The brave new world of customer service

13th Jul 2009

Are we approaching a time where customers should only have to call the call centre when they really need expert assistance? Danny Singer believes so, advocating that firms should be reaching out to customers via their websites in a different way.

We do not expect a website to talk back to us but to me it is absolute madness that companies are spending serious sums of money to capture new customers or retain their existing ones by using ever more aggressive methods of approaching the public almost at random, while completely ignoring the thousands that wander through their website at all times of day or night.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting for a minute that organisations start pestering all visitors to their websites. On the other hand, if for instance somebody bothered to register and log in to your site and, therefore, you know who they are, what they have been doing on your site and for how long, there is no harm in my view in approaching them. After all you would not hesitate if they entered your shop or office.
Even if you don’t know who they are at this stage, it makes sense to attempt to begin some form of live dialogue with them. Some may object but as long as you are never too pushy or intrusive, very few would raise an eyebrow. After all, it is a lot less intrusive than calling them at home in the middle of supper, or bombarding them with junk mail and spam.

Also, lets be honest, if you are ever remotely interested in anything offered to you by a piece of direct marketing, the website will typically be your first port of call because you don’t want the hard sell, or to wait in a queue for 20 minutes or to get stuck in a seemingly endless and unproductive IVR loop for something you’re not sure you want or need. We like to browse in our own time. But if asked at the right time whether we require assistance it can be very helpful indeed, not only for the visitor but also for reducing abandoned shopping cart rates.
The visitor vapour trail

There is a lot that can be deduced by analysing the trace that visitors make on the website. If they came to you from a search engine, you can typically pick up the search terms they used to find you. If they used the search feature on your site, you would get an even better idea of what they were after - you will know what is in their shopping cart, even though they haven’t yet approached the check out. You will also have a pretty good idea of what products they looked at and for how long and will roughly know their location, so will probably be able to infer the language or local dialect you should be addressing them in.
Now, let’s assume that a high value customer visits your website and ends up talking to one of your call centre agents. Is it an inbound call or an outbound call? Well, it’s neither, really. If it’s a live web chat, instant message or a VoIP call, the visitor may have pushed a button that simply connected the call, but it certainly wasn’t a classic inbound call or outbound call. It blurs the boundaries that have been so entrenched in call centre culture for so long.

The essence of the brave new world that is just around the corner is precisely the introduction of a level of refinement and intelligence to customer service that will remove the distinctions that are so ingrained today. Call centres are still divided places: inbound agents, outbound agents, chat and email agents, etc. are all segregated and regarded as incompatible skill sets - which, of course, they are not.
The purpose of any technology (self-service, live web chat, email and IVR, for example) in the delivery of customer service is simple. Our values as a society are rooted in the basic principles of human dignity and respect and this must apply both to call centre agents as well as to customers. It is the role of technology to ensure that each and every person working in a call centre is given the dignity of fulfilling, useful and meaningful employment.
In order to achieve this, it is necessary that these agents become experts in the subjects that they are expected to advise the customer and are treated as skilled members of the organisation by being provided with tools, technology and training that allows them to fulfil their task intelligently and offer a service which the company they work for can be proud of.

Empowering employees

With improvements in customer service-focused technologies and customer demands and expectations of multi-channel service delivery, it is perhaps a controversial view, yet I believe that it is now valid to say that people should only need to call the call centre when they really need expert assistance. Everything else can and should be automated through the self-service and assisted service. Not to do so is inefficient and to some degree undignified. The age of the low skilled or unskilled agent is ending.
Shipping all these unskilled jobs abroad to what is pretentiously known as the emerging markets was the last gasp of this shameful practice of using low paid people for menial, repetitive jobs. If we object to the sweatshops that pump out our cheap T-shirts, why shouldn’t we object to the practice of asking people on a low wage to do no more than provide the equivalent of the talking clock? Never mind about the forced lies and indignity of anglicising their names and trying to conceal their accents. Thankfully this morally dubious practice is now coming to an end.
We are entering a new era in customer service and technology, along with the skills of people that use it, have a vital part to play in this transformation. Vendors, as the creators of such tools need to be leading from the front.

Danny Singer is managing director of Noetica


Replies (2)

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By Chris Hancock
14th Jul 2009 11:52

Danny seems misguided when making his final point that the evolution of call centres means they should only ever be used when a customer needs ‘expert assistance’. There are numerous occasions when an automated service (whether self-service or assisted service) simply won’t fulfil the basic customer need of hearing information in a reassuring, empathetic and ‘human’ way. This is a skill-set in its own right, yet is often undervalued by commentators, organisations and even agents themselves.

Think about claims processes or large financial transactions that are unusual in their nature to customers (such as mortgages), and even perceived as being complex by the customer themselves. These are all straight forward transactions where information is passed backwards and forwards, but having a person available to offer guidance and explanation when required can be extremely comforting and emotionally fulfilling for the customer, even though the query could have been resolved digitally. The risk in Danny’s suggestion is that customers will become homogenised in their treatment by brands, based on the in-house view.

I’d suggest that to develop a genuinely differentiated, intelligent and sustainable customer contact strategy a brand needs to understand its customer’s needs and potential value to a level which is individual, and currently uncommon. This will then unlock the potential for creating a longer lasting emotional relationship which in turn will improve key business results. Instead of having to choose either telephone contact or a digitally focused service offering, I believe that the two should work in tandem, combined and tailored to suit the customers known preferences and current circumstances.

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By Nick Evans
14th Jul 2009 14:02

As Chris suggests, exploring customer value can be a successful way of segmenting customers to ensure the most appropriate level of service is delivered when there is only finite resource available. It’s also true that a homogenised approach is often a damaging way forward. Every customer is different, not only in the value they could bring to an organisation, but in how this value can be best realised

As even the potential value of prospective customers can be estimated, an outline of the interactions needed to unlock this value in the short and long term is an achievable goal. Indeed each interaction will either go toward unlocking potential value or destroy some of it if handled, in the customer’s mind, inappropriately. This intelligent approach, seated in data analysis, can be instrumental in allowing an organisation to channel resources, whether customer service or marketing, into the most relevant and profitable customers.

Optimisation is fast becoming a buzz word in marketing and service provision. But far from a passing fad, the process of matching up customers with the most relevant techniques and levels of investment has a role outside of recessionary times; isn’t that what return on investment should be all about?

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