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TL;DR

MarTechExec takeaway

“It’s tough to be in a customer-facing position these days. Any wrong move you make can be broadcast to the world in a click. But I think we should embrace the flip side and remember that every satisfied customer is also a building block to our success ” — Lana K. Moore, Executive Editor at MarTechExec

Definition

Customer service is the practice of helping customers fulfill their wants and needs. It includes all interactions a customer has with a brand representative, whether in store, online, by phone or mail.

Guiding principles

In the spirit of serving, we’ve prepped our top tips. Here are the key customer service principles we want you to know:

Automate where possible

There’s no logical reason to conduct all your customer service efforts manually, especially with the abundance of automation tools from which there is to choose. Save time by taking tedious tasks like email and chat off your team’s hands.

Make personalization a priority

The key is to treat every customer like they’re the only one in the room (virtual or otherwise). Take advantage of machine learning and CRMs to keep detailed records of each customer you serve.

Train, train and train some more

Both soft skills and technical skills need refining after a period of time. Invest no less than a week training new customer service hires. And while you’re at it, bring your other departments in for a refresher, too.

What is customer service?

Once upon a time, the poster-person of customer service looked like every cheesy business stock photo. The person is smiling, sitting at their desk, outfitted with a simple black headset, seemingly in the middle of a conversation with a customer.

Anyone who has ever held a customer-facing job knows this is a fallacy. No one smiles in customer service (Kidding).

The even funnier part is that customer service once really was that simple. Far from it now (today’s customer service rep is probably too stressed to pause for a stock photo in the first place).

Customer service: New and improved

Today, providing quality customer service is akin to giving every kid in the classroom a Valentine’s Day Card. But instead of a classroom, it’s an auditorium. Full of people. And you have no idea who your classmates are.

That auditorium is the internet. And the people inside it are, well, everyone. Everyone who likes your brands page on Facebook, or stops into your storefront, or signs up for your weekly coupons.

Not everyone in that room is a classmate -- not everyone who interacts with you is a customer. But you have to treat each of them like they are, because they just might be. Now or in the future.

The goal of customer service is to make each customer feel individually recognized, heard and understood. That’s always been the goal. It’s just a smidge harder to achieve now.

Because what you do or don’t say can mean the difference between them being a lifetime, loyal customer or them running in the other direction, into the arms of your biggest competitor.

Why marketers love customer service

It’s no secret: Customer service is an incredibly rewarding practice for the brands who choose to invest in it.

And while we do enjoy the warm fuzzies that come from helping our customers out, there are much more important reasons why we do what we do.

We’re familiar with it

Customer service is as old as business itself, and it's seen its fair share of new tech since the olden days.

We take comfort in concepts we know well, and the centuries-old practice of customer service is one of them. That’s probably why B2B tech marketers in the US/UK rank “soft skills” — associated with communication, listening and empathy — as their strongest area of expertise.

And though software has since replaced switchboards and hotlines replaced horseback, the goal of customer service remains the same: Create and strengthen relationships in a way that benefits both the customer and the business.

Technology has simply made this age-old practice that much more efficient.

“Rather than manually searching knowledge bases and other internal sources for reference materials, agents now have all the information and resources they need to bring the customer interaction to a positive conclusion, leading to increased upsell, better retention, and improved customer satisfaction metrics.” — Jean Turgeon, Vice President and Chief Technologist at Avaya

read more from Jean

It can be a key differentiator

Both great customer service and terrible customer service share one trait: They both possess the power to differentiate you from the competition. And that power is way, way stronger than it’s ever been before.

“Experience is the new service, and that means that brands are seeing repeat business, loyalty, and influence on social as ways to drive higher lifetime value — and therefore service is finally becoming part of the entire customer lifetime experience.” — Brad Birnbaum, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Kustomer

read more from Brad

By 2020, researchers predict that customers will care more about customer experience than the actual product they purchase or its price. That’s pretty nuts.

But the potential for high-quality customer service (enabled by technology) to build your brand’s rep means that a little bit of effort goes a long way.

“By taking away the mundane, repetitive tasks away, the technology will provide a human agent more time to focus on the most important part of customer service: communicating in a meaningful way with each and every customer who gets in touch.” — Rob Mead, Head of Marketing at Gnatta

read more from Rob

Heck, you may even find yourself among the ranks of the nation’s most customer-centric companies one day...

It’s easy to automate

The advent of tools like mail automation, feedback forms and ticketing systems makes customer service interactions easy to automate.

What’s more, the customer data collected by these tools feeds right back — giving us a steady supply of fuel to drive personalization.

According to eMarketer, 54 percent of US marketers already use automated personalization in customer service and call centers.

“With current technology, including machine learning, it's getting easier and easier to keep track of the preferences of your clients and customers and market to them on a one-to-one basis.” — Zvi Band, Founder at Contactually

read more from Zvi

“Telemarketing, CRM drip contact strategies, chatbots, Alexa skills — all customer data is mapping back to customer data profiles, providing real time feedback for customer service agents.” — Robb Hecht, Digital Influencer & Adjunct Marketing Professor at Baruch College

read more from Robb

Better informed customer service = quicker customer service. And that’s good news for our customers, who value short response time above all else.

With over 1,000 relevant solutions making up the martech landscape, putting customer service automation into action is easy as pie.

“In the case of some product problems e.g. a broken washing machines, everything you’ve got to do is to scan the washing machine’s model and a chat with customer service team will open automatically on your smartphone.” — Szymon Klimczak, Chief Marketing Officer at LiveChat

read more from Szymon

Why marketers hate customer service

The dark side of customer service is real and omnipresent. But it’s a few factors, in particular, that are to blame.

Stakes are high

By nature, people share their bad experience more than their good ones.

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “negativity bias,” and they explain our tendency to exhibit it with the analogy of being “more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.”

“The days of simply being a digital "catalog" are long gone. Millennials and their kids demand more. The average consumer has an 8.25 second attention span. We have to work to keep them engaged.” — Allon Caidar, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at TVPage

read more from Allon

“During the first few weeks, it is essential that some people on your team are monitoring [your chatbot] to correct the bot when necessary. We made the mistake of thinking that everything was solved and we lost some sales even with angry customers.” — Cristian Rennella, Chief Executive Officer & Co-Founder at oMelhorTrato

read more from Cristian

The bigger problem, though, arises from social media platforms and review sites, which act as effective sounding boards for the put-out and PO’d.

Customers' complaints are amplified, and they don’t fall on deaf ears. According to Digiday, 88 percent of customers are likely to avoid brands with bad reputations.

This means we need to respond to online outlashes in the right way, at the right time and using the right media to avoid exiling the angry customer — and pretty much anyone else they know.

“With the proliferation of devices and shopping channels, the customer experience has become less predictable. As a result, selling is increasingly about outpacing the competition in terms of exceptional customer service.” — Brian Byer, Vice President of Business at Blue Fountain Media

read more from Brian

It’s an art

Sharpening your customer service skills requires a heck of a lot of training. Anyone who holds a customer-facing position needs to know:

  • How best to respond in certain situations
  • How best to respond to different types of people
  • When to pass along the issue to a more knowledgeable team member
  • When a customer service issue is, honestly, a lost cause

We only learn these intricate details over time — i.e. dozens of interactions with dozens of customers. But studies show that “putting unprepared staff on the phone with irate customers” leads to high costs and increased turnover.

“As transactional customer service functions become more automated, the skills required for good customer service professionals are changing. There is a greater need to have both service and sales capabilities combined with the ability to learn about products and services in depth.” — Fara Haron, Chief Executive Officer of CRM Solutions at Arvato

read more from Fara

Unfortunately, not all businesses have the time or patience to train to that extent. And even those who do might not have any idea what good versus bad training looks like.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that companies with fewer than 100 employees dedicated a mere 12 minutes of manager training every six months. Larger companies offered even less.

Lots of ground to cover

With each new media comes a new outlet for people to rant about their experiences with brands. You practically need an entire dedicated team just to cover all those bases.

“Today’s marketers are continuously challenged with ever expanding marketing channels, making it more and more difficult to provide seamless and effective omni-channel experiences to customers.” — Collin Holmes, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Chatmeter

read more from Collin

“Marketers are looking for ways to understand their customers behaviour offline as well as they understand them online.” — Steve de Mamiel, Director at Hostopia

read more from Steve

And because it’s such a delicate process that spans a range of media, you can’t just hand off all your customer service tasks it to a single department.

Customer service issues can come via social media, email, phone, face-to-face, review sites, your own site, your chat service, and, perhaps most daunting of all, word-of-mouth.

Twitter alone produces 250 percent more customer service interactions today compared to two years prior. And since its inception in 2004, Yelp has accumulated over 140 million reviews.

“The days of single (and even multi) channel service are over, as customers vary their contact method depending on when/where/why they are contacting you in that moment. The same customer could be tweeting you on their commute, on a web chat whilst in the office, and calling you from their bus home.” — Rob Mead, Head of Marketing at Gnatta

read more from Rob

The future of customer service

Will we see the death of customer service as we know it in the coming years?

Not likely. But that doesn’t mean the field will stagnate.

On the contrary, new martech has given and will continue to give us plenty to look forward to.

Gettin’ sentimental

Sentiment analytics is still in its infancy, but soon we’ll see it taking permanent refuge alongside customer service teams near and far.

“Technologies such emotion-engines, which help analyze input to determine customers’ emotions could help personalize interactions and may prompt a seamless transfer to a customer service professional as a next step.” — Fara Haron, Chief Executive Officer of CRM Solutions at Arvato

read more from Fara

According to eMarketer, 27 percent of business professionals plan to use or explore text analysis and Natural Language Processing (NLP) — illustrated in this graphic from Kvan Gundy:

Perhaps the most significant will changes to sentiment analysis will come from our enhanced ability to integrate data from multiple sources.

According to eMarketer, 56 percent of marketing leaders believe AI, specifically, will place a dynamic role in this process in the coming years.

“Someone with a few hundred stores is getting thousands of online reviews each month. Nobody has the time to read them all, and A.I. can help these executives know of every praise or complaint received from a given customer in any store location, without leaving their office chair or even picking up a phone.” — Collin Holmes, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Chatmeter

read more from Collin

From “ping” to “cha-ching”

Machine learning will sharpen our chatbots’ responses with every interaction. And this means marketers can take the backseat — automation will drive.

“With machine learning models that incorporate traffic patterns, service providers are becoming increasingly precise in predicting the field service team’s daily schedules and can accordingly make more precise promises to their customers – and earn their loyalty.” — Paul Whitelam, Vice President of Product Marketing at ClickSoftware

read more from Paul

“Some of the best applications are when AI supports customer service reps by giving them quick answers to their questions (and their customers’ questions). It saves time, makes the agent more productive and gets customers the correct and consistent answers they are looking for.” — Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer at Shepard Presentations

read more from Shep

In-app voice search will evolve in unison with this as voice assistants broaden their library of automated responses.

When asked what technology they see as “the next big thing” in search, U.S. marketing leaders ranked AI/machine learning and voice search at the top.

And they’ve got their eye on the prize.

According to eMarketer, 67 percent of U.S. Millennial internet users said they would be likely to purchase a product or service through a chatbot.

“Advanced chatbots have the ability to blend automation with real-life human input. For example, a repetitive query (e.g. when was my order sent?) will receive an automatic response (e.g. your order was dispatched at 17.30 yesterday). A more complex query will be flagged and a dedicated member of the customer service can jump into the conversation.” — Amy Kilvington, Social Media Manager at Blinds Direct

read more from Amy

Virtual assistants as dedicated customer service agents

Virtual assistants will give customers their own dedicated customer service agent — a personal shopper, if you will — that can respond to questions and provide solutions in a hyper-personalized way.

“Automated, fine-grained interaction analytics will allow better prediction of call volume on a per-call-driver basis, allowing a better match between call types and agent skill sets. In the hands of agents, this will be a game-changing tool for issue resolution and offer matching, while reducing customer effort.” — Jeff Gallino, Chief Technology Officer at CallMiner

read more from Jeff

“The main advancement in customer service technology is from interaction management as the traditional service focus, to a CRM platform that can facilitate automation and personalized engagement at scale.” — Brad Birnbaum, Founder & Chief Executive Officer at Kustomer

read more from Brad

The virtual assistant market is projected to grow to $16 billion by 2021, with 75 percent of that coming from consumer sales.

And according to eMarketer, 17 percent of U.S. internet users currently own a “smart digital assistant,” while 30 percent plan to buy one.

Current trends in customer service

The foundation for future developments in customer service are entirely dependent on what’s happening today.

These trends indicate we’re headed in the right direction.

Chatbots

I think we can all agree chatbots have gone mainstream. Businesses from Ebay to to Zappos to even Prudential have developed their own chatbots as of late — and with a good response from the general public.

“Phone trees and email customer service are on the decline. Social messaging and automated, AI-powered bots supported by seasoned social agents are in.” — Joshua March, Chief Executive Officer at Conversocial

read more from Joshua

eMarketer reports that 65 percent of US smartphone owners feel comfortable engaging with a company through their chatbot , and 70 percent of those who’ve used chatbots report a positive experience.

“The trendiest example of personalized automation is chatbots. Customers can ask a question and the computer simulates a full-fledged conversation. The bots are designed to convincingly mimic how a human would behave and can continually learn on their own to offer better answers.” — Michelle Kubot, Marketing Director at Ambrosia Treatment Center

read more from Michelle

Our customers’ willingness to use chatbots is priming us for the days ahead, when customer service (eventually) goes faceless and we replace salaried staffers with automated tools.

“Bots are finally able to carry out an extremely natural-sounding conversation and have great comprehension of client questions. They act as sales clerks for online commerce, accessible ‘round the clock to act as an e-concierge.” — Alice Donoghue, Marketing Coordinator at The App Lab

read more from Alice

Voice search

Voice search has given an identity to virtual assistants. While they aren’t yet as robust as they could be, they’re showing signs of improvement.

Alexa, Siri and the other top voice assistants are expanding their capabilities beyond simple inquiries, like “What’s the weather?” or “Who won the game last night?”

“The improvements in voice recognition has led to an increase in voice assisted controls usage ranging from voice controls on your mobile to home assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo.” — Fara Haron, Chief Executive Officer of CRM Solutions at Arvato

read more from Fara

“Thanks to the growing popularity of virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, the average consumer is becoming more accustomed to interacting with chatbots for support.” — Merijn te Booij, Chief Marketing Officer at Genesys

read more from Merijn

As exemplified by Amazon, voice assistants are also venturing into the world of customer service.

Toni Reid, Vice President of Alexa Experience and Echo Devices at Amazon envisions Alexa being “everywhere that customers want to interact with her, both in devices made by Amazon and in those made by third-party developers and device makers.”

It’s safe to say Reid knows her audience. eMarketer reports that 67 percent of virtual assistant users have shopped and compared prices using their voice-activated device.

Call analytics

Despite the prominence of brand experiences broadcast on social media, phone still remains a top medium for customer service conversations.

According to eMarketer, 30 percent of U.S. digital shoppers have contacted a brand’s call center regarding a customer service issue. Just 19 percent have done the same using social media.

“Even with the changing customer habits, there will always be a place for calls or chat — consumers will just change when and why they use these channels.” — Jeff Gallino, Chief Technology Officer at CallMiner

read more from Jeff

“While customers are seeking new technologies to make "mundane" tasks easier to accomplish, they still crave human interaction when they need specific, important information, guidance and advice.” — Lisa Fettner, Vice President of Marketing at ReferralExchange

read more from Lisa

But call centers surely aren’t what they used to be. Call analytics has brought call center communications into the 21st century, and eMarketer reports 43 percent of marketers in the US/UK marketers use call center data to better understand their customers

This is evidence that we have both the means and motivation to make customer service a data-driven practice.

“I anticipate that we'll see a huge increase in survey and feedback technology. Transparency is becoming a big focus for many companies, and they're searching for tools that will enable them to collect feedback and ideas from customers.” — Keri Lindenmuth, Marketing Manager at KDG

read more from Keri

How do you create a customer service strategy?

There’s no better case study in customer service than the strewn together headlines spotlighting the world’s biggest brands.

These companies alone teach us so much about what to strive for… and what to avoid like the plague.

In lieu of outlining the nitty gritty details of both, I’m going to let these six newsworthy brands to do the talking.

ComCast

This cable company is notorious for its miscommunications with customers — be it about their plan, their bill or their hardware.

Time Warner

Another cable company, Time Warner (now Spectrum) also shows recurrent signs of poor customer service in similar strides.

Walmart

Walmart is the brand we love to hate. But in our defense, they give us plenty of reasons to do so. Stories from Walmart customers range from the unsightly to the unsavory.

Amazon

Amazon has made its way into the wallets and hearts of customers across the globe. Their dedication to innovation and convenience makes them one of the most trusted brands.

Nordstrom

This retailer has stayed ahead of the curve by adapting to customers’ changing behaviors without sacrificing service at any point.

Chick-fil-A

Chivalry is not dead, nor is the chicken sandwich. Chick-fil-A could probably single-handedly keep them both alive if it stays on its path toward customer service perfection.

Why some brands win at customer service — while others fail

The aforementioned brands prove that the highest-quality customer service comes as a result of using martech alongside what we here in Austin would call “southern hospitality.”

“Asking a customer, “You’re new around here, aren’t you? How are things going?” is a country store phenomenon that modern businesses will spend enormous amounts of energy to emulate -- but it will pay off.” — Matt Emmons, Vice President of Marketing at PicMonkey

read more from Matt

And don’t mistake it for sucking up. Because what these brands know (and what many others don’t) is that customer service isn’t about catering to your customers’ every whim. It’s about respecting their wants and needs and working toward a solution that benefits you both.

“Digital will enable a huge transformation in the service experience for customers. Rather than being frustrated by organisations’ customer services, boundaries, limitations and inflexibilities, brands will be dancing to the tune of customers.” — Marne Martin, Chief Executive Officer at Service Power

read more from Marne

Conclusion

“The customer is always right,” right?

This old adage is representative of both where customer service came from and what we still aspire for it to be: Genuine, long-lasting and (of course) profitable.

You can run, but you can’t hide from a bad reputation. Aim to please from the get-go, and build your customer service philosophy around the principles detailed here.