So what did I learn from 2014? What struck me from all my encounters, experiences, research and projects and how did these combine to make sense? Right before the New Year there seem to be countless of smart people who can distill a year into crisp, clever bulleted points out of which they can immediately extract clear and wise-sounding resolutions. I am not one of these people. Things are not bulleted in my memory and I am not even sure when, in the course of a project or event, one year ended and another began. Turning to others’ wisdom and conclusions about 2014 my eye lazily wondered on an article about the future of customer service.
Sure enough there are neat, bulleted conclusions in it that reflect how the writers’ learning during 2014 translated into conclusions for 2015. As I read through them they seemed to add up to a realization I had this past year: how dramatically the conversation with and about customers has shifted and how this shift has catalyzed innovation and growth.
For example, one of the trends the article mentions is Plan B: "Why own a single product, when I can have access to the right product when (and only when) I need it?" This means providing “access when needed to an alternative or backup product which overcomes limitations in the original, puts right an emergency (I've run out! It's broken! It's lost!), addresses a common pain point, and more.” For example a telecoms company offers replacement batteries at a festival; a fashion retailer in Costa Rica “gives customers access to emergency clothes truck.”
Other trends include:
- Video valet, “webcam-enabled face-to-face interaction with their customer service representatives – as and when consumers need it;”
- Adding services to products: “January 2014 saw Dutch retailer JeansOnline launch a home delivery option that allows shoppers to give any unwanted items straight back to the courier;”
- Customization on the basis of an abundance of customer data that is constantly being collected; and, my favorite,
You probably assume that politeness refers to the manner in which a company’s representative treats the customers, right? Wrong! The trend refers to the “democratization” of the provider-consumer relationships that demands politeness by both parties. Examples include a restaurant discounting meals for polite customers who say please to the waiter; McDonald’s and Coca-Cola partnering on a free app in the Philippines, rewarding customers for not using the phones; and a plan in India for rewarding festival participants for putting trash in the designated trashcans.
We are not simply talking about “trends” you can plug into your organization’s operations here, like giving customer service staff a better script for responding to phone inquiries or switching to electronic delivery to increase efficiency. First, customer service can no longer merely involve tactics out of context but the total relationship of an organization with its customers. Secondly this relationship is very different from customer relationships even in the very recent past: it is dynamic rather than passive; it involves equal partners rather than parties in a transaction; and, like all true relationships, requires continuous negotiation and realignment.
The new customer relationship is anchored in co-creation and constant innovation. Instead of serving, the retailer or service provider is in a race for innovation in an effort to constantly delight and surprise the easily glutted consumer of today, rapidly tiring of “the same old” and thirsting for what the article calls constant “newness.”
Example after example in this article paints a picture of an endless stream of amazing, unique innovations on every level and in every dimension of the customer experience.
In planning for 2015, look at the leaders of customer service, beyond your own sector and peers and consider the standards that they are or will be setting for consumers. This will help you assess your own capabilities for going where your members or consumers are going. Is your organization capable of thinking outside static benefit packages, for example, in order to create added value through “a home delivery option that allows shoppers to give any unwanted items straight back to the courier?” Would your current staff conceive of systems like a video valet to improve your customers’ experience or solve a customer problem? Are they likely to add services and experiences to a program or product to create integrated solutions rather than just add more of the same single programs? Is interaction with customers generating an endless stream of innovations?
This is where customer service is going. It is like a dance with your customers in which you have to be vigilant in order to remain in step with them and be able to execute difficult maneuvers together to continue and enhance the dance.