UPPING YOUR GAME: Delivering great customer service in a digital world

Developments in technology have changed the way people think about customer service. The bar has been set higher, although the solutions to keeping your customers happy are very different to a decade ago. 

If you ask today’s consumer whether a company they use delivers good customer service, their perceptions are just as likely to be driven by the user experience of its website, or how quickly it responds to social media posts, than by human interactions or personal relationships. Whether we’re talking about consumers buying from a business, or two businesses interacting with each other, ‘responsiveness’ has taken over from ‘efficiency’ as the key metric in delivering good customer service.

One of the key differences between responsiveness and efficiency lies in the ability of a business to listen to its customers and respond accordingly. Business owners – of SMEs in particular – are often highly-driven individuals, motivated by the desire to do a great job for their customers by providing a fast, friendly and knowledgeable service. They know their business inside out and pride themselves on supporting staff to develop the skills they need to make it run effectively and efficiently – but in today’s marketplace, where customers are becoming more tech-savvy and more demanding, that’s not always enough to stay ahead of the competition.

Businesses have always benefited from listening and responding to their customers’ needs, but now there are so many more channels and ways of doing this. In response, companies are having to invest more time and energy (and money) in monitoring and improving their ‘customer experience’, offering more flexibility and choice, while at the same time keeping an eye on value for money.

When customers aren’t happy, they now have more ways to vent their frustrations. Social media continues to grow exponentially and competition between different channels is fierce, meaning businesses need to use all the tools at their disposal, both to listen to the conversations that are happening online, as well as setting themselves up to be able to respond quickly and in an appropriate way.

It is still true to say there are different expectations on businesses operating in different sectors. Today’s retailers need to be highly responsive to customers’ demands; offer flexibility in the way people can contact and do business with them and constantly evolve their products and services to anticipate and satisfy the latest trends. Companies in other sectors can get away with more; but this is changing rapidly.

One of the greatest areas of change has come in high street banking. According to consumer group Which? over a third of UK branches have closed in the last 30 years, while banks continue to invest heavily in their online platforms and ‘apps’. Despite the arguments around social responsibility, this trend is likely to continue as the bottom line is customers now expect businesses to invest in technology to improve their levels of service and, importantly, to make themselves more responsive.

So, are the traditional values of customer service and personal relationships still important in the digital age? Thankfully, there are many indicators that show us that they are – although not as a substitute for investing in a mobile-responsive website, introducing ‘Chatbots’ that can solve customer queries or exploring ways that Artificial Intelligence can enhance your business.

The old adage that ‘people buy from people’ has been seriously questioned in recent years. Almost half of product searches now start on Amazon, while retailers on UK high streets continue to suffer under intensive competition from online stores. Although most experts see this trend continuing, there are also great examples of companies combining the best of both – using technology as an ally but not ignoring the importance of people in building trust and encouraging brand loyalty.

The Institute of Customer Service has been running an online survey of 10,000 UK consumers twice a year for the past 10 years. In addition to measures like quality, efficiency and the ease of doing business, the UK Customer Satisfaction Index also looks at problem solving and complaint handling, as well as attitudes towards trust and reputation.

Companies like John Lewis (currently 2nd) have long been championed for their commitment to delivering good customer service, but HSBC-owned firstdirect bank has recently taken the top spot. Although the bank has invested heavily in technology, it points out that what can’t be automated inevitably becomes more valuable. According to the firm’s boss, Joe Gordon, “there’ll always be a customer need for empathetic, highly-skilled, and empowered people.”

For customer service, as with many things in business, your people are still a crucial factor. What goes on inside an organisation echoes what is felt on the outside, making the employee experience an important factor in delivering a great customer experience. With current levels of unemployment being so low, the pool of available talent is shrinking, which makes holding on your best staff even more important. Happy employees can create a better customer experience but creating a culture that rewards good customer service can also protect against other companies stealing your best people.