Customer service has always been reactionary, meaning someone to wake up and answer website email requests. That's just not sufficient to hold today's fickle, less loyal, and ready-to-jump customer. Great startups are getting ahead of the game with "anticipatory customer service," like providing smart phone access to product and account data to head off complaints.
Self-service technologies, social media, and smart phones have created a new set of expectations for high-tech consumers today. You should assume that they will want discounts to match competitors, and answers to technical questions in real time, rather than waiting in some phone or mail queue.
Thus you need a new generation of self-service that goes way beyond the now old-fashioned and frustrating automated phone audio response messages. I found a good summary of these new expectations in a book just published by Micah Solomon, High-tech, High-touch Customer Service. Here are seven rules derived from his insights to start your thinking:
Customers expect a choice of channels. Customers should never be told by a clerk to call customer service, or told on the phone to see the website. You need to anticipate the channel they might choose, and be ready to handle it, or they will look elsewhere, and trash you on Twitter and Yelp.
Self-service needs to have escape hatches. It's time to end the automated email responses with the "do-not-reply" address. Always end self-help postings with "Did this answer your question?" and provide a next step for those who answer "No." That means guiding your customer to the top, rather than hiding the top decision maker.
Respect your customer's view of usability. Usability is recognizing what users have learned from past experience, rather than an abstract science. So don't move the search bar from the top of a webpage, or select a digit other than "0" for getting a human on the phone. Scientific updates to your interface to reduce keystrokes may be self-defeating.
Customers need to be able to shift channels without regression. How many times have you shifted from automated response to a human, and been asked for all the information anew? Anticipate this, and use today's technology to make the experience seamless. You probably won't get a second chance.
Self-service has to be monitored and updated regularly. Customer expectations go up as rapidly as the delivery technologies change. Social media apps like Twitter and Pinterest are the latest sources for what's catching people's attention today, both positively and negatively. You should be watching.
You and your staff need to regularly use your self-service channels. For the staff, they need understand customer issues, and you need to test the tone and culture of the people behind the scenes. It's getting tougher and tougher to outsource this tone and technology to other cultures halfway around the globe.
Ugly upsells through self-service are a brand killer. Amazon handles upselling in a gently suggestive way, with a "frequently bought with" message. Harder sells can backfire, since people like to be pulled in with personalized messages, rather than pushed along with the crowd.
Technology is great for adding speed and flexible delivery to anticipatory customer service, but people are still required to add the heart and the personal touch. More than ever, a startup needs to build an emotional connection with every customer. Reactionary customer service won't generate the loyalty you need to survive. When was the last time you took a hard look at your service?