While You Weren't Looking, This Became the Most Valuable Tool in Customer Service

Call centers can bring to mind unpleasant thoughts of outsourced labor, uninterested employees, and dismal workplaces with low margins and high turnover. In short, it was not a business environment that most would find attractive. But in the years since that stereotype was conceived and propagated, something amazing happened: call centers became the best way for customer service to truly connect in an age when digital devices dominate the communication landscape. Especially in the hotel booking industry.

That negative perception of call centers is long outdated by this point. Companies that once made use of cheap solutions eventually realized that bad customer service meant they were losing money fast. No cost-cutting measure that doesn't generate greater returns is worth holding on to. The old cliche that you've got to spend money to make money comes to mind, and most industries that make use of the human touch are seeing returns befitting this more thoughtful approach to making customers happy.

My company, Getaroom.com, helps customers book hotels across the world, a routine that often becomes highly stressful when done alone at a keyboard. All the uncertainties (few people travel often enough to have a handle on where to stay or which hotels best match their needs) in the process, we've found, are smoothed out easily with able representatives at hand. Having knowledgeable customer service people on call is the heart of my business, and I';m happy to spread the good word to anyone interested in boosting their own company's consumer relations. When it comes to leaving customers happy, most of the other methods fall short.

Customers left stung by an unsatisfying response to their issues are, of course, unlikely to use your product or service again. Too many business leaders pay little mind to proper customer service, relegating it to an afterthought far behind marketing and sales. But without great customer relations to build upon, no business can survive long, no matter how slickly presented or well sold their services might be.

It costs five times as much to attract a new customer as it does to retain an existing one, and keeping customers happy isn't as complicated as some make it out to be. Treat them well, address their issues, and you'll leave them satisfied.

In an age when more and more of our communications happen textually, addressing users' most crucial issues is best done by hearing them out in the moment. An email just won't cut it. When the service they've paid for isn't working, or when they're looking to book an appointment or vacation, people overwhelmingly want to talk to a person who can offer meaningful responses rather than rote replies. It lends immediacy to the proceedings: you can't delay response to a voice on the other side of a phone call. Helpful answers come from helpful people.

So, facing this reality, the industry got smart and invested in better call centers. Language skills became a must: even if the calls are sourced out to a third party, the employees there will be well-informed, educated, and able communicators. These new representative aren't untrained stiffs reading from a handbook or script, but professionals with deep knowledge of common issues prepared to make things right. Empowering these employees to solve problems on their own and create solutions based on their own expertise lends authority to a call center, especially since today's customers can tell immediately if they're dealing with a pro.

New tech also helps the call center process. Sophisticated computer systems can put more information at responders' fingertips, so repeat callers don't need to restate their questions when forwarded to a new agent. Telephone systems have improved as well, routing calls to the places they're needed, further reducing repetition and lowering overall call times.

Call centers have absolutely been improved with technology, but there are still limits to how much tech can improve this mode of customer service. While countless facets of life are being revolutionized through cutting-edge software, the human touch of customer service is something that can't be replicated by artificial intelligence. But that's not to say AI can't help.

Like so many industries, the call center universe has been upended by AI. While the possibilities for artificial intelligence to improve the process are many, even the smartest bots can't offer the range of help that a well-trained human can. What AI can do is help these experts, making the process easier on both sides of the call.

Supplementally, AI can help agents by listening to calls and suggesting new fixes or adjustments in a tone that can fast-track customer satisfaction. Machine learning can access previously unthinkable amounts of data, so new solutions can be generated algorithmically and passed on to customer service specialists while they're busy attending to the call itself. AI can't handle the entire process of communication. We employ lots of tech tools to help our agents provide quicker and more educated responses, but these don't fully work without the human touch.

Being such a crucial part of business success, customer service deserves all the refinement and improvement we can conceive. The new call center is a place where problems can be addressed confidently, and agent and customer alike can end each call feeling satisfied. If you're in any business, you're in the business of making your customers happy. Why not make use of one of the most effective tools there is?

Bob Diener is co-founder and president of GetaRoom.com, a travel booking site.

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Posted February 15, 2019