14/04/2014 10:00 BST | Updated 11/06/2014 06:59 BST

Customer Service Must Keep a Place for Paper

In a recent blog post I examined research that found many firms are letting down their customers when it comes to written customer queries. The Iron Mountain study revealed that over half (57 per cent) of firms do nothing with customer communications that arrive on paper. Instead, they wait until we grow sufficiently frustrated to phone or email to ask why nothing's happened, and only then do they act.

Behind this approach lies the worrying fact that many firms simply don't know how to handle correspondence on paper once they have moved over to automated customer service management. In an always-on, multi-channel world, we increasingly expect any company we deal with to instantly pull up a single, comprehensive view of our entire history. Yet our study found only a third (34 per cent) of firms believe they have the processes in place to achieve this. The end result? We find ourselves having to repeat our enquiry, request or complaint to several different people. It's a situation many of us have faced so it's no surprise that our study revealed this as the top customer service gripe for 82 per cent of consumers.

Customers vote with their feet. The study found that chasing up written requests is a top turn off for half of those surveyed. According to customer service group, Zengage, 82 per cent of us have stopped doing business with a company following a bad customer service experience. The effects are not just short term either, Dimensional Research has found that over a third (39 per cent) of people will avoid a vendor for two years or more after a bad customer service experience. With the rise of social media, the impact of a single bad experience can have far-reaching ripple effects. How many Tweets or Facebook posts have you encountered that complain about this very topic?

This week I want to examine what can be done to solve these issues. Firstly, there is no miracle cure; employee behaviours, cultures and business processes cannot be transformed overnight. Instead, a gradual evolution is more likely to succeed.

I always recommend embracing a paper-light approach, rather than just doing away with paper in one fell swoop - leaving many customers and employees bewildered and lost.

In a paper-light world, new, inbound or important documents are automatically scanned and the relevant data extracted, validated and entered into the customer service process. Older or less essential documents are indexed and archived for easy retrieval if required.

There are many UK firms out there trying hard to integrate paper, but finding themselves dependent on manual data entry (63 per cent of the firms surveyed in our study), a resource-intensive and error-prone approach. Just one in three currently digitises paper documents in order to extract the information. This means that a significant two-thirds of firms in the UK don't, just as two-thirds don't know how to retrieve customer information once it is stored in paper archives.

Firms could argue that paper use is declining and the challenge of managing new paper communications is diminishing and the problem therefore could eventually resolve itself. But they don't realise that all the valuable insight and intelligence contained within these communications would be lost forever. A failure to respect and integrate our paper-based requests today will leave a sour taste in the mouth for many customers - with most of us taking our business elsewhere.