using another calling plan, rather than waiting for you to find this out and ask for the other plan on your own, Vodafone Turkey proactively informs you that another plan would be more suitable for you.  

6) Align with business objectives
All our experts agree that any proactive strategy must be aligned with business objectives to make it stick. Steve West advises: “Take everything you’ve learned about the customer and align it with the business objectives. This should give you the baseline proactive customer service requirements across internal and external stakeholder groups and provide a balanced approach to designing the strategy.” Then be sure to set up a refining process to review progress and tweak the strategy as it becomes embedded.

Proactive customer service is not a quick fix for improving the customer experience at a stroke. It requires a clear, thoughtful strategy which reflects the needs of customers and of the business. If implemented successfully however, this kind of strategy could transform your service offering, leading to lower costs and increased loyalty.

What’s more, if you take action now, you will be ahead of the game in an industry-wide shift that will encompass most businesses in the future.

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