As technology takes over our lives, traditional methods of business seem to be dwindling, including the way we serve our customers. SBT looks at the importance of continuing that ‘traditional’ approach to customer service: maintaining personalisation and face-to-face contact before robots take over

I’m sure many of you reading this can still remember the time when contacting a company in the event of an enquiry or complaint necessitated visiting the shop in question in the hope that the staff could help you out; making a telephone call, or even writing a letter. Of course all these methods still exist and, for some, talking to someone face to face or making do with a telephone call still remains the preferred way of resolving an issue.

While the basic aim of customer service – to keep the customer satisfied – has remained the same, developments in technology have brought to pass a whole new aspect to the customer service experience. Perhaps the biggest change that technology has introduced is the sheer number of channels through which companies have been able to make themselves contactable by their customers – some of which have proved popular, while others less so.

In addition to the more traditional methods mentioned earlier, customers can now make contact through, among others; automated and self-serve systems, live chat, email, social media, text message and video call. Furthermore, online forums allow consumers the ability to air their views or complaints not only at any time of the day, any day of the week, but also to a worldwide audience. Now, this could of course be a good or a bad thing, depending on whether you are the customer or the company. For this reason it may well be argued that the new systems empower the consumer, giving them a formidable voice that companies cannot ignore. However, some feel that these newer channels are making for a poorer experience overall.

While companies may well have made themselves more contactable and accountable, a report published recently by Echo Managed Services – a specialist outsourcer, has found that 53% of consumers said that they prefer to deal with service providers either face-to-face or over the phone, increasing to 62% in more complex and/or emotive situations, such as making a complaint or trying to correct a complicated problem.

Monica Mackintosh, Customer Services Director at Echo Managed Services, said of the report:

“The research findings highlight that despite the wide variety of channels open to customers, there is still a huge demand for customers wanting to talk to real, highly skilled and empowered human advisors.”

So if, as this report suggests, the traditional methods are more popular, why are companies employing so many of these newer systems that – in some cases – have the potential to create more problems than they solve? Unsurprisingly there are some very good reasons. For a start, automated and self-serve systems offer customers both increased speed and convenience. The systems also not only allow companies to deal with an ever increasing volume of queries efficiently, but they also reduce operating costs. Using vast teams of real, trained people that would otherwise be required to deal with this volume is prohibitively expensive.

dreamstime_m_33572701However, here is where the problems arise. These systems are often seen by consumers as presenting frustrating barriers and obstacles when, more often than not, all they want to do is speak to a real person. Indeed, the report found that the biggest customer service frustrations cited by customers included being kept waiting on hold (56%) and automated call answering (17%). Additionally, if businesses focus too much on technology-based customer service channels over, arguably, higher quality traditional services, the resulting existing service will suffer. For example, when asked in what way they believe that good telephone service improves their experience as a customer, 22% said it increased trust and reassurance; 16% said it gave them a sense of loyalty; 10% felt valued and cared for; and 7% felt less stressed.

This is not to say that digital channels do not still have an important role to play; of course they do and they are in fact being widely embraced by customers – particularly in more simple situations.  Web self-service, for example, was the most popular method for paying a bill (35%), as was email for requesting information (27%).

And so it seems that, as with so many things, what needs to be done for the benefit of both the consumer and the company is to create a happy medium between the traditional and modern methods. Clearly, it’s important for businesses to deal with customer enquiries in an efficient manner in order to remain competitive. However, it’s just as vital to ensure they continue to provide a quality customer experience without creating the impression that the self-service systems are all about saving money.

“Self-service certainly has its advantages and, deployed in the right manner, this ‘always-on’ access to your organisation can increase customer satisfaction levels by making interactions quick and easy”

Another key part of this balancing act is that the company must use human insight to complement the speed and convenience that technology can provide, while also understanding when each contact channel is best utilised and when human contact is required:

“Competent and helpful contact centre advisors are still a vital part of any customer service strategy, helping customers when needed and giving those great experiences where technology cannot serve or is not desired to do so.”

So, for those businesses looking to reduce customer service costs, let’s not underestimate the very real risk posed by deploying under-trained customer service advisors or relying too heavily on technology not backed up by the option of expert human contact. As the Echo report has made clear, customer losses and damaged reputation are likely to follow – both of which can be difficult to recover from and surely far outweigh the cost of getting it right in the first place.