The Ins and Outs of Real-Time Customer Service

Business owners and industry experts weigh the value of operating in real time, all the time.
Digital Engagement

The average person can only handle a few tasks at a time. But for companies, the ability to process and respond to multiple customer requests rapidly is now a competitive differentiator. The speed with which companies can collect and convert customer data into insights and act on it is critical.

In fact, research shows that 3 out of 4 people who contact a company for customer support via social media expect a response within an hour. However, quick responses are only part of the battle. Customers have little patience for generic answers and expect the company to quickly understand and solve their specific problem.

Here are the guidelines for balancing the pros and cons of real-time data as companies adapt to a new reality.

Make Faster (and Smarter) Decisions
Companies are increasingly turning to real-time speech analytics to guide agents through phone calls with customers and improve customer satisfaction. The technology captures and analyzes phone conversations as they occur and using linguistic analytics combined with a decisioning engine, identifies insights and recommendations for the agent.

The real-time speech analytics space has become highly competitive with vendors like NICE, Interactive Intelligence, and Verint all offering various flavors of the technology. "One of the most exciting things happening in today's contact center is real-time speech analytics," says Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting. But speech analytics by itself is not enough, Fluss adds. Companies also need a strategy for responding to these insights.

"Real-time analytics is only valuable if the agent knows what to do with the data," she says. "Giving the agent 20 different options for acting on the data is not very helpful. Tools that identify the next-best action or recommendation are even better."

Additionally, the biggest challenge to leveraging real-time data or any data is adoption, notes Sarah Simon, director of voice of the customer consulting at Confirmit, a customer experience software provider. The value of using a new platform or acting on data insights must be made clear.

"You could have a great system for dynamically adding relationship health scores to customer interactions, but if it's not properly introduced or 'sold' to employees, they're not going to use it," Simon says. "It's important to have a rollout strategy that outlines the value of the new solution and the training to take advantage of it."

Blend Marketing, Sales, and Customer Service Data
The adage that customers don't think in silos is playing out across industries. For instance, customer service agents are increasingly being asked marketing and/or sales-related questions, observes Andrew Thomas, marketing director at content management and language translation company SDL.

"Some customers want to speak with someone to get more technical information before they make a purchase," Thomas says. "So what was typically thought of as a post-sale interaction is now pre-sale and customer support agents need to have the right information when the customer calls." Therefore, agents should have insight into the customer's previous interactions with the company as well as the latest marketing offers and product information at their fingertips. Besides providing access to CRM data beyond just the marketing or sales departments, a standardized tag management system is key for making the company's content searchable, Thomas adds.

And even if the bulk of a company's business takes place online, customers may still want to speak with a customer service agent. The Black Tux, for instance, is an e-commerce company that rents out tuxedos online. Although the vast majority of customers shop for and select their suit online, the relationship often begins over the phone.

"We get a lot of pre-purchase calls, in fact the phone is our most-used channel [for customer service]," says Mike Gammarino, co-founder and VP of operations of The Black Tux. "Renting a tux online makes things very convenient but people want to make sure there are competent people behind the website." Of the company's 100+ employees, 35 of them are support agents. In terms of utilizing real-time data, several agents are in charge of monitoring social media and review sites for issues before they escalate.

But while responding quickly to real-time data is important, it's not the only type of information that matters. "There are limitations to what you can do with real-time data," Fluss notes. "Near-real time information (defined as information that's more than five minutes old) and other contextual information are also powerful."

The Black Tux, for instance, uses a multi-pronged approach to measure customer satisfaction. After the phone call, customers will receive a text message asking them to rate their satisfaction with the company's service on a scale of 1 to 5. Agents are also asked what they think the customer's satisfaction level is. The company also uses the Net Promoter Score in its post-transaction emails to find out if customers would recommend the company to others. The company then aggregates the data and reviews it on a daily and weekly basis.

"If the customer is happy, we're happy and so we try to use a wide variety of data to make sure we're getting an accurate picture of our customer interactions," Gammarino explains.

Think Predictive + Prescriptive
As companies become more adept in leveraging data, the next challenge is to uncover opportunities and challenges before they emerge. Expect companies to build more predictive and prescriptive models, Simon says. Instead of responding to customer complaints as they occur, savvy companies "will be able to identify the patterns and head off the issue," Simon predicts. "Identifying patterns that suggest customers fall into certain categories can solve many problems before they grow."

Companies can also expect the amount of customer feedback to continuously grow. But instead of viewing that as a problem, consider it a gift, Fluss advises. "When someone contacts you it's a gift, even if they're complaining," Fluss says. "All these interactions aren't bad. It's what you do with the gift that matters."