3 Keys to Winning at Digital Customer Service: Convenience, Conversation, Consistency

Featured in the Fall 2016 Issue of "CRM Magazine," learn how to deliver outstanding digital customer service

The world has gone digital!  While this isn’t really news, it’s worth understanding the impact.  In a recent global study of digital usage, it was reported that 46% of the total world population uses the internet, 31% are active on social media, and 51% are mobile users.  Not impressed?  What if I told you that those same statistics had year over year growth of 10%, 4% and 17% respectively?  Those are some astounding statistics. Chances are, even if you were a hold-out initially, you are now using SMS or some social network on a daily basis.

So, how does all of this love for digital channels relate specifically to customer service?  According to Gartner, over 70% of all consumers report they would rather start with self-service.  Additionally, 85% report they would rather chat with an agent than talk to them on the phone.  Connect Mogul reports 43% of smartphone owners use their phone to make calls, but over 70% of smartphone users text from their phone.  The evidence is overwhelming that digital is here, it’s growing and it’s not going away. 

With all of the growing digital channels, many brands understandably struggle to implement and maintain winning strategies around each of them.  Brands are attempting to deliver the outstanding service customers expect, while constantly trying to cope with the next big thing – no wonder so many are overwhelmed! No doubt these are tricky waters to navigate, but the great news is that customers would rather see companies making an effort and being imperfect than limiting their options to only a few channels.  As you think through your strategy, keep in mind a few simple guidelines that will move closer to what your customers really want: be convenient, be conversational, and be consistent.

Be Convenient.

The days of promoting an 800 number and expecting people to wait patiently in a queue for their call to be answered in the order it was received…are long gone.  Today’s consumers want to be met where and when they choose.  So, where are they?

Some are coming to your website and some are using your app and a bunch of them are using social media.  But, the fastest growing digital channel is messenger apps.  Nearly one in seven people on the planet use the messaging app WhatsApp monthly. Facebook Messenger has just exceeded 1 billion (with a B) users a month, with WeChat just behind that at 700 million users every month.  It only makes sense for brands to go where the consumers already are.

Another aspect of being convenient is being available on your customers’ time, not just your own.  Self-service options are an essential part of the answer.  The more robust your self-service, the less pressure to have human agents available in off hours.  Imagine a solution where self-service is provided by a bot that can understand the intent of the question, then determine the best available way to answer the consumer’s request, then provide the answer back to them consistently and accurately, no matter the time of day.  This is the future of customer service.  Gartner reports that by 2020, 85% of all customer service interactions will be done without a human.  Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a need for human interaction, but reserving those for when it is really needed is key to scaling.  And having robust capabilities in that area reduce the chance of friction when someone isn’t available for a customer to escalate to.

Be Conversational.

Winning at digital customer service with a single frameworkCustomers want to have a relationship with your brand, not interface with it.  They want to find you on channels where they are, and then be able to have a conversation.  They have grown tired of filling out forms and submitting requests.  They just want to talk, in a way that feels natural.  Are you feeling warm and fuzzy yet?  Probably not, if you are thinking about the amount of resources needed to provide this level of service to every consumer.  But this is where technology can help.

Natural language processing (NLP) allows a consumer to ask a question the way they would speak it.  The technology is then able to analyze the question, break it apart and determine the intent of the question.  For example: asking a coffee shop “Where do I buy your coffee beans?” has an entirely different intent than “Where do you buy your coffee beans?”  While only one word is different in the sentence, the question being asked is not the same.  Having the ability to interpret plain language is the first step to being conversational. 

Once the system understands the question, it needs to be smart enough to figure out the right way to answer it.  For example, it may be necessary to engage in a dialog to collect additional information in order to provide the right answer.  That information can then be used to decide whether the answer should come from a knowledgebase, another resource on your website, a trusted third party website, or an integration into a related business system. 

Regardless of the source of the answer, the technology needs to be able to interpret the information into a human friendly answer and provide it back in the channel where the question was originally asked.  In some cases, the system will not be able to serve up an answer, in which case the request should be seamlessly escalated to a human. 

The key is to make it feel like you are having a conversation, rather than forcing your customers to figure out how to interact with your website, app, etc.  Even better is if you can have a continuous conversation with them by having relevant context follow the consumer from channel to channel.  This way, they never have to start over, making the interaction feel that much more natural.

Be Consistent.

Consistency is equally important across devices and channels.  Consumers want to feel like they can float freely between them and know that you will be right there with them, like a trusted friend.  Many brands have separate teams building out experiences for different channels.  For example, their website team might have mapped out a beautiful self-service model for the company site.  But, the experience to get help with that same question in the app is completely different (or non-existent).  This creates friction in the journey as the consumer has to reorient themselves and may not be able to continue the conversation with your brand when switching from laptop to phone.  If it feels like starting over, there is a much higher chance that they will start over with your competitor instead.

Customers want a relationship with your brandDesign a single framework for self-service and intelligent escalation that can be applied across different devices and channels.  Bring together the teams that are involved and think through how the experience can be provided.  How can it be optimized for the size of the device?  How can you have the right data flow between channels to ensure that the customer can pick up where they left off?  What’s the best way to deliver answers for each of the channels you will support?  How can technology help to ensure this is a seamless process?

Not only will this make maintenance of your existing channels easier, it will also allow you to add the newest channel more smoothly. Finally, you can realize some economies of scale by not having to redo the entire process for every new channel that emerges.  And, if there is anything we’ve learned during this digital revolution, it’s that there is always “the next channel.”

Allowing customers to interact with you when and how they want is no longer a dream.  Smart technology makes it possible by allowing you to reach your consumers on their laptop, tablet, phone…on your website, in-app, or via a messenger platform.  It provides a framework that lets you use your resources to the absolute fullest while giving your customers fast, friendly, accurate service that keeps them coming back. 

Close your eyes and envision one model that allows you to be convenient, conversational, and consistent.  Ah, yes! Now you are seeing the future of digital customer service and your customers will love you for it.

Shellie Vornhagen is the vice president of marketing for Astute Solutions, a leading provider of smart consumer engagement solutions. A veteran in the software industry, she is passionate about using technology to improve people’s day-to-day lives.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 Issue of CRM Magazine