The Future of Customer Service

April 17, 2013
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The best part of my job is that I get to talk to people, lots and lots of people. I talk to so many people about the same subjects (in this case Customer Service) that I start to see patterns and trends emerge. I was told when I first started working at Gartner that two data points make a pattern and three make a trend – I’d like to think that it takes more than that, but you get the overall idea of how it works.

The best part of my job is that I get to talk to people, lots and lots of people. I talk to so many people about the same subjects (in this case Customer Service) that I start to see patterns and trends emerge. I was told when I first started working at Gartner that two data points make a pattern and three make a trend – I’d like to think that it takes more than that, but you get the overall idea of how it works.

customer serviceI want to cover in this blog post the basic trends and patterns that I am seeing emerge and paint a picture of where we are and where we are going with Customer Service.

In the past two to three years you rushed to social channels for customer service (Twitter, Facebook, Communities and more) only to find out the answer was not there (at least not as you expected).  You also worked to build a multi-channel contact center that can anticipate and deliver answers to your customers’ needs over time, but you are stuck somewhere on the road to achieving the customer satisfaction you sought as proof of that model.

Today you are trying to understand how the new social channels and communities, the existing channels, and the shift to effective customer service works all together.

I know all this because you told me when we conducted our research study and you continue to tell me in inquiries, conversations, and when we meet at conferences and events.  This is the state of customer service today.

Now as for the future of customer service, as evidenced by those wonderful data points that make patterns and trends happen, the future of customer service is evolving over time – there is no set model against which you have to build a similar solution.  Not only that, but it changes from company to company, industry to industry, even for specific functions.  This is what makes customer Service interesting.

Within this “craziness” I’m starting to see emerging models for the future of customer service.  This is the timeline and projects that matter per my observations and conversations:

Short term (next two years – all about understanding value, fixing what’s not working)

  • Communities and social – the questions I hear most are: what it is, how to use it, what to do to make it work, how to take it from reactive (last two years) to strategic, how to derive value from using it.  In other words, how to leverage social channels and communities and their promise to deliver strategic value to the customer service organization.
  • Cross channel – questions that I hear the most: how to move from multi-channel to tracking inquiries across channels and time; how to identify what is one inquiry and the resolution for the same.  In other words, First Time Resolution in a complex multi-channel environment and how to ensure accurate metrics that both justify the work and the investment.
  • Fixing – the topics I discussed the most about this: budgets were cut, innovation did not happen, and social and collaboration / communities was thrust onto customer service to figure it out; how can all this be made to work while improving what we had? In other words, now is the time to figure out how build a better customer service model that works properly.  Let’s start by fixing what we could not fix the past 4-5 years and then add to it.
  • Cloud – As controversial as the use of cloud for customer service is in certain environments, the conversations about how to ensure security and performance in the cloud, how the advent of cloud-based communications and leveraging new vendors and models to replace the hardware and technology that has been there forever (IVR, ACD, etc.).  We also have a lot of chats about the emergence of cloud-based contact centers that can be outsourced and how current vendors and new vendors are deploying cloud-based software for Customer Service.  Overarching question: what shall I do?

Mid-term (2-5 years – all about building the model for the future of Customer Service)

  • Knowledge – once we figure out what we are supposed to do with social and communications, then we can figure out how to adapt to the new Knowledge Management paradigm (been writing about this for the last couple of months in the stone cobra blog).  How to use knowledge in the new world where problems are becoming more complex, answers are always changing, and the reach to “cheap” resources that provide excellence with virtually no lag (read: subject matter experts all over the world and in disparate communities) are becoming the norm, not the exception.  Add automation as a driving force and you have the recipe for disruption.
  • Automation – These are the questions you ask the most: how to take the value of automating partly online inquiries and move them to other areas; how to focus on reducing the number of inquiries to handle forty percent or more of the inquiries; how to provide automation via all channels from a central framework that allows to leverage automation across channels (while, of course, properly measuring interactions and solutions to justify the investment).  In other words, how to make automation a key part of solutions that will reduce cost and focus on providing effective answers.
  • Cloud – More cloud evolution (few finished internal and external infrastructure); more cross-channel (beginning to see first solutions implemented and showing results).

It is almost impossible to predict customer service ten years out: the last time I did there was more visibility into the future, while today the pace of evolution makes it almost impossible to see past the next five to seven years because too much is changing too rapidly in a business world sitting on a balance between organization and chaos.

In addition to the above trends and topics, elements like “Big” data, integration, security, privacy and associated themes that are affecting cloud and technology deployment will continue to exist.  Buildup of the cloud infrastructure within the organization, adoption of automation and remote services across the enterprise, and further “flattening” of the world will continue to affect all these projects.  I will not cover these as single elements in this vision but rather part of a complex infrastructure that can serve customer service as well as the rest of the organization.  This is what is happening to social channels as well as other items I wrote about above.

I can seemingly write about this forever – and I will (not today, don’t worry).

In the coming months I will repeat the research study we conducted last year, create a more detailed version of this post with examples, best practices, lessons learned, case studies and more details of how it works and how you can make it work for your organization and deliver more information via this blog from my good friends at KANA about the future of Customer Service.

Is there anything else I did not mention above that you would like to see covered?

Any data point, pattern, or trend you’d like to explore further?

Let me know – happy to add it to the list…

Stay with me through the next few months and you won’t be disappointed – I promise.

Disclaimer: KANA is a customer (they have been for a long time) and they are generous enough to sponsor the research I am doing on the topic of the future of customer service; while I will get paid for doing this work, I retain editorial control and the final word on what is said here and in future deliveries and KANA retains the interest of expanding conversations about customer service. Win-win-win (you are the third winner, since you get to read all this at no cost and wit no obligation or commitment).

(image: customer service / shutterstock)