As much as I love the area of customer service and helping companies do it intelligently, I cannot help but smile when I hear the term “smart customer service.”
It is not that people doing customer service are not smart; it is just that we (and I will include myself in this group) tend to do things not in the non-smart way but rather, in the not-entirely-smart-100-hundred-percent way. We do things right; we look at lessons learned and best practices; we analyze what worked and what didn’t, but in the end, we always make the same mistakes.
Which is why I wanted to write this article: I want to clarify the biggest problems we have and continue to repeat, and want to offer a few guidelines on how to break the pattern. This is all based on 25 years or more of doing customer service at all levels, in all positions (yes, I was once one of those agents you like to yell at on the phone).
Problem: Lack of Strategy
You’ve probably heard this one from anyone ever related to customer service: vendors, consultants, experts, analysts, and systems integrators, as well as practitioners. You cannot deploy anything in customer service without a strategy. Of course, we like to say that more than we like to do it, as most projects launch with an incomplete, obsolete, or altogether useless strategy.
We don’t understand what is involved in doing a strategy. Whenever we hear the word strategy, we tend to think of reams of paper explaining many business concepts and complicated financial formulas. Alas, these are not strategies, but the people who sell them tell you they are and want to deliver “value” for them—thus the mess of paperwork.
How to Avoid
This may sound simple, but write a strategy. Write a simple strategy. Here are the four components you need:
- Mission. What are you trying to accomplish? Not in complicated business terms, but in one-paragraph-with-no-more-than-four-sentences terms. The ultimate goal of implementing this tool or technology is (fill in the blank).
- Vision. In a short paragraph, describe what it would look like, how it would work, who would use it, and what benefits they would obtain from using it. For example, If I had unlimited resources, when this is deployed it will be (fill in the blank).
- Goals. How do you propose to measure the success of this deployment? Do you want to grow customer satisfaction? By how much? What is the final number? What is the baseline today? Answer those questions and you are all set.
- Objectives. Besides the actual measures of success, what are we trying to do? What other benefits or solutions do we want to build on top of this? How will this make us better than the competition? (If that is an objective, of course.)
Problem: Lack of Qualified Resources
Whenever we implement a new tool or technology in customer service, we face a lack of time, money, and qualified people to make it work. We then end up wasting time doing things haphazardly, or we just deploy it as best as we can—not always with good results.
We don’t have enough qualified resources because, simply, there aren’t any. The first ones to try to deploy don’t have sufficient experience, knowledge, and time-saving knowledge. Followers have the pressure of not being the first ones and then having to catch up to competitors.
The speed at which technologies and tools rise and fall is incredible these days. Most organizations cannot plan accordingly. When something must be deployed, there is not enough money to buy it, hire the right resources, or even take the time to do it right; it must be done ASAP.
Instead of acknowledging this new world order, we continue to plan as we did 15 to 20 years ago, when it would take one to two years for new tools to come up and become relevant in the customer service world.
How to Avoid
Three things you can do to avoid being caught off guard with new technologies:
- Skunkworks. Dedicate a team and budget to people who will spend time learning and understanding new technologies. Give them the necessary resources to do it well. This is the team that will make sure that new technologies are properly deployed in your organization.
- Reallocation. Whether it’s of money, people, and/or time, this reallocation hurts two areas: The new area does not get sufficient resources, and the old area does not have enough to complete its goals. Don’t reallocate resources; plan them.
- Cycles. Technology refresh cycles in contact centers are 10 to 15 years; most advanced ones have the cycle down to three to five years. Change the cycle to adapt to the new pace of technology, even if it means breaking the traditional cycle into many cycles.
Problem: Forgetting History
If you go back and look at almost every single implementation you have done at any time in customer service, you will notice that along the way there were decisions to be made that were very similar, if not the same, as decisions you made before. Of course, we tend to realize this only AFTER the fact, not while we are making the decisions. Can’t you look at past implementations and find out what worked?
The responsibility is shared. Vendors convince us of how different their solution is; the people who did that last implementation are no longer around; or we failed to create a proper strategy that looks at the history to understand how to better deploy this new solution.
We forget that we might have done this before: Characteristics of a channel may not be the same as a previous one; new search functionality is different than the last. Technical details are not as important as the fact that we did implement similar elements before, and the lessons we learned are still valid.
How to Avoid
The easiest way to avoid this problem is to properly document the lessons learned, and store them in an accessible location for easy retrieval. For a business unit that relies on knowledge management, we sure don’t follow our own admonitions; we need to become better at creating, maintaining, and using the knowledge we collectively created over the years.
An alternative to this, but not as easy to implement or use, would be to use the new knowledge paradigms of knowledge in use and collective knowledge and tap into the experiences of those practitioners who did the same work before, whether at our organization or a different one.
In short, avoiding the problem of new customer service solutions comes down to two things: listening to what we say we should do, and doing it and ensuring it works. You could also call it common sense – but as I said at the beginning, it is not that common.