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customer service as care center

Are We Undervaluing the Impact of Customer Service on Growth?

Early this year, Jay Lee was looking forward to starting his new job. He’d seen a call center ad for a national fashion retailer, and he assumed the company’s workplace would match its easy-going brand. Midway through his first week, he realized his mistake.

The call center’s processes and policies were exacting and implemented without compassion or care for customers or the employees. “It was a factory with goals, metrics, and KPIs all based on speed,” Lee remarks. When a call came in, the agent processed it as quickly as possible and then moved on to the next one. Customers were a ticket to be handled, not a person who needs help. Forget empathy, one hardly ever stopped to address common downstream issues that would eventually show up as complaints. Its adverse impact on customer satisfaction aside, the employee morale was low and turnover was high, but, according to Lee, this didn’t seem to be a company concern. A constant recruitment campaign kept seats full and costs down.

This scenario is all too common. Countless organizations treat customer service as a cost center and that alone. The conventional operating model is such that the department is directly exposed to costs, particularly labor-related. And the pressure to keep costs in line with the budget is significant. No wonder then customer service leaders are constantly having to defend the status quo by pushing for proof of high productivity instead of looking for opportunities for change, development, and transformation. Naturally, when quantitatively verifiable outcomes like speed and volume become the prevailing metrics for success, quality is the first thing left behind. 

But with customers increasingly expecting a high-quality, personalized experience across all channels of communication, things like 24×7 availability and speedy resolution are no longer considered exceptional but the most basic level of service. Instead, shaping delightful experiences at every touchpoint matters for engendering customer satisfaction and loyalty. Such loyalty is something companies desperately need in today’s difficult economic environment. 

Operating with a care mindset, not a cost mindset, is the surest path to meet a customer’s expectations. The trick is not merely to cut costs, but also to reclaim old-fashioned values of customer service. This also happens to be the perfect condition for fostering business growth. 

Customer service is coming of age

The 1960s and ‘70s saw a proliferation of contact centers as we now know them. Instead of relying on manual switchboards, these new centers marked a move towards automatic call distribution—a relationship to automation that would only continue to grow over time.

As newer technology was introduced over the decades—from email and live chat to social media—customers and companies could reach one another in myriad new ways. But handling new channels required new employees, leading to ballooning labor costs. In the backdrop of an always-on culture, where contact centers had to run 24/7 operations, costs spiked greatly. The only way, then, for businesses to justify high costs was to increase labor productivity. Static workflows became the way to take all guesswork out of service and free up cognitive bandwidth for agents to chase after productivity. Sadly, no one stopped to think about how customers were experiencing this way of service. 

With improvements in IT architecture and the development of customer service management technologies that integrate channels and intuitively steer customers toward the most efficient resolution, service has gotten faster and streamlined. What’s more, the introduction of self-service modules has upended the way customers troubleshoot simple, transactional issues, taking a lot of the burden of resolution off of agents. This has also added a tailwind to cost efficiency goals, reducing the cost of labor and service by a great measure. Now, AI-enabled virtual agents and bots, with their superhuman prowess, promise context-aware, intuitive automation functionalities that not only augment human agents but can also take over for them in some places. They can retrieve the right information and select the right combinations of services for the customer, replacing context-poor, static workflows forever. 

Technology, in its current form, is not only freeing customers from the purgatory of long wait time, confusion, repetition, and poor standards of resolution but also creating affordances for service teams to deliver a sleek and delightful customer experience. For years, platforms have routed and sorted requests, but now they also manage, monitor, report, and advise. With technology shouldering more of the administrative burden, agents are freer to focus on providing care as only they can. In fact, the technology of the future is only more likely to strengthen a customer service department’s ability to offer proactive, preventative, and predictive services. And since “being helpful can be the best form of marketing”, some even predict that customer service departments will see a bigger piece of the pie when it comes to budgets. That makes sense given what we know about loyalty driving growth

Because today’s customers expect personalization in every interaction, the care-focused side of customer service is ‘the’ capability to leverage for improving customer outcomes. According to Forbes, 44% of consumers say they will likely buy again after a personalized shopping experience. It is also a fact that emotionally engaged customers are typically three times more likely to recommend a product and to repurchase.

This loyalty translates into a real bottom-line bump, as can be seen with metrics like Net Promoter Score. Data clearly demonstrates an integral customer loyalty-related connection between high NPS rates and high business growth rates. Under this care-focused framework, customer happiness becomes not just enhanced lifetime value but a way to actively maximize revenue Y-O-Y. 

How Customer Service Fosters Growth

Customer service’s contribution to growth is stealthier yet foundational. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that its unique proximity to customers can be leveraged to contribute directly to growth: 

Resilience

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that businesses must be ready to pivot in order to serve the shifting and expanding needs of customers. And being on the frontlines of a business puts the customer service department in a singularly unique position to demonstrate resilience through tumultuous times. 

Leading with empathy and a genuine interest in solving problems is the surest way to create real connections and strengthen relationships with customers. As elements of a business change, empathetic customer service, supported by the right product and service knowledge, has the ability to steer the audience towards the appropriate solutions and resolution, and stave off issues before they happen. 

Branding

Since we know that reducing customer effort can help with retention, companies do well to highlight this aspect of their support experience. Some have even made it a cornerstone of their customer-facing strategy. Take, for example, South Africa-based Nedbank, whose “AskOnce” promise—which guarantees that whichever agent answers a support call will be the person who resolves it—is a core part of the company’s marketing strategy.

This kind of cross-departmental execution exemplifies how marketing and customer service can work together to win new business—and, in Nedbank’s case, national awards and recognition above all their peers. 

Observability

For decades, founders, executives, and leaders have treated customer service as an island. Often outsourced and frequently offshored, the business unit sat apart from the company core. While customer service leaders have fought hard to change this positioning and perception, the department’s checkered history developed a key strength: Observability.

As a pseudo-outside entity, customer service boasts a sense of detachment and objectivity that few other departments have. By analyzing its treasure trove of data—Customer Satisfaction Scores (CSAT), Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Effort Score (CES), and more—customer service can reliably audit the company’s overall customer-centricity.

By connecting customer service to topline performance, CS leaders build a business case for investment in their work. But looking inwardly is rarely enough. They must expand their remit, too. They ought to actively bid for adjacent growth goals: churn reduction, upselling, customer development, and so on. By owning more than just reactive customer service, leaders can demonstrate their department’s potential to other stakeholders.

But that is not always possible. After all, some organizations may be reluctant to hand over key functions to a department they once viewed as peripheral. Here, customer service can operate as an internal agency or consultancy, offering its core capabilities to growth engines like marketing, sales, and customer success. 

customer service for growth

Sidebar: Learning From Strategic Business Units

As perceptions about customer service shift from a cost center to a growth center (or even a profit center), the blueprint for the department is still being written. We can look to other strategic business units, like human resources, to see customer service’s potential future as a recognized driver of growth.

With HR, we can see that what used to be a nuts-and-bolts department concerned mainly with administration—a cost center in its own right—has evolved into an integral strategic lynchpin. Chief People Officers abound, driving company culture and focusing on measurable people strategy.

However, this perception shift didn’t happen until companies realized HR’s unique position to impact important areas like productivity and skills development. Similarly, the reenvisioning of customer service as a strategic business unit will require a more holistic understanding of its leveragability. 

Contact centers like the one Jay Lee worked in may get the job done, and they may keep costs low, but they don’t help businesses evolve, and they don’t make ambassadors out of customers. If companies begin to see customer service as the growth department it truly is, it might not be long before we see Chief Service Officer on every masthead.

2 Responses

  1. Excellent article. Would love to read about the tools and technical which can influence proactive, predictive and prohibitive methods

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