Last month, marketing and CRM software company Hubspot published the results of its customer service survey. Survey results showed that 96% of respondents said great customer service was important for them to stay loyal to a brand, and 67% said they would be willing to pay more for goods and services if a company offered them a great customer experience.
“Customer service is important to your business because it retains customers and extracts more value from them,” according to Hubspot. “By providing top-notch customer service, businesses recoup customer acquisition costs and cultivate a loyal following that refers customers, serves as case studies, and provides testimonials and reviews.”
But what is great customer service, and what does it have to do with IT?
“Great customer service means meeting customer expectations -- from interacting with customers over messaging channels because they expect convenience to investing in your knowledge base because they expect to find answers on their own,” said Courtney Gupta, a staff writer for Zendesk in a blog.
But customer service is more than that.
Complex issues can’t be answered in automated phone sessions, online chats, or even online troubleshooting libraries. These issues often require knowledgeable experts and trouble-shooters -- and the ability of customers to get to these resources. Customer service also demands that whoever (or whatever) you’re communicating with has the same context of understanding about your issue that you do. It requires as much agility on product return processes as it does on product sales.
In each of these areas, technology is an indispensable enabler and IT plays a crucial role.
Ugly Customer Service Scenarios
The best way to show how IT can enable (or disable) great customer service is to illustrate by example. Normally I use case study references that others have experienced; but this time, I can use my own “on-the-ground” experiences, which I am sure many readers will relate to.
1. The case of the elusive snowblower
We live in an area of the country that typically doesn't get much snow, but since we live at a higher altitude, snow can still be a possibility. So, we decided to get a snowblower just in case we needed one.
We visited a well-known home improvement store in our area, but the store said it didn’t have such an item in its inventory. We tried to order online, but the online portal couldn't process my husband's military discount, and it didn’t interface with the military discount information that was on file in the physical store’s system.
Realizing that we had to use the physical store’s system to get the discount, we then contacted another physical store in an area of our state that got snow. They could process the discount and they did have the snowblower, but they couldn’t ship it to a store in our area; so they told us that we had to order online. We made one last-ditch attempt at our local store. After going through three customer service agents who didn’t know what to do, we stumbled across a store manager who found a way to modify the store's individual inventory table...after he made a phone call to IT. The manager was able to add the snowblower to his store's inventory table so he could order it directly from the distribution warehouse.
IT’s role: Business (and IT) processes between the online and physical versions of the store weren’t integrated, nor were they uniform. Second, each store had its own individual inventory master file. Since snow is not the norm in our area, our store didn’t have a snowblower in its inventory file, so the manager had to call IT so he could learn how to add the item to the table by hand.
IT could streamline these processes by ensuring that the online and physical store customer experience worked the same, and by ensuring that everyone was working from one “single version of the truth” inventory master file.
2. The rental car fiasco
I reserved a rental car online and needed to make changes on the spot at the airport. I worked with a customer service agent at the rental car desk. It took the agent nearly 20 minutes to make the changes. He explained that the online and physical systems were actually separate from each other and run by two separate companies (online and physical). Eventually, we found a workaround to this lack of system integration, but by then we were exhausted.
Could IT have helped? Absolutely!
For over a decade, the retail industry has touted “omnichannel,” an expression that means that all sales and customer channels, whether online, physical in-store, text/email, or social media are tethered together so that any customer service agent has full visibility of the customer experience, no matter which channel this experience occurred upon.
To achieve true omnichannel seamlessness, all systems (physical, online, etc.) must be fully integrated and working with the same information. From an IT standpoint, this can be a complex and daunting task.
The good news is that corporate IT is continuing to work on these processes and integrations.
3. The socks of no return
The problem with ordering socks online is that you never know if they are going to fit.
We ordered some “no fit” socks and wanted to return them. The retailer boasted an easy return process, and even emailed us a link so we could execute the return. We keyed in all of the necessary return information and pressed the Return button -- and we found that the Return process had been disabled!
How IT could have helped:
If a company's return process isn’t ready for prime time, don’t put it on a website.
One Last Word About Customer Service and IT
The examples of customer service in this article primarily focus on the difficult integrations of diverse backend systems that IT must put into place. They also pertain to working out effortless online and in-store business processes for employees and customers, which isn’t always easy.
What we do know is that retailers will not attain a truly great omnichannel customer experience without IT -- nor can other ancillary customer service systems such as automated phone and chat sessions work without effective IT integration and assistance in business process engineering.
Salesforce once stated, “… a customer should be able to contact a business whenever they need to, and through a variety of channels such as text message, email, social media platforms, and live chat on a company’s website.”
This potential is the beauty of technology -- and it is precisely why IT leaders should assume a central role in developing sales, communications, and returns processes that work for both companies and their customers.