Customer service is dying a painful death. My friend and industry analyst Esteban Kolsky predicts extinction by 2025 while Salesforce has already called it. Regardless of the exact end date, only the vendors who successfully transition to a model of customer empowerment and independence will survive.

I’ve had two recent personal experiences with old-school vendors competing in a 21st century connected world.

My new laptop had a problem with its embedded LTE card. The vendor’s support site was no help despite a quick Google search uncovering many different third-party sites discussing the issue. My first call to tech support was transferred 6 times over the course of 35 minutes before finally getting disconnected by an agent who had my phone number but never bothered calling me back,  possibly because that would have degraded his Average Handle Time and First Call Resolution metrics (customer success be damned). A second call ended abruptly after the support agent transferred me to a third-party, free cruise telephone survey (which at least felt intentional). I eventually received a resolution, but only after writing a letter to executive escalations and getting direct access to a Tier 2 agent.

Around that same time, my new smartwatch was having problems. After entering the exact model number, firmware version, and contact information into an online chat form, I was transferred to a second form where the same questions were asked again. When I was finally connected to a live agent, I had to provide the information yet again before being told that the problem is a known issue, to be fixed in an upcoming firmware update scheduled for next week.

Like most customers, I would rather solve a problem myself with direct access to the information need to do so. But like too many companies, these two vendors couldn’t even route my call correctly let alone offer an effortless experience.

Sadly, that laptop manufacturer didn’t document the solution on their own self-service website even after I requested they do so. This drove me to write my own knowledge article while also starting a  personal experiment on crowdsourced KCS that has spurred a fair bit of debate within the support community.

While these are only two personal anecdotes, they perfectly match the macro-level theme I see over and over again when analyzing customer surveys. I also heard the same from vendor discussions at industry conferences for quite a while.

If customer service isn’t dead already, it certainly takes a lot of hard work for the customer to obtain. And as the CEB discovered long ago, high-effort experiences are not a winning strategy.

The problem is equally as frustrating for your support staff. Thankfully, there’s a solution to help both your agents and customers. But be careful…

The answer isn’t just self-service. 

Self-service is a hot topic lately. But, too many vendors misunderstand the real issue and instead rely on a simple “if you build it, they will come” (Field of Dreams) approach that doesn’t actually empower the customer to independently solve their issues.

What does an empowered self-service strategy look like?

  1. Share all the information you have directly with the customer on self-service. This requires both an Intelligent Search solution that can unify multiple content repositories together and present the right information within the context of your user.
  2. Foster a strategy of knowledge sharing, from fast time-to-public-publish SLAs to a culture that allows things like known defects to be shared directly to self-service so your customer knows thir issue has already been identified and will soon be fixed (Salesforce does a fantastic job of this).

CAVEAT: Rarely can a vendor start out perfectly on both points, especially with the knowledge sharing strategy. But, effective knowledge analytics can help identify what content is working well versus where you have gaps. Combine that insight with a Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS) authoring approach that can best match supply with demand.

What about assisted service?

Your phone agents aren’t going away. They just need a change of focus.

  1. Agents should collaborate with customers to find new solutions to first-time issues, especially on highly complex problems were multiple personal may be required. Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS) is incredibly important here, but with less of a focus on the “reuse” linking concept since customers should solve known issues themselves whenever a knowledge article exists for that issue. You should instead strive for 0-day publishing of new knowledge to self-service. This scares the marketing team at nearly every company until they see analytics proving the knowledge gaps that already exist and need filling.
  2. Transactional issues where a process must be started, monitored, and/or completed by vendor personnel are best handled in an assisted channel. This is especially true if the customer needs advice on which choices to make within that process.

This transition on your call center can be challenging, especially since increasing self-service adoption means that when your customer does call, their problem will be more complex. This is why you need “Controller” reps.

A Success Story

Two more personal stories, this time with a much more impressive customer experience.

I’ve spent a lot of money with TireRack.com and eTrailer.com. Both offer more information on their website than I could get from spending an entire day at my local shop.

TireRack.com knows exactly what vehicles I own and makes specific product recommendations based on that context while conveniently offering everything from expert pre-sales advice to post-purchase support on their website. The one time I did need to call in for a special exception request, I was blown away when they already knew my name based on the caller ID and then quickly pulled open my entire purchase history to quickly narrow down on the issue at hand. This is effortless channel shifting.

eTrailer.com spends a tremendous amount of time answering questions posted in their community. Nobody’s trying for brevity just to hit an Average Handle Time (AHT) metric. Their support staff is consciously investing the time required to provide customers with enough information to make an informed purchase and then to easily install and use that product. I have mounted my own trailer hitch, replaced a damaged side-mirror, and many other tasks I didn’t think possible to easily do at home until eTrailer.com showed me how through a combination of text narrative, photos, diagrams, and videos. This is an effective knowledge sharing strategy.

If a tire and trailer accessory company can get these concepts right, shouldn’t other vendors be able to do the same?

Summary

It’s that simple.