Old habits, new technologies, and changing expectations have reshaped the customer service landscape in recent years. As 2015 gets underway, let’s take a look back at the headline themes that made 2014 a pivotal year for customer service—as well as one that offered signposts about how to do it even better in the new year.
The move to mobile and multi-channel
The big picture once again was dominated by the rapid move away from the desktop to a more mobile, app-centric world. And with global smartphone use soon to reach two billion, the number of people tapping customer support using mobile devices grew exponentially.
Indeed, this year marked the first time that Web self-service surpassed the phone as the most widely used communication channel for customer service. And a Zendesk survey of some 7,000 consumers found that 67 percent of online shoppers made purchases that involved multiple channels, a percentage that’s only going to climb in 2015 and beyond.
Not surprisingly, these transitions left an indelible mark on customer service, as companies found themselves face-to-face, in a manner of speaking, with customers who have more ways than ever before to share personal horror stories or lavish praise on the ways companies handled their interactions.
2014 marked an end to that bygone era when companies were reachable only during “business hours”—and confirmed that customer service has never been more social. Social support used to be a nice-to-have for companies; nowadays, it’s a must-have component of the total business. Today customers frustrated with a company’s service can leave messages or videos on sites like Yelp, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, and so on. In fact, a Microsoft poll found that 35 percent of consumers said they had used social media in the past year to complain about a brand or a company’s customer service. But at the same time, 52% said they had used social media to praise a company or its brand.
This emerging era of two-way conversation requires careful navigation but offers organizations new ways to pursue the larger goal of forging long-term relationships with customers. Companies are still trying to wrap their arms around this new world, albeit with mixed success. Let’s consider a few real-life examples:
Smooth(er) sailing on the rough seas of social media
In April, a U.S. airline found itself on the defensive after someone in support responded to a customer complaint on Twitter with an inappropriate picture. But what could have been a PR disaster actually wound up playing to the airline’s advantage. After deleting the image and apologizing, the airline released the chronology of an internal investigation which found that the image was accidentally copied and pasted into the customer service tweet after someone had flagged it. So instead of blaming the episode on a mischievous hack or firing the employee, the airline won fans online for honesty and for standing by an employee who was only guilty, the company said, of “an honest mistake.”
A major fast food chain offered another way that companies can use social media to get ahead of a news cycle and prevent damage to its reputation. Earlier this year, a three-year-old with severe injuries to her face visited a location in Jackson, Mississippi with her family, and the store manager asked them to leave, explaining that the child’s appearance scared other diners. News of the incident spread quickly and the company opened an immediate probe—all the while interacting with customers on Twitter and Facebook. They also posted an apology on a Facebook page set up for the girl, and offered $30,000 to help the family pay for the child’s medical bills. While cynics may scoff at the check and apology, the company’s speedy response to the crisis over social media helped avoid a potentially massive public relations dent to the brand’s reputation.
Social missteps happen
One example of how not to handle social media-empowered customers came when a food company attempted to delete comments on its Facebook page. The comments were critical of the company’s stance against labeling genetically modified organisms. But deleting comments only made a bad situation worse, as the headlines then focused on the company’s censorship policy rather than its jams and jellies.
Then there’s the case of the conversation with a cable/Internet company rep that would later be described as both “Kafkaesque” and “hellish.” When the customer attempted to cancel his Internet service, the representative fought tooth and nail, at times acting condescending, combative, and altogether unhelpful. This went on for about 10 minutes before the service rep finally relented and disconnected the service. But that wasn’t the end of it. The now-former customer had recorded the entire conversation and promptly posted it on the Internet. The result wasn’t pretty. The corporation subsequently apologized and pledged to prevent future occurrences like this, but the damage to its reputation was done.
Don’t be a cautionary tale
These contrasting stories underscore the learning curve companies have had to climb in 2014 as they crossed a digital Rubicon that left customers in control of public brand perception. And now there’s no going back.
All companies make mistakes at one time or another, but now they have new tools to help rebound—and quickly. Deleting or ignoring customer comments won’t deter customers from venting online. In fact, and it only winds up getting spun as an example of how not to connect.