The Theory of Customer Service and Balancing Out the Information Advantage

Customer service is about keeping access to information balanced between businesses and their customers. But the reality is often that the business either has an information advantage over the customer, or the other way around. In the former case, the customer would like access to information the business has. In the latter case, the business would like access to information the customer has. You could say customer service is about read/write access to business data for both involved parties. An information balance of zero constitutes a state where neither the business nor the customer needs to reach out to each other.

As an example, when an airline customer needs to book travel, he needs read access to the airline's booking system to evaluate options and prices, and then write access to store in the booking system which flight he selected. When the credit card used for the payments gets declined later down the road, the airline needs read access to customer information to update the card information on file. If the bill turns out to be higher than expected, the customer needs to reach back out to the airline to inquire why, etc. Whatever the case is, the goal of customer service is always to arrive at an information balance of zero.

It is in the interest of the business, but also desirable for the customer, to reach that state quickly and conveniently.

Self-Service vs. Live Service

In most if not all cases, customers should be able to read data from business systems and write data to business systems directly, without the help of customer service representatives. When they can do so, the business offers self-service, or direct access to business data. The following cases constitute exceptions where self-service is not sufficient:

  • When the explanations necessary for the customer to understand and complete a transaction are not enough;
  • When the customer does not trust the system and simply prefers help from a human; and
  • When communication needs to be human-mediated for compliance or regulatory reasons.

In these cases, the information balance is clearly out of balance and the customer needs human assistance. This is live service. While the first exception is something that can (and should) be rectified by the business, the second and third will always mandate live service.

Context Continuity

As a way to center that balance, businesses should provide customers both self-service and live service that go hand in hand, meaning that every self-service channel must always be aware of what happened in live service or on other channels, and every customer service agent must always be aware of what happened in self-service. You can call this context continuity or omnichannel service.

With the increased ubiquity of information access spurred by the mobility revolution, customers increasingly demand service to fit into their lives. This implies an increased expectation around response times as well as the number and type of communication channels to use. Customer want a choice in how, when, and where they can access business data, as well as how, when, and where businesses can contact them. Self-service provides the widest range of channels and the quickest path to information.

Self-service can be offered on any of the following channels:

  • Voice: Interactive voice response over the phone or any other channel that can carry a voice dialogue, such as a voice-activated device like the Amazon Echo, a Web site enabled with WebRTC, or a mobile app with an in-app voice assistant.
  • Visual: Mobile apps (native or Web), Web sites, kiosks, or any other devices with screens.
  • Textual: Interactive text response (ITR) over carrier channels such as SMS or USSD, or non-carrier channels like over-the-top apps such as Facebook Messenger, Twitter, WeChat, or Kik.

The Foundation of All Service: A Dialogue

All communications channels have one commonality: They rely on the paradigm of dialogue. A dialogue is made up of multiple dialogue turns. The act of turn-taking can be easily observed in everyday human conversations: I say something, you listen, you say something, I listen, and so forth. This notion of dialogue is immediately applicable to the IVR as well. The system prompts the caller for voice input, the caller listens to the prompt, then says something, the system listens to the caller, then responds, and so forth. ITR applications are also dialogues: A customer texts; the system reads, analyzes, then responds; the customer reads the response. Even mobile apps or Web sites—i.e. visual channels—constitute scripted dialogues between systems and users.

If everything can be broken down to a dialogue, then you can build an engine that models any form of conversation.

Ubiquitous Self-Service

As businesses strive to fit into their customers' lives as best they can, embracing as many channels as possible and finding the right balance between inbound and outbound service are key. Fundamentally, business should seek to offer self-service for all circumstances of life, including the following:

  • Self-service at work: Web portals for travel booking, banking, etc.
  • Self-service on the go: Mobile apps, bots for asking questions over SMS or OTT to access information when on the go.
  • Self-service while driving or for the blind: Traditional interactive voice response for using voice (via the car's Bluetooth) to connect.
  • Self-service at home: Interactive voice response on voice-activated devices like the Amazon Echo for screen-free self-service.

The concept of a zero information balance is not a game but rather a goal. Businesses that invest in connected, self-service solutions that fit into the lives of their customers will have an advantage over their competitors by effectively balancing out the information advantage.

Tobias Goebel is director of emerging technologies at Aspect Software.