The changing face of customer service

Customer service has changed dramatically in recent years. Advancing technologies combined with a new breed of consumer have forced businesses to totally rethink their customer service and engagement strategies, or risk falling behind their competitors.

As John Crossan, VP of sales EMEA at Zendesk, recently explained to me at Relate Live, this evolution has been based around “putting service at the centre.”

“When I started 20 years ago in customer relationship technology there was a very distinct cycle of market, sale and service. And the big thing was the sale part. When the prospective customer came along, they got sold to and that’s what the technology was about. Service was very much the afterthought."

However, for the modern breed of businesses, this model is no longer acceptable: "When you look at specifically the subscription economy and how businesses are set up today, they’re fundamental reason for being is to have a long relationship with the customer as opposed to grab a transaction and see how we go after that."

The new mindset is based on building “the longest, most valuable relationship on both sides. If you’re starting a business, it’s about putting service at the very beginning and the customer at the centre. It’s not about the transaction it’s about the relationship.”

That’s exactly what digitally-native startups such as Uber, AirBnB and Deliveroo have done so successfully. High-quality customer service is “embedded in their culture, it’s embedded in their DNA,” which puts them and similar companies at an immediate advantage compared to traditional businesses as “it’s very difficult to backward engineer these things into your organisation.”

Not only is there the added cost of updating and transforming legacy systems, the lack of agility associated at large enterprises with thousands of employees and processes means they are constantly playing catch-up to so-called 'digital disruptors.'

But as well as the quality of customer service, the channels through which modern customers want to interact with businesses has also changed significantly. John explained: “A common conversation point right now is the availability of service over new channels and specifically the messaging channels” – such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat. “Certain generations prefer the phone but the big growth area is in messaging overall as a service.”

And of course it’s millennials who are primarily driving this change, more frequently looking for a “real-time messaging interaction.” They now expect to be able to interact seamlessly across different channels, i.e. starting a query through email, then coming in later through a chat app and being recognized.

What this means for businesses is that, whereas each customer query used to have a beginning, a middle and an end, the service is now more of an ongoing, long term conversation. “Historically there was a concept of a closed or solved service ticket and that’s something we’re seeing as a trend, not go away, but become less prevalent. There’s a customer expectation that actually we’re just having a dialogue.”

These changes, combined with the rise of the ‘conscious consumer,’ are forcing businesses to think more carefully than ever about their customer interactions. Those that fall short will, ultimately, pay the price.