Writing for Business Advice, Chris Cullen, head of sales and marketing at customer contact specialist Echo Managed Services, explains why an over-dependence on digital communications can be detrimental to a small company’s customer service experience.
As business technologies continue to become more widespread and sophisticated, company owners are increasingly looking for opportunities to implement new systems that can streamline processes, improve customer experiences and save costs.
Customer engagement is one area that is continually linked with a shift towards automation, especially as artificial intelligence and self-serve platforms become more developed and gain further recognition for their ability to drive efficiencies whilst offering customers speed and convenience.
By 2020, 85 per cent of customer interactions will be managed without people, according to Microsoft’s Richard Peers, who recently told the Systems in the City Conference in London that customers will still be able to have “conversations” with businesses – but without the need for staff.
However, while there is no doubt that consumers value the multi-channel offering now available from most businesses, new figures have sounded a warning to companies not to over-invest in technology at the expense of more traditional communications channels that require the human touch.
Giving customers what they want
While the growth of digital communication channels like email, social media and web based self-serve portals, have had an increasing impact on customer service, more than half of consumers (53 per cent) still prefer to engage with businesses face to face or over the phone, especially for more complicated enquiries.
However, what is also clear is that the channel consumers choose in the first instance is most likely dependent on the type of enquiry they have.
For example, our research shows that most consumers (27 per cent) prefer using email when requesting basic information from a business, but this channel is only preferred by 11 per cent of consumers with a more complicated problem, or 17 per cent who want to make a booking.
On the other side of the spectrum there is still a significant number of consumers who prefer to deal with a business over the phone, particularly when making a booking – like a hotel room or holiday – but only 13 per cent of customers would prefer to complete tasks like paying a bill over the phone, preferring instead to complete these tasks through electronic communication like a self-serve portal.
These findings have clear implications for businesses.
Dictating to customers which communication channel they can use, or trying to force them down a particular route, can be damaging to a business in the long term and there are also implications on customer service advisors and how their role evolves in line with customer expectations.
The evolving importance of human interaction in the customer service experience
As technology continues to pick up and deal with more simple enquiries, the traditional role of the customer service advisor continues to evolve into a mix of dealing with more complex enquiries, or stepping in when electronic channels prove unsuccessful.
Ensuring customer service advisors are highly skilled and empowered to deal with customer enquiries in a professional and empathetic way is crucial to business success.
To highlight the dangers of not doing this, ten per cent of consumers say they would be angry with a brand if they experienced poor customer service over the phone, while nearly a third said they would actively look to take their business elsewhere.
Therefore, investing in customer service staff in parallel with technology continues to be vital. Businesses must ensure they have the right quality and quantity of advisors to handle complex and sensitive enquiries promptly, while delivering a consistently high level of quality service.
Avoiding customer frustration
It should not be underestimated the commercial challenges poor customer service can create and the quality of the experience a customer has in contacting a business can have significant and long lasting implications for a business’ profit margins.
Creating a good customer experience also boosts brand loyalty with 22 per cent of consumers saying quality customer care increases trust along with 16 per cent who think these experiences link directly to better brand loyalty.
Another 10 per cent think good customer service makes them feel valued and cared for.
On the flipside, the impact of getting customer service wrong can be very damaging in terms of financial results, future reputation and success, as almost a third of customers say poor service would lead to them moving their custom elsewhere.
The most common frustrations were being kept on hold (56 per cent) and automated call answering (17 per cent).
What’s clear from this is that when barriers are placed in the way of effective human contact, customer frustration levels will rise.
Finding the right balance between the human touch and technology
What is clear is that technology in business is here to stay and that for simple interactions customers appear willing to sacrifice human interaction for convenience and ease. Systems and platforms that can provide efficient service while reducing costs are of significant benefit and something businesses should continue to investigate.
This is particularly true as chatbots and other artificial intelligence platforms like virtual assistants continue to become more proficient at dealing with enquiries, and in some cases pre-empting customer enquiries with proactive communication.
However, while these platforms can be beneficial, it should be clearly stated to the customer that they are dealing with a business through electronic means as businesses run the risk of the consumer feeling short changed, or conned, if they think they are dealing with an actual person.
As with all technological advancements, improper use may lead to negative customer perceptions.
Also, these platforms should only be used to add value and not be implemented simply as a cost cutting measure. It is crucial to change things because you should, not only because you can.
The key is understanding how your customers want to engage, whether online or dealing with a person, and also knowing at which stage they prefer to engage with each channel. Understanding this will help businesses target investment and ensure they are offering consistently high levels of service across the board.
Ultimately, businesses need to ensure they are providing the kind of service that their consumers need or want, offering as many options for engagement as possible.
There is no one size fits all for customer service, or any single platform that works for every customer, and businesses should enable consumers to choose the option they feel is best for them.
While technology will continue to reach further into business processes, owners should never underestimate the value the human touch will always bring.
Chris Cullen is head of sales and marketing at outsourced customer contact specialist Echo Managed Services
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