In the middle of the Second World War, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) needed space to house its Radiation Laboratory. They hastily erected a timber building and ushered in scientists. The design was so rushed that the structure later became known as the Plywood Palace, although its official name was ‘Building 20’.
Although planned as a temporary structure, Building 20 remained after the war. When the radiation scientists left, an eclectic range of academics and researchers took their place. The Laboratory for Nuclear Science took up residence in one drafty corner, and the linguistics department commandeered another. Elsewhere, you could find particle accelerators, a cell culture lab, and even a piano repair shop.
Linguists shared ideas with engineers who collaborated with psychologists who argued with physicists. Ideas flowed, thoughts percolated, and breakthroughs germinated. The building became an incubator for innovation.
During its 20-year lifespan, nine Nobel Prize winners worked within Building 20’s walls.
The story of Building 20 is a helpful reminder that we can make huge leaps forward by listening to—and learning from—people outside our immediate sphere. In the spirit of Building 20, we’ve collected insights from business leaders around the world, using their experiences to teach us how to level up customer service.
We’ll learn how Nokia Siemens improved customer service by training people other than customer service agents. We’ll investigate how HP combines different customer service channels to deliver a better experience and greater value per interaction. And we’ll examine how AT&T is employing proactive service to reduce inbound calls and maximize revenue generation opportunities.
Push for cultural change to drive higher customer satisfaction
A little over 10 years ago, Nokia Siemens Networks (now Nokia Networks) announced a new training program for its frontline customer service agents. Executives hoped it would refine their skills, buoy their confidence, and drive higher quality standards.
But after a few months of the new training program, performance remained static.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, an investigation was carried out. What Nokia executives learned was that their customer service agents acted more as conduits, liaising frequently between the customer and an internal expert. Although the agents were responsive, adaptable, and helpful on their own, they depended on developers and factory workers to fix problems and provide updates.
Seeing this, Nokia’s executives broadened their training scope, expanding it to educate not just frontline employees but also their backend colleagues to engender ‘the wisdom of the crowd’. Customer service training was rolled out to logistics, IT, manufacturing, and other previously untouched departments. They were explained the importance of service and how they can help deliver quality service and exceptional experience to customers. Exercising this rationality allowed non-customer service employees to envision their impact which in turn fostered a sense of empathy toward customers and customer service at large.
Thereafter, instead of leaving their CS colleagues waiting, the technical teams started to work faster and harder to help resolve customer problems efficiently. Over the next year, satisfaction scores improved, driving higher customer retention and stronger customer relationships.
The Takeaway: Customer service is a deeply cross-functional discipline. World-class service happens when we expand ownership and responsibility beyond the contact center. Cultivating an org-wide culture of customer service is the surest way to drive better outcomes for customers.
Bundle complementary service channels to deliver superior customer experience
In today’s era of instant gratification, self-serve is often lauded as a silver bullet to customer service challenges. With good reason, too. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers said a digital self-serve tool was their first port of call for simple inquiries, issues, and problems. Knowledge bases (92%) and online communities (83%) were the most in-demand channels.
While exhaustive, there is a notion that, by itself, a self-service channel is enough. That it does not need to be supported in any additional way. This is misguided, to say the least. Especially in large and complex businesses, a self-service channel often delivers the most bang for the buck when integrated with a channel that complements its capabilities.
Consider HP, one of the world’s largest technology manufacturers. Supporting millions of customers and thousands of individual products, the company receives more than 600 million support requests each year via a 50,000-page strong knowledge base.
Daniel Martinez, support solutions director at HP, once described each request as ‘an opportunity to deliver an excellent experience’. In doing so, he believed his team could improve customer loyalty and increase retention. But he knew leaving customers to fumble through such a large self-serve knowledge base was misguided. HP’s customer base was a broad church and many people weren’t technical experts. Finding the correct support document amid 50,000 others was an exceedingly difficult task.
To this end, he integrated a virtual agent into the knowledge base. This AI-enabled agent chatted with customers, helping them diagnose challenges, source relevant support documents, and solve their problems. If the customer and virtual agent couldn’t resolve the issue, it automatically escalated the request to a human agent.
When HP launched its virtual agents, the channel handled 15–20% of all queries. As with most AI-powered technologies, virtual agents improved with time and data. Not only did they help increase first-time fixes but also improved customer experience across the board. So much so that Gilbert Rossi, head of global customer support at HP, said the company had repositioned its sales offering: “When we sell a product, we also sell service and support excellence”. Over time, Martinez turned the dial on virtual agent, increasing their query uptake from 20% to 80%.
The Takeaway: Customer service organizations have a gamut of tools, technologies, and strategies to call on. Combining complementary channels allows organizations to create a resilient service ecosystem that delivers superior value and a better experience.
Draw inspiration from how customers experience service, not how service model is structured
Nearly 87% of organizations today say they expect proactive service to reduce inbound contacts, “potentially equating to millions of [dollars] saved each year for large customer contact operations.”
One organization harnessing proactive service to its absolute is AT&T.
The carrier’s customer service department automatically generates personalized explanatory videos alongside a customer’s first bill. They’re designed to combat “bill shock” (casually defined as when someone sees only the final amount due and panics).
The video breaks down the customer’s bill and highlights each component. By walking through the bill, charge by charge, the carrier reduces the likelihood of a customer bristling at a large total and phoning customer support for clarification.
Jim Disco, CEO of SundaySky, the technology behind AT&T’s videos, highlighted three key benefits:
- A material reduction in inbound calls.
- A material increase in the uptake of value-added services, like paperless statements.
- An increase in AT&T’s NPS scores.
Ultimately, this translates into lower service costs, higher average contract values, and stronger customer relationships.
The Takeaway: Customer service doesn’t have to be—and perhaps shouldn’t be—purely defensive. With a proactive approach, organizations can engage customers before problems arise, reducing demands on contact centers and creating new opportunities for resells, cross-sells, and upsells.