5 Ways to Transform the Customer Service Experience

Here's how savvy companies are deepening customer relationships through customer service.
Customer Experience

It's no secret that customer service greatly impacts brand perception, but this area is still often pegged as a cost center instead of a strategic investment in the customer experience. At the same time, customer expectations are rising as people demand quick solutions with little patience for delays or subpar customer support.

Companies that neglect customer support are missing an opportunity to win loyal customers. Additionally, making improvements at the agent level can yield meaningful gains for the organization in customer satisfaction as well as employee morale and retention. Here are five ways business leaders can transform their customer support into an avenue for deepening customer relationships.

1. Provide a "Human Touch"
By 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator, according to Walker, a consulting firm. And while automated or self-service solutions play an important role in quickly resolving issues, they are not enough. People are still needed to solve complex problems and provide that "human touch," maintains Ty McMahan, senior director of marketing and content at StellaService, a customer service performance measurement company.

"There are times when a customer really wants to speak with a live person or has a complicated question that's beyond an IVR's capabilities," McMahan notes. Some companies, he adds, are taking their live agent support an extra step and providing descriptions listing the agents' areas of expertise along with a photo, making them more personable.

As an example, McMahan points to BackCountry.com, which supplies outdoor gear. Customers who want advice about packing for a certain trip, like the Appalachian Trail, can contact an "Expert Gearhead" employee who has already completed that trip and can provide helpful information. "This is a great way to establish a relationship with your customer and helps you stand out," McMahan says.

Justin Robbins, senior analyst at International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), agrees that there continues to be a need for live agents. In a survey issued to more than 400 contact center agents by ICMI and call center software provider Five9, 73 percent of respondents cited a noticeable increase in the complexity of their customer-agent interactions. "There's only so much that you can accomplish through self-service," Robbins notes. "And even though companies want to hire as few agents as possible, the types of questions where you need someone who can get to the root of a complicated problem will never go away."

2. Make Data-Driven Decisions
Organizations have a mountain of data at their fingertips, the challenge is uncovering actionable insights from the data to drive better decisions. Carol Fink, director of executive relations at telecom provider Verizon Wireless, says the Six Sigma program (a set of techniques that emphasize the use of statistical methods for process improvement) has helped her team provide better customer experiences. Fink manages a team of 180 people and provides customer experience governance and oversight across all of Verizon Wireless' lines of business.

"One of the things I learned [from the Six Sigma program] is a methodology called DMAIC," Fink says. "DMAIC teaches you to define the issue, measure it, analyze it, put an improvement in place and then watch to make sure the control stays in place. It's helped me and others move from using a gut reaction to a data-based decision-making process." The program also helps executives approach issues from the customer's perspective, according to Fink.

Fink demurred from providing a specific example of how the approach has affected customers, except to note that executives give the customer experience more weight in decision-making processes. "Our chairman regularly reads customer letters and I hear from him every week on individual customer issues," she says. "We're also working on a trial that lets our executives get more involved with our customers, [such as] for issues that get escalated, a vice president might be responding through chat or a phone call."

3. Select Service Channels Wisely
The proliferation of devices has given people a multitude of ways to communicate, including email, phone, social media, chat, and video. It's difficult for brands to keep up with all these communication channels. Instead of trying to do it all, companies should focus their resources on a few channels, but be very good at responding through them, advises StellaService's McMahan.

"Brands should understand where their audience is and how people want to communicate with them," McMahan says. "But it's also okay to be unapologetic about not offering all types of communication as long as you're great at responding and solving problems through the channels you're using."

Indeed, most customer service departments have an active presence on certain channels, like email, but less so in newer areas, observes Kate Leggett, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Besides email, web self-service is often the first point of contact for many customers, so companies are putting resources into that," Leggett notes. "Chat is becoming more common, but mobile customer service is still deployed mainly as an afterthought and video is new but it's showing value in certain scenarios." Those scenarios include situations that require visual support, like installation instructions, or as a high-end, concierge-like service.

And while having a comprehensive view of the customer is difficult across multiple channels, companies are getting closer to maintaining complete customer profiles by implementing processes for integrating their CRM systems with other platforms across departments like marketing, sales, and service, notes Steve Pollema, president of CRM software provider and consulting firm eLoyalty.

"Companies are moving towards robust solutions that give them insight into core customer information like order history and the last time the customer called, but also the customer's actions on the company's website and details like her anniversary as a customer," Pollema says. Armed with this information, agents can provide much more helpful and personalized services. "One of the core tenets of exceptional customer experience," Pollema adds, "is differentiating the experience based on each customers' needs and preferences."

4. Explain what Makes a Great Customer Interaction
Agents understand they need to provide customers with a positive experience, but can stumble without adequate training and preparation. Clayton Homes, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway that offers manufactured housing, revamped its training with data insights and examples as well as encouraging employees to simply "treat our customers the way you want to be treated," explains Call Quality Manager Myk Moreno. The company selected Verint's recording and speech analytics tools to help it analyze customer feedback and share examples of customer interactions with agents. Doing so "has been a game changer in the sense that it's now easier for us to record and measure multiple calls and agents have a better idea of what we're expecting," Moreno says. "For example, closing on a house is a big deal, but not all our agents were treating it as something special, and now they know to express more excitement and really congratulate customers about it."

In addition, extending the training process from one week to one month, in addition to 90 days of supervision has made a significant difference in preparing agents for interacting with customers. "It's all about making sure our agents are set up for success," Moreno adds.

5. Measure what's Important
A successful customer interaction means different things across departments, which is why organizations need a standardized set of metrics to ensure they're meeting their goals. "Companies have a lot of goals to meet in terms of cost, compliance, conversion rates, and customer satisfaction, so business leaders must decide what their company is going to differentiate on, whether that's cost, customer experience, or something else," Forrester's Leggett says.

When it comes to measuring the customer experience, companies may want to consider including the value of a shared experience, adds Brian Solis, a principal analyst at Altimeter Group. "Experiences today are not limited to the individual," he notes. "If it's a good or bad experience, people tend to share their experiences with others and this can affect other people's decisions to do business with you." Companies can measure their shared experience value through social listening, VOC feedback tools, and other channels and assign a metric to these insights.

At a time when most competitors are just a click or phone call away, companies are hard-pressed to differentiate themselves and customer service is an often overlooked asset. Providing a balance of automated solutions for quick questions and as well as agents who have the proper tools, training, and information to provide meaningful help will go a long way in increasing customer loyalty and advocacy and gaining a competitive advantage.