Over the past decade I've been tracking a shift in the way customers use different channels for customer service. It used to be that the channel of choice for most transactions--routine or complex--was the phone. If the phone-based self-service failed, customers would escalate by going to an agent. If the agent couldn't solve the problem, savvy customers would know to ask for a supervisor. After the supervisor, few escalation options were left short of legal threats and similarly draconian measures.
More and more, we are seeing a more nuanced view of customer service channel preferences. Now that most routine tasks can be handled online, customers often prefer to try those through the web first.
[As an aside, at this summer's SpeechTEK conference I will be presenting recent research we conducted with Nuance into customer service channel preferences--session B101.]
For more complex tasks like disputes and technical support, or where the online channel has failed, customers still prefer the phone knowing that self-service is not likely to be useful. These customers are calling specifically to reach a customer service representative, and the call represents the customer's first level of escalation. If the customer service rep can't help (and a supervisor can't or won't), today's customer also the option of escalating through social media.
Social media are the online equivalent of standing in front of a store with a sign complaining about the poor service. It is a highly public cry for help in the hope that somebody will take notice. Most customers prefer to have their problems handled in private before taking things to that level.
There are two problems with this emerging pattern of consumer behavior. One is that, as Forrester's Paul Hagen points out, Twitter is a bad idea as an escalation strategy. It works today because few customers use it, and companies are investing relatively large amounts of money (per complaint) on resolving those public problems. But when more customers catch on, this will not scale. The worst-case scenario is a highly public meltdown of snowballing customer complaints as the growing use of social media exceeds the company's capacity to respond.
The second problem is that most customer contact processes are still designed around the assumption that most customer phone calls are routine transactions. As a result, customers who may already be upset are forced to slog through useless self-service options (or worse, insulting messages inviting customers to visit the website).
Solving these problems requires processes to take advantage of the new reality of customer behavior:
- Contact centers should be designed on the assumption that many customers have already tried self-service and it didn't work. Give these customers a shortcut to a live person.
- If a customer needs to escalate above a front-line CSR, make that option available and real. The more escalation paths you can provide the better, since that gives you more opportunities to fix the problem before it gets out of control. Escalation-avoidance tactics are a PR disaster waiting to happen when every customer has a megaphone.
- Use public complaints as a way to discover broken processes, but don't reward the online hostage-takers. Most complaints are legitimate, and the customer should get a public apology and a promise to try to fix whatever led to the problem. If the customer is being unreasonable, the online public is usually very receptive to a detailed response explaining why the company can't meet the customer's demands.