Seven Steps to Improving Your Customer Service

Companies know that good customer experiences are important: Ninety-three percent say that a good customer experience is one of their top strategic priorities, and 75 percent say they want to use customer experience as a competitive differentiator. Yet companies struggle to offer customer and especially service experiences that satisfy customers at a cost that make sense to them.

The end result for companies is significant: escalating service costs, customer satisfaction numbers at rock-bottom levels, and anecdotes of poor service experiences amplified over social channels that erode brands.

There's no denying that mastering the service experience is hard to do, but customer service organizations can do better. Here's how:

1. Understand Your Customers

Customers know what good service is and demand it from each interaction they have, over any communication channel that they use—phone, digital channels like e-mail and chat, or social channels like Facebook and Twitter. Forrester's data shows that customer demographics affect channel preference, with the younger generation more comfortable using peer-to-peer communication and instant service channels like chat. And channel preference is changing rapidly: The last three years has seen an 18 percent rise in online Web self-service usage, a 39 percent increase in the use of communities for customer service, and a 43 percent rise in chat usage.

Understanding customers is not only the responsibility of marketing departments—customer service leaders also need this information to deploy the right communication channels which are aligned with customer expectations.

2. Don't Offer Silos of Communication Choices

In addition to using the communication channel of their choice, customers also want to start an interaction with a customer service organization on one channel and continue it on another without having to restart the conversation. To make this happen, customer service leaders must ensure that channels are integrated with one another—not deployed in silos—so that agents have a full view of prior customer interactions. This is harder than it sounds, and only 35 percent of companies report that multichannel integration is one of their current top priorities.

3. Empower Agents With Good Information

Customer service systems should be more than just the front end of a database of customer information and cases. They must also be integrated with back office applications so that agents can answer questions such as, "when did my order ship?"

High 5 Sportswear, an athletic apparel distributor, highlights the benefits of integrating customer service systems with a larger IT ecosystem. In the past, their customer service agents struggled to track down customer interaction history, piece together customer claims, and validate discounts, which sometimes took 48 hours to do.

Now an integrated sales and customer service solution allows agents to quickly access customer sales data, orders, and discount levels. The end result is higher-quality customer interactions, better productivity and faster turnarounds on orders.

4. Focus on the Agent Experience

Agents use more than 20 different applications during their workday and typically don't follow the same discovery path through them, leading to inconsistent service.

One solution is to leverage the power of business process management within their customer service toolset. Service managers can create repeatable process flows using visual modeling tools. Agents are led through a set of screens, each which display the information that they need at a particular point in the process to complete a process in a reproducible way.

An international bank used this strategy when they realized that their poor customer SAT scores were the result of service agents in their 23 contact centers following different operational processes. Agents now use a process-driven agent desktop, and as a result, first-contact resolution improved 30 percent, and call transfers were reduced by 20 percent.

5. Pay Attention to Your Knowledge Strategy

Seventy-one percent of customers say that valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good service. A good knowledge program that provides customers with relevant answers to their questions is a cornerstone to good service. Consistent agent knowledge across communication channels guarantees consistent and accurate answers.

Maintaining relevant knowledge is an ongoing task. One approach is to use automated tools that bubble most frequently accessed content to the top of FAQ lists. Intuit TurboTax does a good job at this, ensuring that the most relevant tax code information is readily available.

6. Harness Your Customer Community

Yet another common strategy is using peer-to-peer communities to allow customers to interact with one another, deflecting inquiries from the contact center. Unresolved questions can be escalated to customer service agents, and discussion threads can be recommended to be added to the knowledgebase ensuring that content evolves in line with customer demand.

7. Listen to Your Customers

Customer service organizations should gather customer feedback after every interaction and associate feedback with the agent who delivered it and the customer. This information can be used to help coach agents and to personalize service in future interactions. Customer service organizations should also listen to the customer comments aired over social channels, analyze opinions about products, services, and company processes, and help put in place continuous improvement workflows.

These strategies will help you engage in a winning customer service relationship with your customers. But crafting a good service experience is never a job that is done. Monitor your success, listen to the changing needs of your customers, and be ready to evolve your offering to stay true to your customers' needs.

Kate Leggett is a principal analyst at Forrester Research. She is a leading expert on customer service strategies, and her research focuses on helping organizations establish and validate customer service strategies and prioritize customer service projects.