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Weaning customers off the call center

Sometimes, the customer service experience presents itself as a chicken and egg scenario. When it comes to engagement, consumers and businesses are constantly training each other about where and how to respond, or how to get the fastest response. Social messaging, for example, has been a consumer-led shift in customer service, where blasting a brand on Twitter gave business’ notice that they needed to have a stronger social support presence and strategy.

But companies train consumers, too—both by where they respond and where they don’t.

I recently had a problem with an app I downloaded. I tried to solve the problem on my own and when that didn’t work, I systematically went through every customer service channel to get an answer. The tenor of the first response, by email, was akin to: Sorry, we’re all at the beach. We look forward to addressing your issue when we run out of beer.

An exaggeration, sure, but it was obvious that responding to me wasn’t a priority. Twitter was my last resort, but then the Twitter team got back to me almost immediately, solved my problem, and asked if there was anything else that they could do. However inconsistent the experience was, in the end, the service was great. You can bet that if I have another problem, Twitter will be my first point of contact. The company, deliberately or not, trained me how to interact with them.

You can bet that if I have another problem, Twitter will be my first point of contact. The company, deliberately or not, trained me how to interact with them.

Response times drive channel choice—and influence value

Most companies aspire to have a robust presence wherever their customers are. But let’s face it, not all customer service channels are created equal. Some channels are better for the business: one article in the Harvard Business Review noted that the cost of self-service channels is pennies compared to the cost of human interaction, which can cost upwards of $7-13 dollars each. On top of that, surveys reveal that roughly 70 percent of customers would rather figure out their own solutions—a win-win for both customers and the business. In 2018, Forrester Research reported that “self-service interactions have overtaken all other channels for the third year running.”

The best channels for the customer tend to be where they get the fastest response. Unfortunately, research also shows that For example, those surveyed revealed that after an email went unanswered, 71 percent tried the phone. When there’s no response over social media, 55 percent fall back to phone support.

A case study in Harvard Business Review that noted that when companies responded to customers quickly, empathetically, and personally on Twitter, customers were willing to pay more for products in the future—even more than they would pay for the same product from competitors. Aside from the dollar value associated with a positive customer service interaction, there was a marked improvement in Net Promoter Score, which measures loyalty and willingness to recommend a brand.

When companies responded to customers quickly, empathetically, and personally on Twitter, customers were willing to pay more for products in the future—even more than they would pay for the same product from competitors.

For companies, it’s crucial to make sure that every customer contact is answered, quickly, across each customer service channel offered or promoted. So far, that’s been a challenge.

Bring your A game across channels

Research shows that consumers aren't comparing their digital experience with the digital experience of your competitors; . When your customer service is inconsistent relative to those apps—think: Spotify or Uber—customers are disappointed and wind up calling the company after all. McKinsey & Company noted that the failures of digital channels, or e-care, actually increased volume at call centers: “At one company, for example, we found that about 40 percent of clients using e-care eventually turned to the call center.”

As Jorge Amar and Hyo Yeon wrote for McKinsey in June 2017, “Customers expect their experience to be continuous and consistent as they migrate from one platform to another, but they also want service options that make sense in the context in which they are asking for help.”

When businesses are unable to deliver on this expectation across self-service, social media, messaging apps, email, and live chat, they train customers to return to the phone for real-time human support. It’s expensive and puts phone agents in the position of being your team’s crisis intervention or clean-up crew. Instead of having the opportunity to create a great customer experience, the best the agent can hope for is to talk the customer off a ledge and from leaving the company for good. This, in turn, leads to lower agent satisfaction and retention rates, truly underscoring the importance of providing really great digital care. It can’t be an afterthought or a casual add-on.

Instead of having the opportunity to create a great customer experience, the best the agent can hope for is to talk the customer off a ledge and from leaving the company for good.

The problem with anthropomorphism

As every company knows, many customer questions fall into a few buckets—about return policies, or account logins, or help with billing—and can be easily resolved through a form of money-saving artificial intelligence (AI) and automated response. But, the savings shrink markedly when AI fails to solve the problem.

That’s because AI, like a human, needs training. It’s a new science that most of us are still trying to figure out as AI technology continues to improve. Simply turning on a chatbot won’t solve your company’s unique problems. I mean, let’s face it, if your chatbot was a real person, it would probably get fired.

Let’s face it, if your chatbot was a real person, it would probably get fired.

When well-trained, various forms and types of AI can help your company do a lot of cool things. But training involves more than pointing AI to the right answer. How “human” your chatbot should be, how much brand voice and personality it should have, depends entirely on what it does and who your audience is. Consider where your AI ranks on “a scale of humanness” that runs from 1-10—and where it should rank. For example, one article suggests that if your chatbot is helping customers navigate through an e-commerce fashion site, it can maybe take a “bitchy” tone similar to the characters in Zoolander. Others argue that you’re better off not trying too hard. When a bot fails at being human, at “getting it,” the experience can be even more frustrating. By calling a bot a bot, you might set a different, lower bar for customer expectations.

This would solve a conundrum that I have as a customer: There’s something maddeningly confusing when I’m annoyed with a piece of technology, but still feel an inner compulsion to be nice to it just because it’s called “Ashley.”

We humans can adapt, but chatbots not so much. Having a chatbot communicate in the company’s “hip and chill” brand voice when you’re already feeling unheard just pours gasoline on the flame. So if you use AI, make sure it’s good AI, and that it knows when it’s time to fetch a human. Estimates put the cost of poor customer service at between $60 billion and $80 billion per year in lost revenues, a result that can nullify any savings earned through automating your service.

What’s your social strategy?

In reporting on a Social Media Marketing World conference he attended, blogger Dan Gingiss quoted Jay Baer, author of Hug Your Haters: “‘Social media customer service is a spectator sport’ because it is practiced in public and onlookers often engage. ‘Be empathetic every time,’ said Baer, and remember that in social media, ‘it’s emotion first, information second,’ so stay calm.”

When thinking through why and when customers turn to social media, it becomes clear that your social media team is a SWAT team for a certain kind of customer. Agents handling social media are not a lower-priority team, nor is social media something that everyone handles well. Agents should be intensely trained about the companies’ offerings and services, and on the company’s brand voice before they are empowered to take action. These agents are in an extremely public-facing service role.

ClassPass takes a cross-functional approach to its Twitter customer engagement, for example, integrating its social media gurus in marketing with its customer service team to ensure that customers get the best answer, quickly. “This cross-functional collaboration and constant communication is key to a successful customer service strategy on Twitter. Both teams in our organization work seamlessly together with the same goal in mind—satisfy the customer!” explained Cara Friedman, director of community at ClassPass.

Unfortunately, customers don’t know what goes into providing seamless customer service behind the scenes—they just want to interact with companies that provide the experience they want.

Move past the phone for customer support (unless you don’t want to)

Here’s the thing—phone support offers a great way to make a human connection. Chances are there are times or types of customer issues that would benefit from personal, human, one-on-one help. The question is: Is your business designing phone support around those scenarios or fielding expanding call volume because care in other channels isn’t up to the mark?

The question is: Is your business designing phone support around those scenarios or fielding expanding call volume because care in other channels isn’t up to the mark?

Answering this question may require adopting an omnichannel mindset. Just three years ago, McKinsey reported that fewer than 20 percent of telecommunications companies had a strategy to migrate customers to digital channels. Fewer than 15 percent were capable of tracking customer journeys across digital channels and their effectiveness in resolving customer issues. But some telecommunications companies are offering a different experience and are seeing customer bases rapidly expand.

Once you can see your customer along every service touchpoint, your business can begin to entice customers to move to, and rely on, digital channels. For example, you might offer incentives for digital interactions—ranging from reminding customers that another channel might be quicker, or offering a discount or enrollment in a program with special perks. But once you’ve “trained” the customer where to go, the experience has to pay off. Service through digital channels must as good, if not better than, service through your traditional channels.

Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.