The dying art of customer service

by Sonny Cutting

The experience of being a customer has changed beyond recognition in recent years. Self-service systems, automated messages and AI are taking over the front line of customer interaction in the search for ever-greater efficiency. A recent study has indeed shown that emerging digital technologies such as AI and cloud computing are even changing the way we think and react as a customer. Human call centre employees are being replaced by chatbots in all but the most-regulated of circumstances. These technologies can point a customer in the right direction but have limited problem-solving abilities when it comes to a complex question and perhaps most importantly lack the empathy and good will that only another person can provide.

Customer service is particularly important to business-to-business companies, which often deliver a large volume of business to a relatively small number of clients. Against this backdrop what does truly great customer service look like in 2017, and what are the skills that underpin it?

How to handle customer service challenges

Everyday scenarios are easy to handle, while customer service challenges often come from the unusual. That means hiring and training staff in the application of diverse skills, and empowering them to use their judgment, rather than enshrining processes in technocratic customer services policy. Great service is about finding ways to accommodate the unfamiliar, with employees using intelligence and creativity to shape alternative solutions when a request seems impossible.

When it comes to professional service companies there’s value in having someone outside the main account team who can have the occasional client satisfaction conversation, asking open-ended questions about what could be done better.

Why caring for your staff is important

Richard Branson’s customer service philosophy famously starts with staff: “Customers do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees they will take care of your customers.” This is particularly true of businesses that rely on a high level of commitment and effort from employees such as professional services organisations. Added to this b2b leaders can think about how easily and quickly a staff member can seek senior support on an issue when it arises, and even test this out to spot vulnerabilities.

What place does technology have in customer service?

Self-service has its place, especially in services used by clients 24/7. Well-resourced digital information systems are vital, but should not be used in place of ‘real’ human interaction. Technology should be there to assist and speed up the process of customer care provided by people, not to totally replace it.

None of this is easy, yet the rewards for investing in customer service are high. An excellent customer service experience brings loyalty, trust and, over time, a stellar reputation. Likewise, the digitised, social media-driven world is particularly unforgiving to companies who neglect customer service – with poor reviews spreading like wildfire.