|This is a guest post written by Sham Aziz. With 20 plus years in the Customer Service game at companies such as Selfridges, Vertu, NET-A-PORTER & Ocado, Sham is a visionary Customer Service leader. This is part 1 of 4.|
“When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” – Futurama
If we fast forward, 10, 50 or even 100 years into the future, what role does customer service play? To answer that question, it’s important to think about what the perfect Customer Service experience is.
The perfect state for customer service is for the work to be invisible and happening in the background, 98.3% of the time. Always there, but you never notice it. Picture yourself in Dishoom working your way through those Okra fries as your waiter tops up your drink, bringing out your mains as you take a breath after finishing your starter, or appearing with the bill as you look up, but before you even ask for it 🙂 anticipating what you need next, subtly and swiftly.
Fast forward, think of Customer Service like your very own FRIDAY, Iron Man’s natural language interface from the Marvel films. FRIDAY is an advanced AI which anticipates threats, offers solutions, and explains potential problems – all of which allows Tony Stark to use his genius in the best possible way: saving the world. Yes, Customer Service done well can save the business world. As leaders look to cut costs, drive revenues and increase profit, the power of great Customer Service can not be underestimated.
The future of Customer Service is a personal concierge (play superhero cinematic sound clip). In the background, and augmented via AI to supercharge the customer experience. This means that customers get precisely what they need when they need it. This may mean that the work of Customer Service goes unrecognised, and taking care of customer hygiene needs may feel basic. However, the route to customer self actualisation centres around doing less better. Let’s look at how we get there.
Where are we now?
To look forward, it’s worth recognising where we are now.
Imagine a scale, from reactive on the left, to proactive on the right, and a bit of both in the middle. A number of brands are playing in the reactive space limiting their contact centre to a purely reactive function. Agents deal with customer issues as and when they are brought to their attention. How can we reposition Customer Service from reactive to proactive.
Limited to working hours
24 hour customer service is often a facade and not the norm. The pandemic made leaders look at their offer and question everything. We saw operating hours cut and herding or nudging of customers into certain contact channels. The experiment shed a light on the need for a 24 hour service, that ends up being expensive or an answering service that doesn’t resolve queries – given that almost every other department in the business is asleep and not able to help. Customers may have to contact customer service during their own working day, or wait till the next day for a contact form or email to be picked up.
Long waits for responses
While most SLAs expect response times to be 60 seconds or less, it seems to be normal for customers to wait on the phone or in a live chat queue for far longer than that. Sometimes you can get a pleasant surprise when the phone is answered immediately and catches you off guard! And we won’t go into why the Covid-19 pandemic is not an excuse for why response times might still be slow today.
Lack of personal customer service
Bill Murray is stuck in a Groundhog Day loop dealing with customer service, having to explain the situation over and over to different agents who struggle to find the right context. Clicking through multiple systems and screens looking through order history, previous conversations and notes, whilst trying to get up to speed quickly enough to offer a bespoke service. We haven’t made it easy for agents to do their best work.
How do we get there?
If customer service is going to rise and meet the future it has to embrace a world where ambition meets budget and produces an experiential customer service baby.
People x Process x Technology = Personal Concierge
Here comes the hotstepper (Ini Kamoze). AI is the hotstepper in this story, an enabler. Artificial Intelligence or generative AI is NOT about replacing people or removing jobs, but about clearing away the repetitive non-value adding tasks involved in doing the actual job of customer service: helping people. The agent is therefore Ini Kamoze in this story.
If Tony Stark was facing down a global threat to humanity, the idea that FRIDAY would not have access to a key piece of information would be unthinkable. So why should the customer service team of the future be any different?
For Customer Service this means bringing together order history, browsing data, previous conversations, delivery information from carriers, warehouse and stock availability and many more systems.
Of course this is easier said than done. Most of this information exists in the tech stack, but there are multiple layers and APIs that may not be talking to one another or are poorly built over time. Cracking this will unlock a lot of value, we need to engage our systems architects to realise this value.
Bringing together all these systems gives agents a wealth of data to be able to tackle any problem they are faced with. This means customers get faster resolutions, and first contact resolution rate (FCR) will go up, because agents don’t have to escalate as many problems and can address problems fully at the first attempt.
Immediate information extraction
FRIDAY would have access to the information needed, but more importantly would be able to automagically and precisely pinpoint the relevant piece of information at that moment.
Current AI natural language processing can show us the way here, being able to extract meaning from text and images, and other data. The rate of improvement in AI suggests that being able to pull any information at a moment’s notice is not that far away.
For example, today AI can use image recognition to detect damage to products on arrival meaning that brands won’t have to rely on human eyes to spot damage before a customer gets a return or replacement processed. Removing days from a rubbish customer journey.
An agent should then through a simple voice command or push of a button be able to ask any question and get the information they need summarised. Imagine answering the customer enquiry this way without having to search and speed read a static knowledge article.
Detecting and anticipating problems
Ideally this shouldn’t even happen, because customer service should anticipate what issues customers are facing before the customer realises themselves.
Take delivery issues. Once an order has been placed, a team member in a warehouse packages it up, and gets it shipped. At which point a carrier picks it up and delivers it to the customer. Simple, and yet so much goes wrong.
In future customer service would be able to detect when something has gone wrong in the process and would step in to provide a solution (Dishoom waiter-esque – those Okra fries are really good!). If a package gets lost, a new one would be sent out. If it is delayed, an investigation would be raised immediately to find out what’s gone wrong.
If there is a choice that the customer needs to make, like whether to get a new order or cancel the order entirely, then customer service would make contact in the channel of the customer’s choice. Catching a customer off guard with proactive customer service is a pleasant surprise and the type of thing they will tell their friends (real world NPS – much better than a survey)
Blurring the gap between CS and Sales
But the wonderful sales person told me I would save a bajillion in my business case for implementing AI. Or my finance team is asking for ROI following the implementation of AI. Rather than take this short term approach to save short term cash, reinvest the time saved to accelerate the blurring of the gap between CS & Sales. Your personal concierge would spend this newfound time anticipating what the customer wants, and that is exactly where you find the best type of service and ROI to boot. Win win right? CS can be connected to CRM data and customer loyalty platforms and start to reach out to customers to check how they are getting on with their order, offer personalised recommendations, and look for opportunities to upsell and cross-sell to customers.
If you wait for customers to get in touch with you, you are almost certainly looking backwards and not to the future of customer service. You will not be reimagining or reinventing your business, you will be missing out on the added value of a well thought out CS proposition.
A constant improvement in processes, combined with ticket deflection and automatic resolutions to common problems will mean that much of the reactive work will either be much faster or taken away completely. You don’t want your team to play here, you want to use technology at a fraction of the cost instead.
As more and more of the repetitive work gets taken off their plates by AI (looking up information, copying information from one portal to another, waiting to hear back from the warehouse), the more that they can focus on interesting and challenging problems. This results in a more fulfilling job overall. Team retention in this industry is such a big challenge and compounded through seasonal trade. Making the work more fulfilling will go some way to helping solve it.
So, we have to reimagine customer service as something that steps in, often unseen, to take action when something goes wrong, but crucially before the customer notices it. This is where the idea of a personal concierge comes from.
Today, great customer service is one that solves the problems that arise quickly, efficiently and to the customer’s satisfaction. In the future, it’ll be one that does that without the customer really noticing, subtly and swiftly. So that “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” – Futurama