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As the digital economy has grown, it has brought businesses closer to their customers than ever before. That means a bigger, more accessible market, but it also means greater connection to customers who are demanding more personal service than ever before. Here are three ways customer service has changed in the age of the Internet, and what you as a small business owner can do to make sure you’re providing excellent service to your clients while meeting their expectations.

1. Must Be More Immediate

Today’s consumers expect almost everything on demand, and customer service is no exception. As a result, many companies have adopted interactive voice response menus (IVRs) to answer the phone and provide customer service 24/7. However, a recent study supported by customer connections experts Interactions found that only 10% of surveyed consumers felt satisfied using IVRs, and only 3% actively enjoyed using the menu. A whopping 90% said they’d have preferred if a live person simply answered the phone to begin with.1

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One approach to balancing the consumer’s desire for immediate resolutions with their dislike of IVRs is to always have an option for them to press a button to speak to a live person. Another is to create something like a Frequently Asked Questions section or knowledge base on your website. This will allow customers to seek out answers on their own when they need them, but if they need more support they can call in or email to connect with a real person. And don’t forget Facebook or Twitter—consumer research firm Nielsen found that 33% of consumers prefer to contact customer service through social media before they pick up the telephone.2

2. Adding a Personal Touch

It isn’t just IVRs that consumers dislike; it’s any canned response from a customer service representative. A RightNow study found that 73% of respondents believe friendly customer service representatives can make them fall in love with a brand. Friendly means going beyond reciting a script and having a conversation. Showing empathy for a customer’s experience, appreciation for their business, and remorse for anything which has caused inconvenience are all ways to make customer service more personal.3 In fact, around 60% of consumers aged 18 to 34 expressed in a 2015 survey by Verint Systems that they’d be okay with reduced privacy between themselves and a business if it meant they received more personalized customer service.4

Offline, small and medium-sized businesses have an advantage in this area over large companies simply because of size. Customer appreciation events, handwritten Thank You letters, and follow-up communications create a sense of personal connection between your business and its customers and improve customer service.

3. Consider Online Approaches

Five years ago, 78% of consumers used at least one online channel when looking for goods or services. Today, 88% do—and 40% want more digital interaction with the brands they’re examining.5

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A lot of your online exposure is earned through your website, but again, social media is another important customer service channel. "The data is compelling and tells us that effective social [media] care can give brands a big advantage," said Gadi BenMark, Senior Vice President of NM Incite's Advisory division, which helped Nielsen with their survey. "When you consider the span of friend and family networks who can view the positive or negative social care interactions, the effective reach of a well-executed response can be much bigger than you think."

A RightNow study found that 73% of respondents believe friendly customer service representatives can make them fall in love with a brand.

Every organization needs to define who should deal with different kinds of comments on social media, and establish a process for deciding what response will be posted. The designated leader or team must know how to categorize online contacts and comments. One comment may simply require monitoring before a general response is issued, while another might need an immediate and personal response. It’s also important to note that if a comment is clearly inflammatory, it is usually best not to respond at all. However, if a person is expressing a harsh but legitimate complaint, the issue should be addressed publicly, promptly, and within the same social media channel where it was made.6

While 82% of U.S. consumers have stopped doing business with a company at least once because of bad customer service, today it’s easier than ever for customers to make their bad experiences public.7 By providing timely information and responses, coupled with a personal and empathetic tone, through the channels that clients prefer, businesses can make the most of the improved customer service opportunities provided by technical innovation.

1  http://theconversation.com/customer-service-on-hold-we-hate-phone-menus-and-dont-trust-virtual-assistants-like-siri-51017

2  http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2012/state-of-the-media-the-social-media-report-2012.html

3  http://www.vocalcom.com/en/blog/customer-service/personalized-customer-service-wins-customer-loyalty/

4  http://www.eweek.com/small-business/consumers-want-fast-efficient-customer-service-experiences

5  https://smallbiztrends.com/2015/09/keeping-up-with-customer-service-trends.html

6  http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2101515

7  https://techcrunch.com/2010/10/13/customer-service-rightnow/