‘High touch’ over high tech: What people want from customer service today by Larry Velez, co-founder and CTO

Last month, I had an experience with a tech solution company that recently added an enterprise solution. It did $1 billion of sales in 2016, and they don’t even have a live person you can talk to! They took two days to answer a support ticket and when they did email me the reply went to a generic mailbox. It really had me thinking about customer service, how it has changed and what we need in today’s self-service world. 

For decades, most businesses have been working off the same customer service model. You help someone complete a purchase and trouble shoot a few simple problems. But, today’s customers need more. They are coming to customer service with more complex issues and only after trying to resolve problems themselves.

According to the Harvard Business Review, data shows 81% of customers first attempt to take care of matters themselves before reaching out to a live customer service representative. And while that might help the bottom line in the short term, since “the cost of a do-it-yourself transaction is measured in pennies, while the average cost of a live service interaction (phone, e-mail, or webchat) is more than $7 for a B2C company and more than $13 for a B2B company,” what does make it to the front-line customer service desk is increasingly more challenging.  While many companies are falling short, a few companies are providing what people really want from customer service. One successful company that continues to get customer service right is Zappos.com.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com explains the importance of good customer service:

“In early 2004 our biggest problem was customer service—specifically, finding the right employees to staff our call center. A lot of people may think it’s strange that an internet company would be so focused on the telephone, when only about 5% of our sales happen by phone. But we’ve found that on average, our customers telephone us at least once at some point, and if we handle the call well, we have an opportunity to create an emotional impact and a lasting memory. We receive thousands of phone calls and e-mails every day, and we view each one as an opportunity to build the Zappos brand into being about the very best customer service. Our philosophy has been that most of the money we might ordinarily have spent on advertising should be invested in customer service, so that our customers will do the marketing for us through word of mouth… But that requires the right staff members…”

Hsieh says Zappos.com has invested in high-touch rather than high-tech to make a “personal connection” with their customers:

“There’s a lot of buzz these days about social media and 'integration marketing.' Our belief is that as unsexy and low-tech as it may sound, the telephone is one of the best branding devices out there. You have the customer’s undivided attention for five or 10 minutes, and if you get the interaction right, the customer remembers the experience for a very long time and tells his or her friends about it.”

When reviewing some of the strategies of companies known for the best customer service, including Zappos.com, they invest time, money and resources in three key areas:

1.     Customer service reps

2.     Company culture

3.     Employee training and development

Good customer service starts with the type of people you hire for your team. Harvard Business Review conducted a global, cross-industry study of 1,440 reps and found that all reps fall into one of seven profiles: Accommodators, Competitors, Controllers, Empathizers, Hard Workers, Innovators and Rocks. The article is fascinating and I’ll summarize it by saying that it turns out the reps we like to manage (“Empathizers” who are quick to apologize and like to please) may not be what we need today. In fact, the “Controllers” (who are more difficult to manage since they will challenge policies and go off script) often have the confidence to solve a problem and are better suited at providing what people want from customer service today (see the exhibit “The Seven Types of Reps”).   


The best customer service reps want to be allowed to solve problems in a way that “doesn’t require strict adherence to a rigid protocol," explains the Harvard Business Review. They also “prize the freedom ‘to bring up problems with policies and procedures’—they want to be part of organizations that are serious about continual improvement and willing to give reps a voice in that process.”

Several Fortune 500 companies have a formal feedback loop from their customer service reps to solicit ideas from the front line. They help form policies and are recognized for their creative problem-solving skills. Creating this sort of climate—where reps are permitted to exercise judgment and help identify improvement opportunities—will attract the best candidates and increase retention of your team’s superstars.

Companies that have shifted their training away from teaching product knowledge, rote processes for handling calls, and procedures for using systems and tools are better preparing their reps for today’s more complex customer service issues. They are teaching reps to apply listening techniques and frameworks that help them understand what the people want from customer service today and how to deliver an optimal personalized resolution.

The bottom line is that what people want from customer service today is not apologies, but solutions. Even if your organization does not have a dedicated team of customer service representatives, there are lessons learned from Zappos.com and other companies that excel in customer service. How can your small business or nonprofit create a culture that places an emphasis on great customer, donor and investor relations? Is your staff trained to handle the increasingly difficult issues that arise in today's self-service environment? Are you making it easy for your customers and constituents to communicate with you in the ways they prefer to communicate? (For instance, does someone answer the phone, are emails answered personally, and do you respond to social media and texts promptly?) Customer service is a way of thinking, and empowering your staff to deliver a superior customer experience will increase loyalty (by both customers and your reps), and give your organization an edge over the competition.

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