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Customer service in a digital world

Customers are changing. In our hyper-connected world, they are now firmly in control. They are digitally empowered, shop across international borders, demand instant service, and expect a unique experience in exchange for their business and loyalty.

People are quite happy to find the answers to questions themselves online.  Numerous studies show they go to a company’s website first, not to look for a phone number to call, but for an answer to their problem or question.

In response, large organisations are making vast investments in automated services such as chat-bots, virtual reality and service agents augmented by artificial intelligence. Automation and AI are not necessarily driven by a need to reduce costs and boost revenue. Today’s customers expect all brands – retail or B2B – to provide support in a way that is easy and convenient. What they get from Apple and Amazon they expect from Xero or BNZ.

But are small businesses – the backbone of the New Zealand economy – meant to keep up and provide the same level of digital customer experience as the big brands? It’s no secret that small businesses live and die on the quality of their service and on their personal relationships with loyal customers. Small business owners need to provide a fast and responsive service without giving away their values and, most importantly, their human voice.

Advances in technology can provide them with the tools to have the best of both worlds.

The mobile phone is one of the smartest ways to connect and interact (other than human-to-human) with customers. Just about everybody has a mobile phone, but not so many use it for calls these days. Instead, it’s all about letting your fingers do the talking: most people access websites and apps, and send emails and messages when they need customer support.

The rise and rise of the smartphone also opens up a realm of new possibilities for customer service. Take the phone’s inbuilt video camera for example. Who hasn’t experienced an excruciating moment when they’ve struggled to explain technical product issues to a patient, but often bemused, expert voice on the other end of the phone?

Smartphone video support offers the prospect of tackling those frustrating conversations with technology: customers can send a video or picture via email, messaging or text, so the experts can see the issue for themselves. When it comes to solving technical problems, a picture really can speak a thousand words.

It works the other way too. Video has become a powerful way to answer frequently asked questions at scale. How-to type videos not only offer solutions to questions, but also showcase how to properly use a company’s products. This video-based support doubles as a marketing technique. Producing a cost-effective three-minute how-to video should not be beyond the capability of many small businesses.

Digital channels are overtaking voice calls

We are witnessing the tipping point where digital channels – email, chat, social media, text and messaging – are overtaking voice calls. For a small business which doesn’t have a dedicated contact centre, and where customer service responsibility falls to everyone, digital channels are useful.

They can also be outsourced. In the past, tradies who didn’t have time to answer the phone during the day often relied on answering services. Today’s growing trend of home-based teleworkers, applies to small business as much as it does to large brands. Small businesses are increasingly using telecommuters to conduct conversations with customers via phone, email, social media, text or messaging.

Messaging is the new channel of choice. It doesn’t require a huge investment in technology and customers are using familiar channels, such as instant messaging, to communicate with everyone in their life: from their group of friends to their personal fitness trainer and their local pizza franchise. It can work well for businesses, but tried and tested emails continue to play a key part in communication with customers.

Businesses sure know it when they have an angry or frustrated customer in their shop or on the phone. But how do they gauge the level of a customer’s emotion in a digital conversation? Emojis, GIFs, video and images all can be part of the conversation. How do they respond to a string of angry emojis and how can they calm a customer down in a digital channel?

The traditional methods used by contact centre operatives also work in the digital space – hear the customer out, find out the facts, take ownership if a mistake has been made and find an acceptable solution. Doing the opposite in a digital channel – ignoring the customer, avoiding the problem and not offering a solution – will quickly result in that customer’s social community hearing all about it.

In some situations, particularly if a business is being overly criticised in a public forum, there are a few other remedies. They can make fun of themselves and be self-deprecating, as this can often disarm a critic. If the customer or critic is just plain wrong, they can refute the claim but do it in a light-hearted manner. Finally, they could be overtly gracious – some social media users crave attention. Thanking a customer for their feedback when they were just trolling makes them look a little foolish. If they had a real issue they’ll appreciate the acknowledgement of their feedback and everyone wins.

Remember, social media is public facing. How you respond to complaints and criticism is there for all to see, gauge and comment on. If the criticism is public, it is best to respond publicly – not via private messaging.

The use of conversational or natural language in digital dialogue is also highly desirable. Formal and ‘corporate’ language does not belong in messages, texts or social media. It is also more and more acceptable for a company to include emojis in responses to customer requests.

Customers today want an experience that is personalised. For small to medium businesses, this is good news as personal service is key to success. They want the company they are dealing with to know them well enough to make relevant suggestions, send the right marketing messages, and more. Treat each customer as an individual and you’ll earn their respect and their loyalty.

Nigel Piper is the executive general manager of customer success at Xero.
This story first appeared at The Register.
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