The Iron Triangle of Customer Service: Speed, Quality, and Cost

We all know that customers need excellent service, and they want it fast. Is there a way to do it cheaply? The principle of the “Iron Triangle” suggests not:

done quickly

The principle suggests that, of the three points of the Iron Triangle, you can only have two at a time—not three. Think about it:

  • If you provide high-quality support quickly, you would expect it to be expensive to do.
  • If you provide quick service by inexpensive means, you might expect it to be of poor quality.
  • When you provide high-quality service but don’t spend a ton of money to do so, you probably expect it to be slow.

Luckily for you, these are just assumptions. In reality, customer service is one of the few industries where the Iron Triangle might not have such a secure hold. Let’s break down why that is.

The Iron Triangle is a fallacy

The idea that you can only attain two of these three qualities assumes that you are willing to operate your business by cutting corners. When you presume that offering fast, cheap support is an option, it means you’re comfortable with providing a lower quality offering. But with the state of the world what it is, it’s not an option to offer low-quality service.

Your customers will leave.

Alternatively, many companies try to meet the “good” and “fast” attributes by hiring more customer service reps. The more people you have answering customer questions, the faster and better your service will be…right? Wrong. Have you heard the metaphor “too many cooks in the kitchen”? When you try to solve a problem by adding more people, there’s more complexity and communication added to the mix. Plus, it’s not always possible to hire more people quickly enough to solve the issue.

Ultimately, that leaves good and cheap service as the only viable option. But given the right strategy, good and cheap service doesn’t need to be slow. You don’t need to deliver sub-standard service – all points of the Iron Triangle can be met!

What matters most to your customers?

Although the Triangle doesn’t exist for customer service, it can still be useful to conceptualize your strategy. All three points of the Triangle are essential (and impactful!) for different reasons.

Fast

Out of 3,200 surveyed customers, 88% of customers expect a response from your business within 60 minutes. That is really fast. Some companies are even starting to reward quick answers between clients and their customers because they know it makes for better customer experience. Take, for example, Facebook offering page responsiveness badges, and Airbnb rewarding swiftly responding hosts with priority property views. They understand that people are more likely to continue using their platform if they get an enjoyable experience, quickly.

Take a look at this breakdown from Accenture:

most important attribute of the customer experience

Response time is the most important of all of the attributes of support, even over ease of use and knowledgeable staff. To ignore it would be to throw all of your service strategies in the rubbish. Of the three, this is the first one to focus on.

How to ramp up speed

There are tons of tools and strategies out there to help your team be the fastest.

  • Implement proactive service via chatbots or through triggering automated emails. Deflecting tickets before they can hit your customer service inbox is one of the best ways to free up your reps’ bandwidth to be speedy elsewhere. Using AI to show helpful content in context takes pressure off both your support team and your customers.
  • Automate low-hanging fruit. If your team is still handling tickets for refunds, exchanges, or other issues that should already be built into your automated workflow, automate them as much as possible. You can use NLP to detect tricky or dissatisfied customers and escalate them quickly. Your existing team will handle more if they don’t need to take time out of their days for menial tasks. On Running, for instance, doubled their agent productivity by using AI, and can now handle 250% more customer inquiries, with only 10% more agent time.
  • Allow your customers to find their answers themselves, and make it easy and beautiful to do so. Look at Apple’s methodology of breaking down their documentation by product:
get help and learn

Speed is one of the most significant ways to make an impact, even across the other points of the Iron Triangle.

Cheap

Do you understand how much your service costs per ticket? Does it cost more to offer phone support, email support, or in-person services? What are your levers for lowering or increasing cost?

Establishing the different tiers of service and what you expect customers to pay for it is crucial when considering costs. Understanding price sensitivity can be key here, too. For instance: would your customer base pay extra to have access to 24/7 phone support? If so, how much? You only can determine if something is “cheap” if you know what people are willing to pay.

How to keep things inexpensive

The best way to keep prices down is to make sure your team is well-resourced and well-trained.

  • Training and onboarding your employees helps keep them on the cutting edge of knowledge about your company. You’ll be able to do more with fewer people if all of the people you have are impeccably trained. Use AI to surface insights about customer sentiment and useful documentation to your agents in your helpdesk to continue training long after they’re done onboarding.
  • Give everyone a ton of context in every conversation—the more information you can provide about the customer, the better. Links to past discussions, purchase history, notes about the sales process, and even internal account information can be beneficial when interacting with a customer. It’ll save your team time and money by giving them less work to do for each interaction. Using an AI can bring together the best parts of automation and still allow a human to personalize the experience.
  • Offering self-service support keeps things inexpensive and quick. It also happens to be one of the ways that customers prefer to get help. You can use AI and automation to hit the sweet spot of offering support where and when customers need it. Win-win!
  • Along with training and onboarding, hiring the appropriate people can save you the money of voluntary attrition and training new employees. Create an interview strategy to ensure that you’re bringing on people who are in it for the long haul, have excellent customer focus, and have a naturally curious aptitude for technology.

Good

A study from Oracle found that 86% of U.S. adults will pay more for a “quality” customer service experience. Similarly, it found that 73% of them said friendly customer service made them fall in love with a brand. Offering good experiences to your customers helps generate customer loyalty and happiness, which boosts metrics like lifetime customer value, average cart size and advocacy.

The good news is that quality comes from many of the same things that contribute to keeping your support fast and inexpensive. Customers who perceive your service as being fast will almost always recognize it as being high quality.

How to be good

This is the magic question, right? Focusing on the same things you concentrated on to boost speed and drop expenses will also benefit you in your quest to be good.

  • Answer inquiries quickly. Customers want answers fast. When you focus on the “speed” portion of the Iron Triangle, you’re also tangentially boosting this one. Creating super-fast triaging, escalation, and proactive support by leveraging AI tools is the best way to get to your customers quickly. Using AI, G Star decreased their first response time by 60%, for instance, and 40% of their issues were resolved without human assistance.
  • Understand who needs support and when. Different types of customers will need help at different times and may appreciate varying methods of support. Not every product will be the same, or have the same contact points. Use NLP to understand the sentiment of individual tickets and get them the type of help they need.
the iron triangle

Customize the types of support you offer and when you offer them, and you’ll make moves on all three points of the Triangle.

  • Find your mistakes and fix them. Listen to your customers when they offer product feedback. Read through reviews and take action. Listening on social media can be automated and can be a treasure trove of information for your team.

You can have it all

Why limit yourself to just two corners of the Triangle when you can have them all? Luckily, in support, you can. When you focus on keeping your customer service fast and scalable (aka inexpensive), you boost your quality just as a byproduct. Instead of targeting two corners you’d like to choose, pick strategies that meet all three. For instance, implementing social listening to learn about what your customers care about, working on self-service support resources and proactive help, and continuing to advance your automation using cutting-edge AI. You’ll be surprised by how straightforward making larger-scale improvements to quality, speed, and cost can be.

If you’re keen to get a head start on breaking down the iron triangle, book a demo with us today to find out more.