Innovation In Customer Service

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Continuous technological breakthrough and exposure to Big Data & Advanced Analytics make disruptive innovation seem obvious. In hindsight, it appears inevitable that the business model of companies like Kodak and Blockbuster would fail. However, it might not have seemed so back then. Companies deal with innovation incrementally, adapting what they already have in ways that look even better. It is not obvious that time has run out on an idea that has been working fine. I believe that is happening right now with customer service.

A brief historical background is useful. Customer service started with mail. Every package had an address where customers could reach out for information or to complain. With the Phone Transformation, customer service started to be done in real-time. Companies changed their mailing rooms into call centres. Later on, with the Mobile Transformation, calls could be placed anywhere and anytime. So call centres grew bigger and more sophisticated. Soon after, with the Internet Transformation, customers could also communicate by e-mail. Many customers considered this preferable to calls and call centres incorporated it, now handling both calls and e-mails.

These transformations shaped customer service, but the idea stayed from the mailing days: here is a contact, use it if there is any problem. If we do not hear from you again, everything should be fine. In fact, the less we hear about you, and the fastest we deal with you, the less we have to spend. This explains why, despite call centres growing, their costs are cut whenever possible (i.e. outsourcing, downsizing).

For some time now, we have seen the Digital Transformation. Customer service now integrates Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, and many other online platforms. Social Media interactions happen faster than e-mail, with shorter messages that are sharable. For the first time ever though, customer service is public, empowering customers and forcing companies to increase the quality of their customer service. Therefore, Social Media is becoming the preferred channel to contact companies, particularly for key growth segments. How have companies reacted? Call centres that handled calls and e-mails now handle also online customer service.

The gap in this incremental approach is that the integrated view of customer interactions, accounts and whole relationship is missing. Call Centres need to turn into Media Centres. Customer service should become a Marketing tool, managed on a day-to-day basis as an Above-The-Line one2many communication tool. This should be centralised under one unit that looks at satisfaction and value equally. A happy customer is worth more. This value can be broken down according to different customer segments and life-time stages (Big Data & Advanced Analytics).

It has become cliché that Social Media changes everything (although I was surprised to hear that even the Whitehouse has joined Snapchat!). Perhaps it seems obvious if I say that Social Customer Service is the future. However, I believe this transformation is different from any before. Customer service has always been an option after acquiring the product; now, with Social Media, customer service is the product. If a customer engages with the company online, if the company gets to know the customer and the customer knows the people behind the company, a social bound is created. Customers become brand advocates.

Many companies already incorporate customer service as a core component of their business. From Hotel Chains (Ritz), Airlines (Southwest Airlines) to Online Retailers (Zappos), communicating with customers is part of the product. Perhaps it will also appear inevitable, in a few years, that the ones that did not transform were the ones that became extinct.

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