Despite the fact that consumers of all ages are constantly within arms length of their mobile devices, many people don't use the 'phone' feature on their smartphones nearly as much as they once did. Instead, text messaging, social media, and various applications occupy most of their time. Yet, while consumers continue to test and adopt the latest innovations, contact centers and customer service agents have yet to truly catch up to this new norm.
"Companies spent more than a decade looking at contact centers as money pits-so-called cost centers," explains Ian Jacobs, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Improving a contact center often meant looking for ways to take costs out of the business and not really focusing on the customer service experience. Really, companies burnt customers with a shortsighted focus on cost efficiency. Also, we have become less likely to use the phone to communicate by voice in our daily lives-Why should we communicate with companies differently than we communicate with our friends?"
Of course, leaders typically blame this shift on Millennials alone, citing 'digital natives' as the force behind this wave of change. But, according to one recent study published by Aspect Software, 65 percent of all consumers and 69 percent of Millennials, especially, say that they feel good about themselves and the company they're doing business with when they resolve problems without talking to customer service. Such stats illustrate that, while Millennials may be ahead of the curve, fellow generations aren't far behind.
"The reality is that communication preferences are changing for every generation, and text messaging and social media are increasingly the channel consumers are using for customer service questions and resolution," says Curt Steinhorst, certified speaker at The Center for Generational Kinetics. "This doesn't mean that talking on the phone is going the way of the ditto machine, but it does mean that companies absolutely must offer multiple channels for customers to engage with them when it comes to customer service. Not offering these channels is one of the easiest ways to upset otherwise happy customers and can lead to negative reviews online."
How can contact centers realign their efforts to cater to these evolving individuals? User experience reigns supreme, as all brands will want to make it simple for customers to reach out to the contact center in the most frictionless way. But success also means leveraging tools customers are comfortable with already. Here are the top four forms of engagement platforms leaders must look to if they wish to satisfy expectations and sustain loyalty:
Mobile phones have made an undeniable impression in today's tech-savvy world. From Millennials to Baby Boomers, it's hard to find anyone who doesn't have some sort of mobile device within reach. However, the majority of users now opt to text their friends and family in lieu of actual phone use, which begs the question-If that's how consumers choose to interact with those around them, why shouldn't they be able to engage customer service agents in the same manner?
"Customers are expecting real-time responsiveness to their support issues and want solutions that provide immediate answers," explains Keith Paul, director of marketing at HeyWire. "The tools we're used to, especially telephone or Web chat, no longer fit this model when one is put on hold, or is forced through a gauntlet of phone menus, or is required to sit at a computer for live Web chat. Customers are on-the-go and appreciate being able to resolve issues without giving up valuable time."
By tapping into the messaging application that comes standard on all modern phones, contact centers can use familiar technology to expand their reach and ease customer frustrations on the go. Embracing built-in tools prevents brand app fatigue, while also enabling brands to keep up with rising customer expectations for personalized support and service, as providing the right answer at the right time via mobile customers' preferred channel will enhance satisfaction.
Healthcare providers have begun to embrace text communications in an effort to ease patient frustration. Most remain in the early stages of adoption, but some allow patients to text the name of their doctor to view their schedule. Patients will then receive a reply that details the doctor's next available time slot. The California Department of Public Health, in particular, created a text message flu shot locator to help consumers find the nearest place offering vaccinations. Within the first three days of the campaign, 33 percent of more than 1,000 participants received their flu shot at the suggested location, ultimately providing easier access to preventative healthcare.
Much like text messaging, live chat allows consumers to engage agents in real-time without having to pick up the phone. Live chat uses an online platform that typically feeds through the given company's website, allowing customers to instant message an agent regarding an array of issues.
"Live chat enables a one-to-one connection that mirrors the way we connect every day," says Alon Waks, vice president and head of product marketing for LivePerson. "That's why it's winning in popularity. It's faster, cheaper, and it delivers better, more intelligent customer service than 800-number support. Conversations takes place in real time and agents can push relevant information via the Web to consumers on the other end of the chat. Live chat platforms also enable companies to better predict what particular customers need, allowing for personalized and relevant service."
Pushing beyond their traditional scope, these intelligent platforms can also monitor online activity, empowering agents to proactively detect when users might need help, thereby deflecting customer frustration, while keeping everything contained within the initial digital interface. From Cox Communications, to Time Warner Cable, numerous television and Internet providers offer customers live chat customer service as an alternative to long wait times via phone. Simply by validating account ownership, customers can interact with agents via instant messenger to resolve issues with billing and service. Retailers, such as JCPenney, present similar conveniences, enabling consumers to ask questions or rectify order issues without ever picking up the phone.
Modern consumers are all about independence, as Aspect Software's study also reveals that 73 percent of respondents prefer to solve service issues on their own, setting the stage for big changes within the customer experience landscape. Thus, self-service technologies have the potential to boost both satisfaction and loyalty.
Jacobs explains that, while customers have clearly begun to use self-service tools more often, they're still more satisfied with the service the get over the phone. One recent study conducted by ICMI and inContact indicates that 97 percent of contact centers recognize phone as the top agent interaction channel. But, if companies want customers to adopt these self-service technologies even further, they'll need to invest in modern, responsive tools that'll provide a differentiated experience based on context. Contact centers will also need to become more proactive by solving customers' problems before the customer even knows there's an issue.
Steinhorst advises companies to offer a self-service button, link, or option directly on their homepage. Often times, such buttons are buried out of sight. Making these features prominent upon arrival demonstrates that the brand truly cares about customer service and self-service. Easy access to self-service, in particular, will enable customers to resolve issues quickly and independently, thereby curbing negative sentiment and cutting operational costs simultaneously. Leaders, however, must ensure that customers have easy access to additional channels alongside these self-service options. Not all problems can be solved without help, so brands must guarantee that all available channels are within reach to supply the most seamless customer experience possible.
For many contact centers, social media appears to be the most daunting of these emerging channels because concerns become part of public record. While each of the previous customer service options take place behind the scenes, many customers take to social media in an effort to voice their complaints and draw attention to their issues.
When it comes to navigating the tricky world of social media customer service, Steinhorst suggests contact centers must carry three specific actions to ensure success:
- Act human when responding to questions or complaints. Corporate or canned social media responses turn off customers by making them feel like a number. Instead, sympathize with the challenge ahead before helping to solve the particular problem.
- Don't get into the social media blame game. Seek to take the conversation off social media before tempers get out of hand. Provide a personalized email address or direct number so they can call or text the agent to rectify the issue privately and promptly.
- Always stick to your plan. Emotions can escalate quickly, especially when customers are angry. Having a clear plan, however, will empower your social media team to respond quickly. Deviating from this plan should only happen to better serve the customer.
Waks notes that social media frequently serves as the distraught consumer's last resort, for they view this convenient, immediate channel as the ideal way to reach brands when they're having trouble. Brands can try to avoid these public complaints, but consumers know that, because many such declarations go viral, companies cannot ignore them for long. Ideally, contact centers must invest in platforms that flag negative tweets and proactively trigger private chat invitations in an effort to be responsive and protect both their customers' privacy and the brand's reputation at the same time.
Modern call center agents need to respond fast and correctly. Thus, agents must be equipped with the technology they need to be quick and informed. Waks also emphasizes that, while many believe this move toward alternative channels may minimize the human element behind customer service, these options actually have the opposite effect. Engaging with customers on the platform they prefer feels familiar and friendly, he explains, because texting is the way many now communicate with friends and family. Therefore, while automated responses can help accelerate resolution time, this one-to-one connection provides agents with the opportunity to let their personalities shine through in order to make the customer feel like they're truly connected to another person, not just some robotic representative.
Dollar Shave Club, for instance, recently spoke to The Los Angeles Times to explain why its three-dozen member service agents constantly channel the brand's distinctly playful, irreverent tone. Because such customer service interactions are often the only opportunity agents have to engage with members, this approach empowers them to pamper customers and reinforce the fact that they're part of an exclusive club. Improvisation enables agents to act according to the given situation, creating an individualized experience that minimizes discontent and encourages loyalty.
"Like the rest of us, contact center agents think and behave differently today that they did just a few years ago," Jacobs adds. Everything about today's consumer landscape has changed-not just the consumers themselves. Contact centers must account for this shift on every front in order to continue meeting and exceeding expectations at every turn.