Social customer service: the benefits and challenges

As multiple studies show, social media is now a key channel for customer service. A J.D. Power study found that two thirds of customers who contacted a company on social media did so for customer service. Businesses understand this, but delivering the right level of service can be a challenge, particularly when it comes to integrating with other channels and scaling to meet demand. So, what are customers looking for and how can their needs be best met?eptica_social_customer_service

The growth in social customer service is not happening in isolation. It is part of a trend in which customers are becoming ever more demanding. They are much more likely to complain about, and to switch from, a particular provider if they are unhappy with their experience. At the same time they are more vocal about the service they receive – and social media offers an easy, convenient channel to share their experiences, good and bad.

The benefits
At the outset it’s worth emphasizing that social media gives companies an opportunity to directly engage with customers, help resolve customer problems and build stronger relationships. And it also boosts the bottom line – research by American Express has found that consumers who have received customer service on social media are willing to pay 21% more for excellent service,

In fact the American Express study found that people who have received customer service on social media tell an average of 42 people about good experiences and 53 people about bad experiences (while someone in the general population tells only 15 and 24 people respectively). That provides a huge opportunity to create advocates for your company and products.

Meeting the challenges
However, delivering social customer service is not easy, with customers insisting on immediate, consistent responses. For example, Edison Research found that 32% of people who have asked a customer service question on social media, expect a reply within 30 minutes – with 42% wanting an answer within an hour. Worryingly for 9-5 contact centres nearly 6 in 10 (57%) demand “the same response time at night and on weekends as during normal business hours”. Consumers view response times as an indicator of how highly a company values their business, and act accordingly.

Similarly, customers expect a consistent level of service across all digital touch points, including social media. This can be challenging because companies will often have more than one presence on social media, with it being used for marketing and PR as well as service. Additionally the CEO and other company executives may also have profiles that consumers will try and interact with to make their issues known. This means customer service requests can easily end up being directed at the ‘wrong’ company department or employee, and without very good internal collaboration to pass on incoming requests, there can easily be long delays or no response to the customer.

Our own Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study also found that many companies aren’t meeting customer expectations when it comes to social customer service. Despite 76% of the companies in the study having a presence on Twitter, just 39% answered customer service questions received through the channel. And those who did respond to were slow in doing so: the average successful response on Twitter was 8 hours and 37 minutes. This is obviously well outside Edison Research’s hour deadline, taking over a working day before an answer is received.

What should companies do to make the most of the social customer service opportunity? Hootsuite’s White Paper, ‘Social Customer Service: The Future of Customer Satisfaction’, highlights five key areas:

1. Make sure you listen
By listening to multiple social channels, companies can capture and resolve an increasing number of service inquiries that would otherwise be missed. You can only do this if you are on the same social networks as your customers, so research your key demographics and structure your strategy accordingly.

2. Embrace negative social media comments
Many companies dread negative social comments from dissatisfied customers, but these messages are powerful opportunities to convert detractors into loyal customers. A study conducted by Harris Interactive found that when retailers replied to negative reviews on social media and online ratings sites, a third of customers either deleted their original negative review or replaced it with a positive review. Nearly a fifth went on to become loyal customers and made another purchase. O2’s response to negative feedback when it had a network outage back in 2012 is a classic example of using empathy and humour to disarm negative feedback.

3. Use social media to nurture brand advocates
Capitalise on positive service experiences by nurturing thankful customers and turning them into dedicated brand advocates. Among consumers who received customer service on social media, 48% have praised a company for a great service experience. Social media allows an organisation to quickly recognise potential advocates, thank them publicly, and spread their positive feedback to a wider audience via social channels.

4. Deliver customer service proactively
Monitoring social media can often identify customers who are experiencing challenges with a company’s products or services before they request help from an official customer service channel. In such circumstances, providing proactive advice via social channels even before an explicit request for help is made, can help companies delight customers, cultivate brand loyalty, and reduce customer turnover. It also serves as an early warning system – if enough people are complaining on social media, you may well have a wider issue that is affecting your company or products.

5. Better understand the customer service experience
Social media allows you to listen to customers in real time and on a massive scale. Using linguistic technology, it is possible to deepen your understanding of the customer service experience and proactively recognise trends, customer perceptions and sentiment around specific products and services. These insights can inform customer service strategy, training and resource allocation.

With social media increasingly central to our lives, the need for smart social customer service is only going to increase in importance. Companies therefore need to invest in the channel and integrate it with wider operations in order to deliver the service that customers are demanding.

Overcoming the basic customer service pitfalls with technology

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

I recently read a really interesting blog by Thomas Laird that looks at some of the underlying reasons that companies struggle with customer service. What struck me was how many of these issues could be solved with well-implemented technology to support agents doing their jobs.eptica_cs_pitfalls

Here’s a précis of Thomas’s five points, along with my comments on where technology adds value.

1 . Who runs your contact centre?
Essentially, contact centres need to balance efficiency and marketing/sales with customer service. If financial considerations trump everything else, the pressure is on to reduce call times, agent numbers and increase productivity. The risk is that if you solely look at these efficiency metrics, then expect customer satisfaction levels to drop as overworked agents handle an even greater number of calls and emails, and customers don’t have the time to engage with your company. Sales-driven contact centres aim to cross-sell to customers – and if your incentives are not correctly aligned agents simply won’t have time to build a rapport with the caller and listen to their needs, as the notorious Comcast cancellation call demonstrates.

Technology can do a great deal to increase efficiency. It can route incoming calls or emails to the best agent, reducing wait times, while providing access to a centralised knowledgebase of information to help answer those calls and email quickly and effectively. This speeds up First Contact Resolution rates and increases consistency, while at the same time improving the customer experience and agent productivity.

2. Education
Training your workforce is obviously crucial to delivering excellent, efficient service, particularly in contact centres where staff turnover can be high. However, as well as technical knowledge, agents need to be trained to show softer skills in order to engage with customers. Technology, such as self-service knowledge systems, provides agents with instant, consistent answers to customer questions. This increases confidence and allows time to focus on engagement, rather than searching for information.

3. Lack of fluid processes
Customers make contact with organisations across multiple channels and through different entry points. However when they get in touch, they need to receive a consistent answer to their query without being transferred between agents and departments. Again, access to a centralised knowledgebase ensures that wherever an agent is located they can deliver the same response to the customer, first time, without needing to pass the call onto another department or phone back.

4. Measuring the wrong metrics
Metrics such as FCR and handling time tell you how your contact centre is performing. However, they don’t capture the whole picture; particularly around how satisfied the customer actually is with the experience. Ensure that your technology is able to measure the whole range of metrics, such as Net Promoter Score and CSAT, as well as seamlessly feeding into bigger initiatives, such as company-wide Voice of the Customer programmes.

5.  Over reliance on self-service
As Thomas says, self-service is great when done properly. But it needs to be part of a multichannel strategy that is focused on customer needs. In many cases consumers just want a fast answer to a simple question – don’t force them to call or email, but provide a web self-service solution that lets them get a quick, accurate response. This not only increases satisfaction, but also frees up agents to deal with complex enquiries, where customers want to speak to your agents in more detail. Balance is crucial – offer a consistent response across every channel, and use the same knowledgebase to underpin your whole interaction strategy.

For all of these areas, technology alone isn’t the answer. You need to use it to support well-trained, skilled agents and have the right processes in place. However, technology should be the backbone of your contact centre, helping you to overcome customer service pitfalls and deliver an efficient, high quality service, time after time.

Measuring the Voice of the Customer

October 24, 2014 1 comment

Understanding what customers want, what they like and incorporating their ideas into future products and services is central to improving customer engagement. This in turn builds loyalty and customer recommendations, driving further sales.eptica_Measuring_Voice_of_the_Customer

Consequently most large organisations run Voice of the Customer (VoC) programmes that aim to collect data from consumers and use it to make changes that impact the bottom-line. To succeed these VoC programmes have to collect information from every customer touchpoint and channel, so span departments such as sales, marketing and product development.

The customer service department, given its position at the coalface, talking to customers every day, can provide critical input into VoC programmes. Unlike regular, scheduled customer surveys, this input is delivered in real-time, making it an accurate reflection of how the customer feels at the time they were speaking to or interacting with an organisation.

At our recent Eptica customer day, we ran a roundtable session on the Voice of the Customer and customer service, which sparked some fascinating ideas from participants. 5 areas came out of the discussion:

1. Use real-time surveys
Organisations want to capture feedback while it is still fresh in the customer’s mind. Therefore it is recommended that surveys are sent immediately after a customer has made contact, and that they are focused on the type of query that they had. Consumers don’t want to wade through pages of questions, so keep it short and to the point. Also, make sure it matches their channel choice – if the customer contacted you via email then don’t send them a survey through the post.

2. Listen to your customers
Most companies now record and monitor calls, for regulatory and training purposes, with the agreement of the customer. This is particularly important to ensure that agents have the right skills and training to deliver high levels of service and to deal with any future disputes. However, it also provides insight into what customers are actually asking about. Ensure agents categorise calls by subject, and then listen to a range to get structured insight into customer feedback. If you have a central knowledge management system, monitor which questions and topics are being accessed most often and use this to focus on improving processes and products.

3. Gain feedback from your staff
Agents and those dealing directly with customers have unparalleled insight into what customers are saying and thinking. They also provide the ability to capture feedback from those customers that won’t fill in surveys or questionnaires. Therefore make sure you have methods in place to regularly collect their insight and integrate it into VoC programmes.

4. Analyse and categorise digital interactions
The rise of digital channels, such as email, chat and social media, unlocks a huge source of written feedback. However, such are the volume of interactions that gaining insight can resemble trying to find a needle in a haystack. Ensure you tag and categorise digital interactions to show what the most popular topics are. At a more advanced level, use linguistics to study the words and phrases used by customers, both individually and at an aggregate level. This enables companies to analyse the context and tone of interactions to measure customer happiness in real-time.

5. Include social media
Given its ease and speed, people increasingly provide feedback through social media, either directly or just by mentioning your brand. Make sure you collect this information, act on any issues and integrate it with your other feedback channels. Responsibility for social media can sit with separate teams in some organisations, but it is important to bring it together if you are to gain a holistic picture of your customers.

Voice of the Customer programmes are vital if companies are to get closer to their customers and deepen understanding of their needs. Customer service teams, with their first hand experience of customers are therefore a central part of building and sustaining successful VoC programmes for companies in all sectors.

Amazon joins the High Street?

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment

If recent media rumours are to be believed, Amazon is planning to open its first bricks and mortar outlet, located in the heart of New York City, close to the Empire State Building and world famous department store Macy’s. The opening is said to be scheduled ahead of this year’s holiday shopping season.eptica_Amazon_on_the_high_street

The move, if true, looks like a big change in direction for an ecommerce giant which until now has totally focused on the online channel. However, there may be some strong underlying reasons that explain why Amazon appears to be going against the grain and dipping a toe into physical retail. Here are three key ones:

1. Flagship location
Opening a store across the street from the Empire State Building, which boasts 4 million visitors a year will serve as a giant advertisement for Amazon’s online operation. It would be a flagship store where consumers could try out its own products, such as Kindle e-readers and Fire phones, in a similar vein to the outlets opened in major cities by the likes of Apple.

2. Click and Collect
Many experts believe one of the real drivers for the store would be to serve as a central hub for delivering online orders. There is a huge, growing demand for click and collect services. For example, in the UK it is something that 35% of Britons like to use. Obviously at present Amazon doesn’t have the physical stores that many of its rivals possess, making click and collect difficult. Similarly, the store could be a convenient way of supporting product returns for customers in the New York area.

3. Same day delivery
A third reason could be that Amazon wants to develop the site as a distribution centre to allow same day deliveries to local addresses. This seems increasingly credible in the light of Amazon’s move into selling ‘need-it-now’ items such as groceries and household goods which need to be delivered on the day. Essentially the building will act as a giant warehouse, with a shop on the front.

Amazon isn’t alone amongst pure-play online operations that have looked at expanding to have a physical presence. eBay did something similar a few years ago with its London pop up store. Given the importance of multichannel, including the High Street, to retail, it makes sense for ecommerce specialists to focus on building their capabilities in the physical world.

The challenges of extending the Amazon brand to a physical environment
However, Amazon will certainly face some new challenges if it wants to succeed in bricks and mortar retail. Here are three of the main ones:

1) Differences in customer service across channels
Amazon’s online customer experience is consistently rated highly by analysts and consumers. However, it is based on an automated, self-service model. A physical store has a different dynamic which involves face to face service. This requires people, all of whom have to be trained, motivated and monitored. Amazon will therefore need to work hard to extend its enviable reputation for online customer service to a physical environment.

2) Extending its USPs to the real world
Having made its name by pioneering ecommerce features such as online profiles, wish lists and reviews, Amazon will need to find ways to make it easy for shoppers to access and build on these elements in physical stores.

3) Delivering the range of products
Amazon is known for selling millions of products through the web – and, for many, is the de facto start point for online shopping. Given it offers 230 million items for sale in the US alone, it clearly can’t sell all of these in store. The company will therefore need to find a way to narrow down its focus and product catalogue. Does it, for example, look at high ticket items that people want to try before they buy or those that people want to receive quickly?

Whether the speculation about Amazon’s New York store is true or not it demonstrates the importance of multichannel to the retail world. Consumers value convenience and quality above all, meaning that, if they want to succeed, retailers need to make sure they can deliver the right experience seamlessly across the physical and online world.

Video chat – is it a contact centre technology?

October 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Companies and consumers are increasingly seeing the benefits of implementing live chat. It drives engagement while providing an efficient, fast channel to answer customer queries. Consumers like it as they can engage on chat while still doing other things, making it unobtrusive compared to the telephone or email and fitting in well with their busy lives. The Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study found that web chat satisfactorily answered 93.5% of questions asked, and that the average session length was just 4 minutes and 29 seconds. Agents can participate in multiple chats at the same time, increasing efficiency compared to channels such as voice. Consequently more and more organisations are implementing live chat on their websites.eptica_video_chat

Many commentators and analysts are now looking beyond traditional text, to video-based chat. There are three reasons behind this:

  1. The technology is mature from both the customer and corporate point of view – almost every PC and mobile device has a built in camera and broadband/3G speeds are able to transmit high resolution moving pictures without undue break up or jitter.
  2. The rise of video calling through services such as Skype and Facetime means that consumers understand and are comfortable with video as a channel.
  3. A picture is worth a thousand words. People relate to seeing other people and engage more deeply than through text-based channels.

However, amidst all the talk of video chat I’d argue that it is much more part of the sales process rather than acting as a customer service channel. There are significant cons to go with the pros outlined above:

  1. One of the advantages of text-based chat is that agents can manage multiple chats at once. Obviously this isn’t possible with video chat, as the agent has to give his or her full attention to the viewer, rather than sharing it amongst multiple chat sessions.
  2. Staff skills. All agents are ambassadors for your brand, but generally they are not visible to the consumer that they are in contact with. So they can wear what they like and appearance is not an issue. Video chat is different, so you have to be sure that your agents are comfortable with appearing in the flesh and have the skills to engage with consumers through video.
  3. Most contact centres are busy and noisy places – there’s no way you’d want agents to be taking video calls in the middle of crowded offices. Therefore companies offering video chat may need to set up separate spaces, adding to cost and limiting the numbers of agents that can answer video calls at once.

Where video chat fits really well into the customer journey is during the sales phase. I’ve seen some really strong examples where this works. For example, a large US electronics retailer offered video chat that connected consumers directly to in-store staff. They could then take products from the shelf, unbox them and demonstrate them to the interested consumer, enabling them to view the item from all angles and get a real feel for it. Essentially it provided the in-store experience, without the consumer needing to leave their PC.

Another example is in high end fashion retail. Staff could bring out clothes from the warehouse, enabling customers to virtually examine them, giving advice and feedback to help make a choice.

What is important is that both of these examples are pre-purchase and actively help customers to make a choice and spend money with a particular company in a way that meets their individual needs. They are very valuable parts of the sales process, rather than customer service.

So, from my experience, video chat can be extremely powerful in specific situations – however it shouldn’t be part of your mainstream contact centre activities. It is a specific channel and needs to be handled in a special way, with its own staff and objectives if it  is to deliver real benefits to customers and your wider organisation.

What are your views and experiences? I’d welcome feedback and thoughts in the comments section below.

Why good customer experience starts with employees

October 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Consultancy Nunwood has just released its latest research into the experience and service offered by UK companies. Based on feedback from 7,500 consumers on 263 brands, it highlights individual success and overall trends in the UK customer experience.eptica_employees

The picture it offers is patchy. From the boardroom down, companies recognise the importance of the customer experience to their ongoing success. The best performers are getting better, but a large number of organisations and sectors are not improving – or are even performing worse than in 2013. This conclusion mirrors our own findings in the most recent Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study, which identified a widening chasm between leaders and laggards.

From reading the report, here are my top 5 conclusions:

1. The customer experience begins with staff
Companies that recruit and retain evangelical, engaged employees are those that deliver a superior experience to customers. First Direct, the number one ranked company within the study, was praised for its friendly, empowered staff who combined knowledge and empathy with the ability to make discretionary decisions. First Direct recruits almost half of new staff through existing employees, and rather than looking at the financial services industry, tends to look at those with experience in the care and hospitality sectors.

2. Customer experience is a long-term project
Senior management understand the importance of the customer experience – it has moved from theory into practice. But it is not necessarily easy to make changes without a long-term strategy – consequently companies that are beginning projects now may not see any benefits until 2016. Rapid improvements are possible (as seen by the entry of Nationwide and into the top 10), but this requires targeted investment in capabilities and culture.

3. The best are getting better
Generally the top 10 brands have increased their lead over others in their industries. Across all 263 brands surveyed the overall improvement in performance was just 0.6%, while the likes of First Direct saw scores increase by 3-4%. Clearly many laggards are not moving forward. In highly competitive markets this is bound to impact their ability to thrive in comparison with better performing peers.

Again, like the Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study, some sectors are rising faster than others. Financial services (up 2.2%) and entertainment and leisure (1% higher) all improved at a faster rate than the average. In contrast utilities (down 0.8%) and grocery retail (which recorded a 0.1% drop) all took a step backward compared to 2013.

4. Customer experience is a key differentiator
Consumers are increasingly demanding, meaning they expect the best possible experience from every company they deal with. Fail to deliver and they will move elsewhere. Consequently those brands that do not stand out for customer experience risk losing business to rivals, no matter how excellent the rest of their operations are.

5. Companies need to understand what excellence looks like
Given it is a relatively new discipline for many brands, it can be difficult for them to set strategic goals and objectives. Working with a framework, such as Nunwood’s Six Pillars of Customer Excellence (personalisation, expectations, time & effort, integrity, resolution and empathy), gives direction to programmes and helps with measurement on the journey. You can read more about the Six Pillars in this previous Eptica blog.

As the Nunwood study points out, customer experience is now top of the management agenda for companies in all industries. Consequently it is time for laggards to invest in order to improve performance if they are to compete with customer champions in the long term.

Delivering knowledge everywhere

October 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Smart organisations realise that the customer experience is the responsibility of everyone within the company that comes into contact with consumers. From frontline staff within branches or stores, through product experts and marketing teams adding content to websites, to senior management, all have a role to play in winning and retaining customers through superior service.eptica_knowledge

But how do you ensure that all staff have the tools to do the job? The first step is obviously to create processes that span the customer journey and train everyone involved, whatever their department, to work together to make the experience trouble-free. Customer experience/service targets should be set that are relevant to the consumer (rather than simply being business metrics), and monitoring should be put in place to make sure that standards are met.

However, these steps are akin to building a car. Without petrol it simply won’t go, no matter how polished and shiny it is. When it comes to customer experience, knowledge is what powers successful organisations, meaning that it needs to be relevant, current and consistent, and then shared as widely as possible across departments and staff. Centralising knowledge will help ensure this consistency and also drive efficiency. Companies need to create a single, intelligent knowledgebase and then make it easy for it to be accessed and updated, whatever the channel and irrespective of whether it is going to be used by staff or customers.

So how can you take knowledge outside the contact centre? From our work with customers here are 5 different areas where knowledge everywhere delivers business results.

1. Mobile workforce

More and more companies rely on a mobile workforce of engineers and installers making house calls. In many cases this is the only time a customer actually meets a company representative, meaning they are very much an ambassador for your brand. Knowledge, both of the individual customer situation and the technical information they need to rectify any issues, is therefore critical. Arm your mobile workforce with access to your centralised knowledgebase and customer information to ensure that any faults are fixed quickly and customer satisfaction maximised

2. At the Point of Sale

Customers expect the same, consistent information when they are in a retail store, browsing its associated website or simply on the telephone to the retailer’s contact centre. Consequently, it is important to extend access to your knowledgebase to retail staff, either through mobile devices such as tablets or by using the existing technology infrastructure of point of sales devices such as tills.

3. Within the wider enterprise

At Eptica we’ve heard tales of staff moving from customer service departments to other parts of the business, who have pleaded to retain access to the customer service knowledgebase. This demonstrates the power that consistent information can have to help people do their jobs across the business, so make it available to all who need it and extend the range of answers within it to cover all their functional areas by continuously monitoring the types of questions and requests for information. Customers don’t see departmental silos within your business – so make sure knowledge enables you to give fast answers to their queries, whoever they ask.

4. Across the web

The Eptica Multichannel Customer Experience Study found that 53% of companies now have web self-service systems that make it easy for customers to find fast answers online. This is a positive move, and the next step is to ensure that web self-service is available everywhere on your site. For example, use clearly marked question boxes that can be accessed without having to leave a particular page or provide a simple way of asking a question during the customer journey. You can even tailor your knowledgebase to give context sensitive help – suggesting questions and answers dependent on where consumers are on the site.

5. With partners

Few companies manage their complete supply chain. Many outsource part of the customer service function, while others use third party logistics companies to make deliveries or handle returns. Just because these organisations are outside the building is no reason that they can’t have access to either the whole or selected parts of your knowledgebase. This makes the entire process seamless and consistent – after all, in the customer’s eyes you are who they are buying from, so they expect you to deliver, whether it is directly or via partners.

Knowledge is a central part of delivering the customer experience that today’s consumers demand – companies therefore need to make sure it is available everywhere if they want to thrive.


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