The Changing Face of Customer Service

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It was 10 years ago that I sat in a hotel room with my laptop plugged into the phone cord, fighting with my first version of a pda (a palmpilot), trying to make sense of an assignment in an ever-evolving industry — customer service. Just as foreign as the acrid air and constant motor noise of India were the changing ideas of what it meant to be a customer service expert. While the times have changed and business has become more efficient and optimized, a decade later we all have a different perspective of what it means to be a service leader but remain aware of how important an interaction with a customer can be.

Taking a more in-depth look at this era of change, it is inherently obvious how much the technology we are using in our lives has changed. W hat can go unnoticed is how these advancements have affected how a customer care center has adapted to serve customers. Not only are companies looking for different ways to interact with customers, but they are also looking for valuable interactions and meaningful connections.

While this was just one of many trips to India, China or the Philippines, we found our mission was of a singular purpose: how many seats can you move “offshore?” Directed by companies looking to make spending cuts (sometimes up to 40 percent), we were looking for anything that could move, and we all had the same objective. At the time it was considered a brilliant initiative to free up capital for other business practices. While there are good reasons to leverage lower-cost labor markets and we can debate the labor arbitrage pros/cons, one undeniable fact is that there was a fundamental lack of vision in regard to customer facing interactions; in the pursuit of outsourcing customer service efforts for cost-effectiveness, we minimized the value provided.

A few years later, with a well-worn luggage set and a filled passport, it finally starts to click. Why are we answering customers’ calls just to make them more irritated? Taking into account the absurdity of the notion, would it be better not to answer at all? Without the resources for an academic study, I’m only left to assume that my instincts have some legitimacy and that something else is taking place during this shift of resources. W hat ’s more, customers “are” starting to figure things out on their own. We continue to listen to calls and hear something eerily similar; in one manifestation or another, the phrase “I already found this information online” is multiplying. As such, I now believe that as a direct response to the shift of valuable customer service, we as consumers have begun to solve our own problems online.

As a business community, at some point in the past decade we finally reached the proverbial tipping point. We as companies and service leaders went too far. By minimizing the value of the interaction so low, consumers have resorted to handling the problem on their own. Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) loved it; Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) feared it.

In 2007, I left the corporate world on a mission to redevelop the way people think about not only customer service but also online engagement. At this time the business community wasn’t using social media as everyday jargon, but the presence of customers online wasn’t ignored. In response, millions are spent by companies placing “ads” in the right places of the web, and websites are redesigned and optimized around the clock.

During this timeline, though, the question still lingered on how this channel can be utilized for superior customer service? Things have changed so much since the offshoring days; are there other service leaders who will see this untapped opportunity? Can we make a business of it?

The evolution of our company began to take shape in an effort to answer these very questions. We began scraping the web for customer comments, and analyzing them. The results confirmed my suspicions while at the same time showing the Internet had evolved beyond our expectations. Just as customers were helping fellow customers to circumvent tricky service, companies were getting cut out. Banner ads were ignored while consumers looked for the community expert. It was an amazing experience to watch the customer service industry change in real time. The reality was clear: the opportunity of this channel is to interact with customers where they want and how they want. And the superior mantra is still the same: make sure you can add value to the conversation.

Now it ’s 2012 and our company helps Fortune 500 companies proactively assist customers online. That ’s right; companies are proactively looking for customers with issues and are asking how they can help. The outright proliferation of social media into our everyday lives has helped add fuel to the fire, and the new era of customer support is well under way. Companies are still scrambling to figure out what customer experience means to their products and services, but it is clear that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. The customer now has control, and companies must figure out if they can add value to stay part of the conversation.

In stark contrast to the situation 10 years ago, I now wear sneakers and tee-shirts to the office in a rebuilding Detroit. I am “much” older than any of my employees as compared to how a similar customer service provider structure might have been just 10 to 20 years ago. This is not unique to our company but instead a reflection of the adaptation necessary to “survive” in an incredibly active customer care world. The customer experience is finally being valued within ever y company due to the sheer necessity for market survival.

We as customer care experts must continue to adapt to this level of change. Now is the time to have a seat at the boardroom table. More companies are appointing Vice Presidents of Customer Experience than any other role. To not have proactive online engagement as an agenda point in each meeting would be a failure to learn from a decade’s worth of education provided to us by consumers themselves.

Jason Wolcott is the Co-Founder and CEO of Digital Roots, a social CRM vendor. If you’re interested in learning more about social media in the contact center, or how a social customer care program can positively impact your company’s bottom line and reputation, contact Jason at jwolcott@digitalroots.com or follow him on Twitter @JayWolcott.

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