How to Provide World-Class Customer Service

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2014-05-28
customer service and support

A basic tenant of business has always been to keep the customer satisfied. Yet, over the last decade, the task has become infinitely more complicated as consumer expectations have grown and a mind-bending array of technologies and channels have entered the picture.

"Customers are more sophisticated and demanding," says Scott Clarke, head of digital customer experience at consulting firm Capgemini. "They want to interact with companies on their own terms, through the channel of their choice and with the device of their choice. This is forcing businesses to adapt."

Not surprisingly, this new era of customer service is redefining relationships, including those between business and IT. As a growing array of technologies and processes intersect—and the connection points with customers grow—organizations must confront these challenges and construct a framework that fully supports the digital age.

What's more, says Glen Hartman, global management director for digital information at Accenture, it's necessary to view customer service as part of a more holistic framework of processes and events and build IT systems that support a global view. "An end-to-end connected, continuous customer experience is essential," he adds.

Achieving success is no simple task. For most organizations, there's a need to manage an increasingly fractured environment that spans channels, devices and communication methods. To be sure, a growing number of businesses—including retailers, health care providers and financial services firms—are finding it necessary to tie together disparate systems, apps and tools, and then create a unified look and feel for customers.

"Too often, the discussion revolves around abstract business issues and technology," says Peter Krasilovsky, a vice president and senior analyst at retail market research and consulting firm BIA/Kelsey. Instead, "Companies must take a customer-first approach."

Customer engagement is increasingly at the center of a successful business, and outstanding service is a key component to building mindshare and loyalty. However, with information technology accelerating and cost pressures mounting, aligning processes, systems and channels is a growing challenge.

"There's a need for more agility and greater efficiency," Capgemini's Clarke points out. "Organizations must use digital technology in a more focused and intelligent way. It's critical to examine both business opportunities and outcomes and use these to define the technology requirements."  

Constructing a Framework

These days, world-class customer service involves more than an outstanding CRM application and a fast, efficient call center. It's more than the sum of online surveys, focus groups, social listening tools and crowdsourcing capabilities.

An organization must tune into customer preferences, attitudes and needs, and, ultimately, construct a framework that provides personalized and highly relevant communication. The most successful businesses introduce systems and processes that draw a direct line between a problem or concern and a solution.

Take J.B. Hunt, for example. This transportation logistics and contract services provider, which operates 130 call centers with more than 1,200 representatives throughout North America, has built a customer experience platform that integrates channels and functionality.

A Genesys Customer Experience Platform identifies the incoming phone number and routes calls based on a least-cost and best-agent skill-match model. The platform also incorporates sophisticated analytics and robust communications features.

Brad McBride, information services manager, says that the environment aligns with a growing need to take a more targeted and segmented approach. "Different groups of callers require very different interactions," he notes.

The system has reduced transfers and handoffs, voice mail messages, and an array of other inefficiencies that have plagued the company in the past. "We're able to integrate numerous vendors across multiple channels and gain a broader and deeper view of the business at any given moment," McBride says.

In fact, the system has contributed to improved customer experience by reducing the average speed of answer (ASA) from 39 seconds to 4 seconds; trimming abandoned calls from 17 percent to 2.1 percent; and reducing average handle time (AHT) by nearly 30 seconds. Moreover, J.B. Hunt estimates that it has saved more than $30 million in operational costs over the last 15 years.

World-class customer service requires more than efficient call routing, channel management and device integration, however. There's a need to take a broader and deeper view of relationships and interrelationships, Clarke says. Tools such as real-time social listening, analytics and big data are critical to spotting fast-changing trends. Savvy organizations are putting these tools to work.

"How customers evaluate products and services—and the underlying value drivers—are becoming more complex, fragmented and buried," he says. "It's critical to understand what customers are trying to do and how they feel at the point of interaction, and then build the systems and processes to support them."

A trap that many business and IT executives fall into is viewing things from a business-centric perspective. "Customers do not think about channels and touch points," Clarke explains. "They just want to have the issue resolved."

For business, this means creating as seamless and consistent an experience as possible. "A person should be able to pick up one device or another, start on one channel or app and move to another, and experience no disruption or loss of information," he says. "The business simply addresses their inquiry in a prompt and efficient manner."

Rethinking Customer Relationships

Innovation is also at the center of this new era of customer service. In recent years, many companies have turned to online discussion boards where people can post problems and help other people. But now some organizations are taking the concept to another level by providing rewards and incentives for those who assist others and attempt to solve problems.

This might take the form of gift cards or discounts on products, or a reputation score that allows individuals to gain ego points in a game-like environment. While it's still necessary to monitor these posts and the advice offered for accuracy (and possibly for civility), this scenario can greatly off-load customer service staffing demands.

Within this new frontier of customer service, Capgemini's Clarke says that it's important to rethink the fundamental concept of relationships and a customer's true value. "Historically, the most valuable customers were thought to be those who bought the most products or had the lowest service costs," he explains.

"But today, through social media, online discussion boards and elsewhere, we see leaders and influencers that play an entirely different role in the business and buying continuum. They may never actually buy the product, but they know a great deal about it. They can play a key role in everything from marketing to customer service."

To be certain, organizations must focus on providing greater value through technology and by engaging the customer on an end-to-end basis. When customers believe they will receive a diminished experience through a kiosk, Web browser or app, they will likely seek the more expensive and time-consuming options of calling on the phone or showing up for an in-person exchange.

When customers can't accomplish a task using one channel—or when assistance falters—they are likely to grow frustrated and post negative comments on social media or at a review site. Clarke says there's a need to educate and support customers as they transition to a new support technology.

In the end, an organization may need to fundamentally rethink and remap the way customer service takes place, where it comes from and how the organization rewards results. "There's a need to think out of the box," Clarke concludes.

"In the digital world, organizations must strike the right balance between creativity and productivity, speed and efficiency, and automation and results." The common denominator, he adds, "is an ability to deliver customer service consistently and provide a level of service and support that elevates the firm above the competition."