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Whole lot of shakin' going on: The new customer service model


What kind of customer service model do you need to respond to the 'social' customer and restore some of the trust that customers have lost in customer service? Paul Greenberg explores a new model for customer service.

9th Oct 2009
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There’s an intense discussion going on in the social CRM community, as this is being written, on the transformation of customer service. It covers a wide range of opinion, has people passionately defending and aggressively attacking on behalf of one idea or another. It’s got the hallmark of these kinds of discussions – new acronyms being proposed.

But there is one area that everyone involved in it agrees on: customer service needs to respond to the social customer – which indicates a new customer service model – whether it is a variation on a more traditional agent model or a new service community-based model or some combination. 

The core of any real customer service model is based on how to minimise problems and optimise the customer experience an individual customer is having. It also means that when there is a problem there needs to be a resolution of that problem immediately. That implies a first contact resolution.  Note I didn’t say first call resolution. With the social customer, they communicate using multiple channels. They may have communicated with the company in question or their peers about the company in question long before they ever pick up a phone.

The preliminaries to a new model

In a March 2009 BusinessWeek, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon (like you didn’t know who he was), pins down a customer service model that should be emulated by companies:

Internally, customer service is a component of customer experience. Customer experience includes having the lowest price, having the fastest delivery, having it reliable enough so you don’t have to contact anyone. Then you save customer service for those truly unusual situations.

What Bezos really understands is that customer service – which in his case means complaint resolution service – is used only when a problem is beyond 'ordinary' resolution. 

But in that multichannel world, what is the social customer’s expectation? 

Well, first, the phone remains #1 on the list of channels to get to customer service. A Yankee Group study in 2007 found that 77% of the respondents saw the phone as the most important channel.  A Forrester Group study the same year found that all generations, including Gen Y, preferred the phone to interact with malls second and emails last.

But the second thing is what creates the real challenge. A study done by RightNow & YouGov Plc in 2007 of 2,800 British consumers found that 69% of the respondents had actively complained between one and five times to a company. The results were amazing. 60% of the respondents expected the problem to be fixed to their satisfaction. Only 27% claimed the problem was fixed to their satisfaction while 34% said no action was taken at all. 

What makes this remarkable is not the 34% no action or 27% fixed, but that there were fully 40% of the respondents who called not expecting the problem to be fixed. What kind of model do you need to reduce this incredible lack of trust and restore some measure of faith in the company’s customer service? This is pretty deep cynicism.

The new customer service model

To begin, any new customer service model has to anticipate the social customer’s multichannel preferences to communicate. It recognises that customer service problems won’t only be discovered at your site, but will be lurking in the cyber world via social media channels and social networks/communities.

However, unlike the preferences of some of the more naïve sorts out there, this customer service model builds on the traditional. There are still operational business requirements, cases still need to be opened and closed, data has to be captured, the customer record needs more than just transaction data, and agents need to be human beings who can warmly respond to what could be an irate other human being. The more knowledge that agent has about that individual customer, the smarter they are and the better experience they can provide.

Keep in mind, there are different sets of expectations when a customer complains as opposed to when they request something, and each of them has to be handled. But if you handle them well, whether they are complaints or simply queries, and you provide a customer service that can exceed expectations - which are low to begin with -there is a distinct benefit.

In 2009, J. D. Power and Associates did its annual ranking of Customer Service Champs, published in Business Week. Over half of the top 25% of the brands had improved their customer service, despite the recession. Conversely, of the bottom 25, most of the customer service scores had fallen. The willingness to invest in improvements paid off with improvements in commitments of customers to the brand.

Tenets and principles of the new model

  1. Pillar 2.0 - Customer service is becoming the most important of the social CRM pillars because it is where the most highly charged customer interacts most directly with the company.
  2. The experience dominates - Customer experience is the core of customer service, not efficiency.
  3. At least one step forward, no steps back - The thrust is to take the negative reaction and either neutralise it or make it positive, take the neutral and make it positive, and take the positive and reinforce it. This should be a proactive effort.
  4. Inbound, outreach - The complaints come from outside the firewall as well as inside so there needs to be outreach as well as an internal effort to resolve issues or answer questions. Developing customer service capabilities with channels like Twitter are not only au courant, but de rigeuer.
  5. Community-based - Customers are always willing to help other customers with similar problems or unanswered questions solve those problems. This kind of customer-to-customer interaction should be encouraged and brought under the aegis of the company through the use of communities. There is a good deal of advanced technology out there to do that with entire community platforms made available.
  6. Listen and learn - The conversation outside your firewall that goes on about your issues is as valuable if not more so than the concerns directly raised to you by the customers. But don’t underestimate the value of the information that may be contained not in a complaint, but in praise such as a 3- or 4-star review of what you do. Knowing what your advocates don’t like may be the best way to solve the customer service issues of the future or preventing them by solving the problem in advance. To help the process, use tools like social media monitoring.
  7. Value in collaboration - No longer is customer service solved only by the company but also by other employees in different divisions. Through the use of the tools of Enterprise 2.0, such as wikis, the wisdom of the crowds can be drawn out by empowering employees to add to the knowledge base.
  8. Value in anticipation - If you’ve listened well, you’ll be able to anticipate problems. Be predictive and prevent problems. As Smokey the Bear says, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” When it comes to customer service issues, only you can put out the fire, but it’s far better to prevent it.
  9. Measuring the experience - The metrics of customer service need to move from pure efficiencies to experiences. Rather than the number of calls taken in some time period, first call resolution should be given increased weight as one of those metrics that are most important to the customer themselves. Spend the time to figure out the benchmarks and the KPIs for customer experience in a call centre.

This is clearly not meant to be a complete picture of a new customer service model, only the tenets that lead to it. How you use them is up to you. If you don’t like them, don’t complain to me. I might not answer the phone. 

CRM expert Paul Greenberg is author of CRM at the Speed of Light (4th Edition, October 2009) and president of The 56 Group. He is also managing partner/CCO of BPT Partners, executive vice president of the National CRM Association and co-chair of the Rutgers CRM Research Center.

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By Richard Snow
12th Oct 2009 11:50

Good article, with lots of good points. However I find one or two of the points confusing. For me customer service is not just about first contact resolution, communicating with customers through their preferred channel of communication, or being aware of what customers are saying on social media sites – it is an enterprise issue where these examples are just a few components of a much wider issue. If I am flying to New York, get picked up at home, delivered to a curbside check-in, am channeled through a priority security channel and get a nice lounge to wait in – that is good customer service. If my fridge breaks down and an engineer turns up in an hour and fixes it – that is good customer service. If I call a contact center, and the agent recognizes me, has all the information at hand, and has authority to resolve my issue – that is good customer service. If I write a nasty comment about a company on twitter, that is not customer service.

The common characteristics in all my examples, and all good customer service, are that they consist of a series of good experiences that are personalized, and are within the context of my situation. So I absolutely agree that the customer experience is now what counts, and they will add up to good customer service.

So where does social media sit? Well more often than not social media entries are as the result of a bad experience – funny people rarely shout about the good ones. Companies need to know about these and need to factor that information, along with the rest of the customer information they have, into how they handle the next experience. So if social media is to become integrated into a customer service strategy then companies need to respond like-for-like and use it as a channel to answer customer issues. So in my view companies need to be cognizant of social media entries, integrate this information with other information about the customer and then use that integrated, 360degree view to optimize customer service across all touch points.

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By djmangen
12th Oct 2009 17:08

I believe that Tenets 4-6 address the place of social media as an effective tool as opposed to solely a complaint tool. In particular the establishment of communities where disgruntled customers can be served by customer advocates within the community is the place where the most constructive interaction can take place.

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