Dealing with powerful, tech-savvy customers requires a dynamic new approach to service.

In 1909, when Harry Gordon Selfridge first began using the phrase “the customer is always right,” the founder of London’s Selfridge’s Department Store would have never envisioned today’s business.  He certainly would not have predicted how much power customers eventually would attain.

Though business gurus may disagree today on the advisability of giving customers what they say they want, there is no doubt that the balance of power between companies and customers has shifted. This is largely due to the powerful technology and information that resides with customers.

At the simplest level, it can involve the third of Newton’s three laws of motion—to every action there is an opposite but equal reaction. For example, sales organizations may have thought they’d found the Holy Grail of marketing when inexpensive robo calls became available, but most customers use phones with caller ID and as robo calls became more intrusive in their lives, many began to use caller ID to answer the calls they wanted and ignore or block everything else.

Today’s smartphone has the processing power of a 40-seat contact center from a decade ago and customers are more likely than not to be using a mobile or other digital device when they want to transact business.  Similarly, when consumers have problems, they tend to go online first to resolve them and to call the customer center only when they cannot.  This means, of course, that customer centers are handling fewer of the simple issues and more of the complex situations, and staff needs to be prepared. When service levels fail to meet a customer’s expectations—such as being put on hold for a long time or dealing with an employee who cannot help–they often turn to social media to let their friends and the world know they are dissatisfied.

Despite advances in recent years, customers’ major sources of frustration with service have remained fairly constant. However, social media has allowed customers to voice their dissatisfaction more broadly.

Companies have been amassing large troves of customer data in their customer centers, but along the way, customers have gained access to tools and marketplace information that may be as good or better than the company’s data. Just as businesses are starting to use artificial intelligence (AI) to predict and improve processes, consumers are gaining access to AI in the form of digital assistants like Siri, Alexa and Cortana that can act as digital concierges to check balances, pay bills, and even contact a company on a customer’s behalf.

Clearly, companies can no longer assume they have more and better technology and information than their customers.  If they wish to succeed, they will have to understand the implications of this shift, keep their digital tools updated in line with customer expectations and apply the most appropriate human and digital resources to each type of situation.

Next week we’ll discuss the merits of prevention vs. crisis handling.

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