For the past few years I have been blogging about how far and how fast customer service has changed. A decade ago companies would give you a phone number to call and an email (if you were lucky) and these were your only choices if you wanted help. Now there is online chat, the various social networks, and review forums - to name just a few new help channels.
The big difference for the brands is that they have much less control over the way that customers get in touch. Instead of just setting up a contact centre that monitors the phone line and email they now need to be more actively monitoring the social web. Who has mentioned us on Twitter? Is someone talking about our products on Facebook? Has someone left a bad review on Tripadvisor? Has someone published a blog about us on Wordpress?
For the customer this is great. The ability to express an opinion and to find what others think ensures that customers have a lot more information about products before they ever make a purchase. But because these channels are constantly evolving, the brands need to be endlessly scanning the social web. The consequence now if they don't is that customers - and their friends - will just assume they are being ignored.
After all, can you imagine complaining about your bank today in 2015, perhaps by tweeting your frustration and then getting no response at all? It's an enormous failure of basic etiquette, a bit like people who still write emails in upper case without realising that most people now accept this to mean THAT YOU ARE SHOUTING!
A recent study of customer behaviour published by PwC found some interesting results. They talked to 1,000 consumers about how they like to get in touch with brands and it is not as clear-cut as you might expect - that is if you are following all these rapid changes in the way customers interact with companies.
The only type of industry where digital-only communications were preferred to the traditional call to a contact centre - or a blend - is retail where 32% of those customers questioned only use digital channels. In fact the majority of customers (84%) still prefer to get help by talking to a real person on the phone, but almost half (47%) have used a combination of digital and traditional channels - so around half of customers are now very comfortable switching around to different channels to get help as and when - and how - it suits them.
There are two interesting points worth making, both from my own observations of the brands that I work with and also this new data from PwC:
1. When people want a problem fixed quickly, they prefer to be talking with a real person so the voice call is never going to completely be replaced by channels such as social networks or review sites.
2. The fastest growing channels where customers are gradually moving are the social networks. They are still coming from a small base, but are increasing rapidly.
I don't believe that we are close to what the experts call a 'digital inflection point' just yet - meaning that the majority of customers would prefer to talk to brands on digital channels as a first choice. This is partly because of demographics, there is a large section of society that still prefers to talk to a real person now rather than firing off a tweet and hoping it gets answered within a couple of hours. However it is also because of that immediacy - when you need help you usually want it right now so regardless of customer age or digital knowledge, to resolve issues quickly it is often faster to just call.
Some channels like online chat can blend the digital approach with immediacy and I believe this is where the next wave of growth will be for many brands, finding ways to help customers faster and using channels that people actually want to use.
In the meantime though, customer service is an exciting industry to be involved in. The demand for voice calls is still growing and yet all these other channels are being thrown into the mix. It is more complex than ever to get it right, but that just increases the challenge and makes it more fun!