Online customer service has been through a pretty rapid evolution.
Initially it hardly existed because the early wave of web entrepreneurs hoped they would not need to re-invent the call centre.
That worked for a while until customers got stuck. And phoned in.
Lists of answers to these online questions started to appear and so was borne that ultra thin slice of knowledge management – the FAQ.
Not enough detail, too hard to find, irrelevant, out of date
Never much-loved by users, it has struggled with being anything other than an irritation.
First Generation: online customer service
The next phase of the story involved trying to make the chore of finding your own answers a better experience. Natural Language Processing helped a bit by allowing you to interact with a knowledge base according to the way you wanted to communicate. First generation avatars also started to front some information services to make things feel more friendly.
But if those primitive facial gestures did help some customers stay with the process, the overall results were seldom smarter. That led some to wonder why online customer service couldn’t work with the same fluency and usefulness of a Google search. And if you are interested to know why that is, here is an interesting article that explains the problem.
But whatever the reasons, the results were the same. Customers still phoned in.
For some planners, motivated by call avoidance incentives, this was as irritating as mole hills popping up on a bowling green. But for others, that extra inbound traffic did not look like a problem. In fact, it looked like an opportunity. They realised that having customers make contact in response to an online hiccup, is often the best outcome a brand can hope for. Most customers simply take off when online workflows get snarled up.
Annual projections for how much e-commerce still misses out through shopping cart confusion remains staggering. One of the latest studies puts it this way. A retailer e-commerce site that has $200 million in annual revenue loses $1.4 million a day due to abandoned shopping carts! The source of that information plus much more good stuff on reducing abandonment rates can be found at this LinkedIn discussion if you want to dig further into this topic.
Second Generation: online customer service
This explains why second generation service strategies were devised as a remedy to this missed opportunity. The argument went as follows. If online is a leaky revenue bucket we can’t easily fix, then maybe some ‘just in time’ intervention is the answer.
At this point in the story, we start to move into recent history with the advent of online Chat and Collaboration. Sold and justified as an upstream solution ready to appear when customer browsing behaviour signalled trouble.
Also recently appearing on the scene has been a new type of web analytics. This capability can trigger a real time escalation workflow when the customer looks like they are in danger. Rather like the life guard at the beach who races against time to stop you drowning. Or in this case before you the customer click away from their site.
Moreover, this class of analytics enables the replay of what went wrong with a particular online workflow which can be sent immediately to the right person in the call centre to sort out.
I’ve long been a fan of both Chat and the more fully featured Collaboration modules because they link the convenience of online with the intelligence of live expertise. I’m also an evangelist for the web analytics just described.
In fact I think they fit together hand and glove.
First by allowing people in the call centre to replay the customer’s online session with visual prompts on where it went wrong. Then with a sprinkling of integration magic, enabling all that to happen within the Chat or Collaboration client to offer the simplicity of a unified desktop. To my mind, a very powerful customer service combination indeed!
Although Chat has taken a good decade to get traction, it seems that more of us are now using it. As might be expected, a certain demographic is more associated with its use. Again if you are interested some recent US research has the details.
An extra decade of research and development has also made a difference to the credibility of those avatars mentioned earlier. In fact I’m pretty much persuaded that the latest and much more convincing generation of avatars will have broader appeal.
If you want to find out for yourself, check out this year’s winners of SpeechTEK Europe’s Avatar Challenge. The links below take you directly to the demos. They are all fun and offer an interesting glimpse into one possible direction that online customer services could be taking.
- The Experts’ Prizes ejTalk & Humanity Interactive
- The People’s Choice Award H-Care
- The Judges’ Special Award VoxWeb
If you had the budget, would you use them as part of your online customer service strategy?
Next Generation: online customer service
Thus far we have described the slow journey that online customer service has been on. One that is very close to that of its offline equivalent: the call centre. Arguably, both channels have suffered from piecemeal evolution and so conservative rates of adoption.
In this last section, I want to question whether social media is about to break that mould and set an entirely new context for what online customer service looks and feels like.
This is how I now see it. With the advent of social media we have recently rediscovered an inconvenient truth about customer service. It’s all about people. The politics of social media demands transparency, engagement, a rebalancing of power and a commitment to listen and respond fast. All these qualities are deeply human: both in why they are demanded and in how they can be delivered.
This means automation’s role is to help, not to be left in charge of the store. But that does not mean social media is a Luddite movement. Far from it. It’s an expression of those living a digital lifestyle.
They want technology to be used in service to greater human contact. Not as a substitute for it. The utter domination of social networks is evidence that the next generation of online customer service strategy needs to start from an entirely different place.
And that starts by recognising the ‘people bit’ is always needed in some degree. Whether it’s voice text, or video. Offline, online. Desktop or mobile. And the more this is constructed as community the better.
Which brings us to present day leading edge social customer service. Or customer service 2.0 to follow the current fad.
If your customers are on Facebook and now that’s true for 26m people in the UK, go to where they spend 13 minutes of every online hour, and not expect them to visit you. That’s the first principle. Here is one company that’s awake to that opportunity.
The second principle is to recognise that customers will self serve, but not in the way that was described at the top of this post. Alone and frustrated by workflows is out. However tribal knowledge run by customers for customers is in. The difference is all about the sense of human support that goes with the experience.
And if that does not appeal, just watch this as an example of where online customer service is now headed.