Ed Ariel, Global Head - Service Operations, EZ Cater
The talk for a few of years now has been all about automation, customer self-service, and omni-channel support. It all sounds amazing and the promises of a better customer experience at lower support costs are fantastic. Until they aren’t.
If you listen to the experts they will tell you that 50% of service jobs (or more!) will be replaced by automation in the very near future. While automation is coming, one thing that isn’t changing is that customers will not settle for a lower level of service. Will there be a time that self help and automation can offer the same level of service as a highly skilled customer service professional? Yes – one could argue that we are already there for certain task types. For example, most companies do not have live support to reset passwords or provide copies of invoices.
"Although companies will need less customer service agents, successful companies will realize that the agents that do remain are more skilled and more in demand because the non-automated work and customers expectations will be more demanding"
In the cases where automation and self help currently do not meet customer’s expectations, the tasks and requests are generally more complex and outside of an established and standard process. I would argue that these types of tasks are a decade away from being automated to the point where a customer would prefer and trust technology to perform complex tasks. Customer service has been a differentiator in a number of businesses and it will continue to be a differentiator as more companies push automation and self help to customers when the automated solution is not yet at the same level of the human.
How will successful companies use service to differentiate as technology continues to improve?
First, and most important, keep automating. Just as customers will continue to require a human touch until some equilibrium between human and machine service level has been reached, smart customers will also question companies that do not automate basic functions and force them to talk to a customer service agent. If I need a copy of an invoice and I am forced to speak to someone to get one it is going to make me wonder about the future of that company.
In addition, we know that customers often look for self-service options before reaching out to a contact center. If the customer has confidence that a task can be automated and they find a solution to complete the task without contacting the center it is a win for everyone. If they feel a service should be automated and the solution for everything on a companies website is to contact service then customers will search for a better provider.
Step two in using service to differentiate in an era of increased technology is to hire and retain the best people. There are still many companies that look at service as a replaceable commodity. I have seen multiple companies with approximately 25% monthly turnover in service. These companies believe they can still meet the demand of the customer. I have spoken to companies where they treat service as an afterthought and believe the people that help their customers aren’t capable of contributing to the growth and future of the company.
Companies that are going to excel and believe in using service as a differentiator understand that as the role of automation grows the role of customer service becomes more important. Especially when handling those tasks that aren’t automated yet or can’t be automated. The easily repeatable work that previously was done manually is already automated. Even the information gathering of more complicated tasks can be done without human intervention. The work that is left requires a higher degree of skill than what is considered traditional customer service duties.
In addition to the advanced skills needed in today’s customer service agents the remaining manual interactions also require a personal touch. After all, these interactions are happening because something went wrong or the customer is looking for some reassurance. The customer is still looking for a quick resolution but determining and providing the appropriate level of relationship building is a unique skill to customer service.
Identifying and retaining these service professionals is, in itself, its own unique skill. There needs to be a rigorous screening and training process. The best service employees need to have clear expectations from day one. These are worded differently at different companies but basically they need to be able to get along with all employees in every department in your company, they need to be responsible for doing everything possible to make things easier for their customers, and they need to be responsible for improving their work functions and the functions of the company.
In addition, this level of customer service professional is not easily replaceable and shouldn’t be treated this way. This means paying them above the average compared to traditional service, treating them like professionals when it comes to schedule flexibility and time off, and providing well-defined career paths for those interested in expanding their skills sets.
The call center has changed and will continue to change as technological advances meet and exceed the service provided by humans today. Although companies will need less customer service agents, successful companies will realize that the agents that do remain are more skilled and more in demand because the non-automated work and customers expectations will be more demanding.