With consumers now firmly in charge of the digitized customer journey, the demand for prompt, accurate and personal service is critical. It is time to once again move our customer service efforts closer to those who matter most: the customer.
Among the biggest casualties of companies’ decades-long drive to cut costs has been the customer service organization. With an eye toward short-term results, many “conversations” with customers that were previously handled in-house were either outsourced, shipped overseas or both.
That no doubt pleased investors and made our finance people heroes, but it’s also had the perverse effect of placing our customer service functions even farther away from the customer, instead of closer.
And while outsourcing may have fattened the bottom line in the near-term, it’s done us no favors in the long-term. Why? Because the power-balance in the business-to-consumer relationship is now tilting dramatically in favor of the customer, and for three big reasons:
- Customers control the engagement. In the old days, we had regular, face-to-face conversations with our customers at the point of sale. It was here we received feedback and resolved misunderstandings. Today, the touch points are many, and customers largely control all of them. They determine at what level, when and how they interact with us: in person, by phone, email, live chat, text, social media, you name it.
- They’re more informed. The explosion of information online has made consumers more knowledgeable about virtually everything – from health to finances to legislation to technical product details. This “democratization of information” means that our customer service professionals need to have a broader and deeper knowledge of our business than ever.
- Customers have more power than ever. With the ubiquity of social media, a negative customer experience can ricochet all over the world in mere seconds. That makes our task of achieving complete customer satisfaction more vital than ever.
Fortunately, plenty of organizations are waking up to this new reality. Now it’s time that we organize our customer conversations to reflect this rapidly changing world.
How? We can start by “insourcing” – that is, bringing our customer service functions back in-house where they belong. These vital activities need to be as near to the customer-facing part of our organization as possible. Without this, we risk missing great opportunities, or, worse, just plain fail to deliver.
There are plenty of other reasons why insourcing makes sense in an era in which customers wield unprecedented power:
- Focus on value. During the last decade a strategic movement has evolved toward getting more business value out of each conversation instead of producing customer interaction at the lowest possible cost. Now businesses’ primary focus is on how we drive most value from each conversation.
- Loyalty to the brand. Who would you rather have pick up the phone at the unique and critical moment when a customer actually reaches out to YOU – instead of sharing his or her frustration on social media: An employee whose check you sign or the employee of a different organization who has little loyalty to your company?
- Shared insights. And let’s not forget the powerful insights our internal customer service reps glean from their customer interactions – insights they can easily share with such functional areas as Product Development, Marketing and Sales.
Finally, and of equal importance, we need to bring Customer Service closer to the heart of the business – and perhaps down the line even make it a standalone department within the organization, with a seat at the board of directors. That’s a departure from the present, in which the department is rarely its own entity and often part of some other area like Supply Chain. I recently read that, as of 2014, a quarter of Fortune 500 companies had named chief customer officers (CCOs), responsible for ensuring that all company activities are done in the best interest of customers. That’s a good start.
As consumers wield unprecedented power over our conversations with them, our customer service functions are more important than ever – and need to be closer to our customers than ever. The time to make that happen is now.