Why proactive customer service strategies fail
Two years ago, when Forrester Research announced its hottest trends for customer service, sitting in amongst the top six was proactive service. In fact, in essence it appeared twice – with analyst Kate Leggett noting that not only were brands increasingly exploring the potential of proactive engagement, but that the boom in Internet of Things and connected devices was also supporting the capability to provide pre-emptive service.
The growing interest in proactive service that Forrester was acknowledging was understandable. Research from Enkata, for instance, suggests that preemptive service can reduce call volumes by as much as 30%, while increasing customer retention rates by 3 to 5%. Or, as Leggett noted in her trend report: “Preemptive service wins on all fronts: faster resolution at lower costs, deeply personalized engagements, better planning, and anticipation of future customer needs.”
But Forrester’s forecast came with a caveat: there are barriers. With regards to the potential of IoT to supercharge proactive service, for instance, it was noted that the technology uses different communication protocols, messaging formats and data models, and as such organisations would have to deal with interoperability issues. But there are also other obstacles over and above these.
Indeed, for all the benefits, the reality is that proactive service doesn’t just involve the flicking of a switch. As we discussed in a previous post, there are a number of steps that need to be taken to transition from reactive to proactive. And it is also important to acknowledge the potential obstacles that litter the path to proactive service – after all, forewarned is forearmed.
Has proactive service risen to prominence as quickly as Forrester expected those two years ago? Perhaps not. And perhaps it is due in part to the following challenges that organisations must tackle.
Organisations must know their customers
If you’re going to resolve a customer’s problem before they even know it’s an issue, then you need to know what your customers want, need and expect, and then deliver it. If your organisation hasn’t got a handle on its customers, then proactive service is well out of reach.
“Being proactive means taking action before a customer has registered a need for service or has made any effort to resolve an issue. Therefore, it is essential to know your customers and how they behave,” says Colin Hay, VP sales at Puzzel UK. “For example within contact centres - why are customers contacting you? Research by the Customer Contact Association found that between 25% and 40% of all calls to contact centres are either unnecessary or avoidable. The most common causes are customers chasing information about deliveries or updates on what is due to happen next. In many instances customers make contact because they unable to find what they need on an organisation’s website.
You can't be proactive without personal data. And customers need to know how they benefit or they won't share their data.
“Once you know why customers are in contact it is possible to proactively answer questions before they arise. Offering a delivery tracking service makes customers feel informed and able to decide what is best for them if things don’t go to plan. Likewise, keeping website FAQs updated can reduce inbound demand in contact centres leaving lines open for only the most complex and profitable enquiries.”
This is straightforward customer insight. But then there is a far more granular level of understanding individual customer preferences. And this is when things get trickier.
“You can’t be proactive without personal data – you just can’t,” says Dr Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futurology at BT. And customers are increasingly disinclined to share their data, she notes.
“In one of our surveys in the insurance and financial services industry last year, we asked customers how willing they would be to share data with their insurances companies or banks – and there wasn’t a huge amount of delight to say ‘wow yes I’d like to share all of my data’.”
What becomes clear, is that in order for organisations to be able to collect the data that will facilitate proactive service, they will have to communicate the benefits that customers can receive by sharing their data.
As Millard notes: “I’m willing to trade data if I can see there is a tangible advantage for me to do that. If not – no.
“What’s the value add back? Does it make my life easier? Do I get special offers? Do I get money off? Do I get free stuff? I need to know the advantage because otherwise I’m not going to give you my data.”
Service has to be built into the company’s culture
In order for proactive service to truly succeed, it needs to be part of a service culture that permeates the entire organisation. There needs to be a central vision that is communicated, and then employees must understand it, buy into it, recognise the role they must play within it, and then live it.
As Millard notes, the cultural change requires employees to not only think about being proactive with customers, but also proactive internally as well.
“A lot of this is around how we pragmatically solve stuff that’s coming in [to the business], and the contact centre is kind of the pulse here, because it's the area where the data is probably coming in, in terms of the customer contacts telling you that there is something wrong down the line.
The willingness to help customers has to be a core value that’s lived everyday by everyone.
“[This means] pushing back into product lines. Pushing back into the website team if the website is suddenly down. If they’re getting lots of calls about the website being down, the first thing you do is obviously tell the customer, but you need to go back into the website guys and say, "Did you know this website was down? Okay you did. When is it going to get fixed because we need to manage customer's expectations."
Hay believes that nurturing this proactive mindset requires persistent dedication. He explains: “The willingness to help customers has to be a core value that’s lived everyday by everyone. The main challenge with this is that customer service tends to be tackled with an inside-out approach which means being as efficient as possible to inbound demand without much thought as to what is causing that demand.
“Proactive customer service has a different starting point. Adopting and outside-in view (i.e. that of the customer), it studies the patterns in customer contact in order to pick out cycles of behaviour that can be anticipated before they become an inbound contact. This change from inside-out to outside-in may require changing old habits and integrating them into daily routines.”
Crucially, the culture must be instigated by the leaders – where the transition can prove hardest. Millard notes: “There needs to be a mindset shift: this is not about cost and transaction; this is about investments and value. All of those things need to be recognised in the boardroom for that trickle down to happen.”
And that takes us onto the final challenge.
The company leadership must be on board
Delivering a successful proactive service programme can require significant time and resources. And even though the payoff can be big at the end of it, if the organisation’s leadership aren’t 100% on board, they may lose their nerve early on and pull the plug.
“Proactive customer service often requires a new mindset and resources to spot customer behaviour to enable early intervention in the engagement cycle,” explains Hay. “As a result leadership buy-in is essential to allocate the additional time and money needed for success.
“Some required changes are relatively low cost for example empowering advisors and team leaders to report what they notice as part of everyday customer interactions. Others are more complex and might need advanced analytics to spot hidden patterns or to identify the behavioural profile of potential churn customers in order to intervene before they actually leave.
“Once patterns and proactive interventions have been identified, support is needed from the top to get the message across and to continue to invest in the necessary technology to monitor progress.”
Jasper Bell, strategy director at Amaze, has further advice on securing commitment from the top brass.
“To get this buy in customer service organisations should benchmark and model the benefit of introducing proactive service interventions at key points in the customer journey and be ready to explain how added investment in people, process and technology will deliver returns to the business.
“This model should define the proposed blend between human and automated support but also look at the expected return from each channel taking into consideration when each should be used (research, sales, store information, after-sales, complaints, technical support for example). Beyond the impact on sales and revenue it will be key to quantify the impact proactive service could have on reducing complaints, increasing satisfaction scores and on referrals.”
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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.