With more than 50% of customer service inquiries beginning online, e-commerce companies have the opportunity to turn service into a competitive advantage.

Roseanne Luth founder and president, Luth Research

Roseanne Luth, founder and president, Luth Research

If your bottom line is your highest concern, customer support is your secret weapon. We’re not talking about the image of the customer service representative hunched over a bulky phone, dutifully explaining available options to consumers before transferring them to another anxious team member — that image has been overhauled, thanks to advances in technology. With more than 50% of all U.S. customer service inquiries beginning online (compared with just 40% over the phone and 5% in person), the world of customer service has changed. Customer service teams need to keep up with consumer demand for access to solutions on a variety of platforms.

Rather than considering customer service as a reactive plan, your organization has the opportunity to proactively use customer service as a marketing tool and a source of pride.

Customers closely link brands to the experiences they have with those brands. Apple fans continue to purchase products twice as expensive as similar products in part because of the conscientious effort by Apple to focus on improved customer (and retail) experiences. Companies who do not funnel resources into customer service roles risk a negative reputation and opportunity costs.

An increase of customer retention rates by just 5% could result in a profit upwards of 95%! Knowing valuable data about how your customers seek out help and service can help you transform your customer service department from an afterthought into a revenue driver.


First, Know Thyself

Companies need to understand how their customers respond to them before they can create services to help. In a scenario where service members engage with your audience directly, your customer service team can provide insight into the psychology behind a buyer — but don’t stop there. Understanding where you client is coming from and how they encounter your customer service team — and where they don’t connect with your team when they should be — is key to moving your customer service experience to exceptional levels.

Demographic Design

Market research will greatly aid your efforts in improving customer service. Understanding core demographic data, including economic status, age, gender, occupation, and education level, will help you tailor solutions to anticipated needs. One way to get this data is to complete marketing surveys, focusing on products, advertising, or customers.

Passing off a customer to another agent is the single-most cited specific source of irritation.

You can also use market research to understand what your competition is doing, and where they are failing on customer service. For instance, in 2012 Discover Financial Services found that the approval rating of the credit card industry sat at just 16% — below both tobacco and petroleum industries. In response, they created – and continue to create – advertisements that tout Discover’s supreme customer service, with positive results.

A Typical Path

According to a study by Microsoft, the average 18-34 year-old customer uses five different channels to interact with a brand or organization, while those over 55 use three channels. Some of the most commonly used platforms are email, telephone, search engines, and live chats or online self-service support portals. It’s common for a person to attempt  to find the answer to a question via a search engine before visiting a company’s or brand’s page.

After the search engine, the next step a customer might take is to seek a self-service support portal or FAQ page; the majority of customers have a favorable impression of companies who utilize these types of customer service pages on their sites. In the same study completed by Microsoft, more than three-quarters of users responded that a self-service portal helped them find the answer to their questions.


Dial It Down

Sometimes self-service options do not offer enough information for resolution; or these efforts are too disorganized or outdated to be truly useful to the consumer. The choice for the customer then becomes whether to approach a customer service department over the phone or via the internet.

Especially in the industries of banks, retail, television, and satellite television, a growing number of consumers are frustrated by an inability to reach a human to solve an issue. This stands in stark contrast to other industries. In a survey of nearly 25,000 consumers, more than 80% would forgo the digital channel of customer service to talk to a person. Perhaps more striking, the data show that over half of respondents switched service providers because of poor customer service!

Feeling Social

Social media channels often get a reputation as avenues for irate customers to seethe publically over a brand’s customer service efforts, or other deficiencies. Perhaps this is in part due to the ease in which mobile devices have created a path for consumers to interact with brands, via social media, email, or chat programs.

The instantaneous nature of social media also creates higher expectations: 42% of consumers expect a response to an inquiry within an hour. Best practices for social media customer service include assigning a specific team or team member to handle questions — and remember, customers have issues beyond 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The rewards for performing well on this platform can be awfully sweet, ranging from creating brand-loyal customers who will preach the gospel of your company’s responsiveness to viral instances of just how nonpareil your service is, raising awareness and funneling more customers toward a potential purchase.


Anger Management

As stated in the Microsoft survey, the top general complaint in customer resolution is an inability to reach a live agent. Most people are willing to accept outside assistance for their needs so long as the customer service provides speedy and knowledgeable help. Frustration often rises if the issue is not resolved upon first contact and requires a follow-up.

In the same survey, passing off a customer to another agent is the single-most cited specific source of irritation, just ahead of having to contact a company multiple times for the same issue. Anticipating these sources of ire is important to maintaining a positive reputation; for every one unresolved issue, a company may need to provide a dozen positive experiences to counterbalance the sour image left behind.

The very first step to providing exceptional customer service is gathering actionable data about how your customers interact with your customer service team. Don’t underestimate the impact this will have on your bottom line. Customer service departments within organizations have a chance to be value-driven additions to maintain relationships. Two-thirds of people named a company’s customer service when considering brand loyalty. The Harvard Business Review suggests that the companies who skillfully navigated the customer journey increased revenue, reduced churn, and enhanced both customer and employee satisfaction.

Luth Research is a privately held market research company founded in 1977 and located in San Diego, California.