Being a customer service representative in the digital age is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it's easier than ever to communicate with customers through a number of different channels, at any time. On the other, customers actually assume you'll communicate with them through a number of different channels — whenever they want.
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"Customers are living in a real-time context," said Kirstin Ogilvie, vice president of corporate marketing for Thunderhead.com, a customer engagement solutions provider. "They expect real-time responses and answers [with their] interactions and personal applications. When they deal with brands, they don't expect anything different."
Larger companies with big budgets have raised the bar for customer service, allowing people to reach them almost instantly through social media, live chat and even text messaging, in addition to traditional phone and email support. This trend toward omnichannel service has increased consumer expectations tremendously, leaving smaller companies no choice but to keep up or disappoint their customers. [Customer Service 2.0: Satisfying Customers in the Digital Age]
While small businesses may not be able to provide around-the-clock instantaneous service like the "big guys," they can still make sure that the customer experience is high-quality, no matter how someone reaches out to them. Customer service experts shared their advice for surviving in the age of instant, multichannel communication.
Help customers help themselves first (but be there when they need you)
Many Web-based businesses try to steer their customers toward self-service in the form of FAQ pages and "help" sections of their website, said Jon Lal, founder and CEO of BeFrugal.com, an online coupon and cash-back site. A thorough, easily accessible explanation of common issues and questions can greatly reduce the number of customer inquiries, and eliminate some of the frustrations customers have with spending time reaching out to and speaking with your company.
"You want to make sure that your customer service experience is, as much as possible, helping people find their own solutions," Lal told Business News Daily. "Channels like social media and live chat should be destination points if people can't [help themselves]."
When customers do have issues that can't be resolved without contacting your company, you'll want to make sure it's easy for them to get in touch with you through any channel, and that your staff is prepared to deal with a customer who may be upset and unhappy.
"Have those channels staffed with people who are trained right," Lal said. "You're not always going to get happy people. It's your job to try to handle that. With live chat and social media, your responses are on the record, so pay attention to how your customer service reps are presenting the image of your company."
If you offer options, stand by them
It's easy to provide an email address, phone number, chat features and social media links on your website to show that customers have a lot of options to contact you. But are you really giving customers a choice, or just the illusion of choice?
"A big challenge for companies is the paradigm shift in providing support on the channels of customers' choice," said John Huehn, CEO of social media sales and customer service company In the Chat. "Consumers may reach out through emerging channels and be pointed back to a traditional call center. If they wanted to talk to you on the phone, they would have called you."
Huehn said that it's important not to force-fit customers into the communication model that's more convenient for you as a company. This will result in customer frustration and a negative reflection on your brand.
"Leverage the capabilities of new channels to let customers get through to you in the way they want," Huehn said.
Remain consistent across all channels
One of the most negative experiences a customer can have is being transferred to another representative and having to repeat his or her issue over and over again.
"An inability to maintain the context of their customer relationship at every touch point is a huge mistake brands are making," said Jeremy Epstein, vice president of marketing at social relationship management system Sprinklr. "The customer doesn't care if he or she is interacting with your marketing, customer care, retail services, product or technology team. The expectation is that, no matter when and where a customer chooses to interact, the brand will always know who the person is, what has been discussed in the past, and the nature of the business relationship."
To avoid this problem, it's crucial to keep detailed profiles of your customers and document interactions with them, so any other staff member who deals with that customer will already have his or her information. Text-based communications like chat, email, social media and text messaging can aid in easy documentation of a customer's history with your company.
"Businesses should think of [text-based channels] as a front door," said Jason Sommerset of SMS and VoIP provider Bandwidth. "It's quicker, more contextual and provides better service for the customer."
For example, if you start with an online form, email or text, a follow-up phone call will only take a few minutes because the representative has all the information the customer just submitted, Sommerset said.
Remember, it's all about building relationships
Ultimately, no matter what channels you choose to use in your customer service communications, your priority should always be to provide a helpful, positive experience that will enhance your relationship with a customer.
"Focusing on great customer relationships and building customer engagement start with leadership," Ogilvie said. "Design your organization around customers in a customized, relevant way. You can't look at improving engagement purely from a marketing perspective."
Ogilvie said that, as a business, you need the ability to listen to customers, know exactly what customers are doing, and understand the context of where they are in their journey with you. This is all enabled by the right technological tools.
"Once you start to gather that intelligence and insight into the customer experience, you can drive better communication with customers," Oglivie said.
Originally published on Business News Daily