The Future of Customer Service Is Change

Customer service evolution over the past many years has finally come to a point where a critical decision must be made. No longer about providing simple answers in person, answering phones fast, or even delivering information via multiple channels, customer service is now part of end-to-end processes that change the very nature of it. Traditional customer service solutions that wait for customers to ask questions before giving them a mostly correct answer are not going to be very effective in the short term.

The advent of the customer era, as Forrester Research calls it, brought with it a significant increase in demands from customers. It also created an array of online communities and social networks where customers can aggregate and find a voice, power, and the knowledge necessary to bypass customer service and still get what they need from peers.

This led customer service executives to turn the metrics models for customer service 180 degrees, from company-focused, efficiency-driven operations to customer-centric, effectiveness-before-anything-else indexes and metrics. This change in measurement created the need to change how processes were implemented and managed, as the new metrics could not be supported in traditional company-centric processes.

To top all of this off, cloud adoption rose significantly ahead of expectations in the past few years, to the point that saying, "We will get around to it later," as a large number of executives have done until now, mostly citing performance and security as excuses. These are excuses that are no longer valid in the world of three-tiered public clouds where platforms deliver increased security, integration, and performance over on-premises solutions.

It is in this environment that most of the customer service executives I talk to ask the same question: What is the next generation of customer service solutions? What do we have to do to get there?

The answers to those questions are not simple, but are, even in these early days, well-documented. Business results that early adopters are sharing are very encouraging and a framework to manage that has emerged. A few lessons learned quickly emerge:

It Is Not (Just) Technology

>Still today, for the most part, customer service solutions tend to be about the technology rather the goals and the objectives. True, there are strategies written and the search for technology to support those is part of the implementation strategy, but still today we see organizations buying and implementing technology as a solution; this is made ever more evident when we look at refresh cycles.

Alas, as proven by the dramatic and quick implementations of social technologies, the results are not there, and the implementation should have been strategic rather than a technology aimed to solve a potential problem.

Going forward, as we move to deliver more customer-centric and outcome-based solutions for customer service, technology will be an aide, not a solution, and refresh cycles should disappear as they have in other enterprise functions. While technology will always play a significant role in delivering customer service (especially as innovation in enterprise software continues), it is not the solution to the problem, just an aid to building that solution.

Strategy guides the implementation of the technology.

It takes time

One of the most common complaints I hear from my customers planning on embracing a new model for customer service is the call for ROI within 12 months for the project. Indeed, a large number of executives think that if the ROI cannot be achieved within 12 months it would be impossible to recover the investment before the next wave of investments needs to go out.

A common timeframe to show value form the investment, a one-year ROI is an improper metric and timeframe combination when it comes to business and digital transformation initiatives. Indeed, while it might take a short time to implement a technology, (which, again, is not the solution but a path towards it) the results from the implementation and the first few iterations take 18 to 36 months (with some results available before that, but not a full decision event).

While products that are implemented in a short timeframe might showcase and prove a short-term ROI, it is the building of the core infrastructure that would yield the expected results by executives across different areas, not just customer service; building this infrastructure is what takes 18 or more months to accomplish well.

It needs an aligned strategy

The best way, currently, to tackle these changes is amid the current crop of digital transformation and business transformation initiatives. Because these initiatives already call for a review and change to most major functions, and they are done focusing on customer-centric, outcomes-based end-to-end experiences, the changes necessary for customer service can easily be integrated into these projects.

To ensure that the changes necessary for customer service to support the new model are included as part of these initiatives, the strategies for customer service and for the organization must be aligned. As the metrics and the processes change, and as customer service transforms from a separate business function to a critical part of end-to-end experiences, this alignment between the pieces is what will determine the success at the end.

A cascading model of aligned strategies where each of the sub-strategies incorporate the same vision and missions, goals and objectives as the higher-level strategies, albeit in different terms and with greater granularity.

Is this how you are addressing the changes for Customer Service?

Esteban Kolsky is founder and president of ThinkJar.