What picture comes into your mind when you think about customer service (CS)?

Here are a few of the classics:

  • A room full of people in a huge call centre wearing headphones in front of a PC.
  • Someone I can’t get hold of when everything has gone wrong
  • Someone who gives me the wrong answer to my question
  • Someone who sends me back to where I first started

Interesting how pretty much all these comments are negative. It’s like, I know I may sometimes need to talk to customer services, but I hope I don’t have to because it’s going to be difficult and may not even solve my problem.

The reasons why customers often have this experience are simple. Customer service is a department and like all departments has developed a life of its own often independent of the rest of the business. Second, because it is a separate unit, it has developed processes, systems and a culture all of its own, which again have not necessarily moved with the times compared to other parts of the business or in the lives of the customer. In short, both the business and the customer have essentially adapted the way they operate to suit a department that has not changed in the way they have.

Customer service
Danny Deutz, Senior Technology Consultant, Astound Commerce

There have been innovations of course, significant ones in many cases; chatbots for instance and advanced FAQs that enable the customer to self-serve for low-level enquiries that simply do not need human intervention. And these are important innovations in the customer services armoury, but they are often used as tools to prevent customers getting what they want. How many times has the answer to the question: did this fix your problem? been a resounding, no.

Some retailers believe that a very basic level of service is enough, but they are missing the fact that service is one of the few if only remaining competitive differentiators left. Already competing hard on product, price, channel and delivery, it is only customer service that can work across the entire customer journey from initial enquiry all the way through to delivery and returns.

Like any relationship, it needs to be managed in the right way at every stage of its development, not simply when things have gone wrong. So, the design of a new strategy and then a new system needs to start with the customer, and this will quickly reveal the various ways in which they are not being managed correctly at different stages in their journey.

CS must be integrated into the core commerce system, that is essential, so that the relationship can be managed at all its stages, particularly as these will not necessarily be linear – search, browse, buy, rinse and repeat. The customer operates across channels and devices in often unpredictable ways, so it is essential to monitor all interactions and respond appropriately in ways that work for them.

Some aspects of customer service may well get covered at the sales stage and therefore by a different team using a different system, but they should not be distracted from the business of selling. Sales and customer services systems should only be integrated to the extent that they share a common view of the truth of the customer and their history, and assume control only at the right moments, for instance where a customer service enquiry starts to turn into a sales enquiry. But even then, customer services people can be increasingly equipped with the data, the training and the systems that will enable them to sell. It’s all about the customer.

So, while customer service may start with self-service and FAQs it must scale seamlessly to peer-to-peer assistance from a customer services expert. And by expert, we mean someone who can manage all aspects of the customer’s enquiry, not simply traditional customer service elements such as complaints, delivery queries and returns.

A good CS system will have many connections into other systems and data sets, to the extent that they may carry their own self-service capabilities, enabling personnel to access expert articles which recommend next best actions, while they are speaking to a customer.

The system needs to be liberated from the traditional call centre and be available from any device, particularly now that more and more CS people work from home, a trend that is certain to be accelerated post pandemic, and as remote management systems have been used widely. And these remote systems are increasingly the same tools that customers use, including text, Whatsapp and Facebook, so it is important for CS staff to make these more personal connections, particularly as more and more communications will be through mobile phones. The CS interface must therefore be mobile first, which has the additional advantage that CS staff will be increasingly working not just from home but in the field.

Danny Deutz, Senior Technology Consultant, Astound Commerce