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customer service

What lessons can SMBs learn from customer-centric frontrunners?

The likes of Amazon are blazing the trail that all businesses must follow.

When a biomedical researcher purchases peripheral blood monocytes from Cytologistics, they expect their order to arrive the next day. If it doesn’t, their next move is to visit the retailer’s website and ask for an update via Facebook Messenger. On the other side of the chat app, a Cytologistics’ employee picks up the request, finds the tracking code, and provides an immediate response. From start to finish, the interaction takes a couple of minutes.

That sort of urgency is a recent development, says Kim Mahler, director of business development at the California-based biomedical retailer. Five years ago, Cytologics’ customers were content with five-day delivery schedules and phone-based support. Today, immediacy is king—and she can’t recall the last time she actually talked to a customer.

The increase in customer service expectations among Cytologistics’ customers isn’t unique. Customer-centric companies like AmazonBest Buy, and Etsy have ratcheted up customer service expectations for everyone.

Consider Amazon, the one-time digital book store turned eCommerce monolith. For all of Amazon’s 27-year existence, its leadership has relentlessly prioritized customer service. Over the past two decades, the retailer has achieved an average ACSI customer satisfaction score of 85.7—far higher than the internet retailing average and even customer-obsessed Nordstrom. What’s more, the Institute of Customer Service recently awarded Amazon its ‘Best Customer Service of the Decade’ award.

Although its customer satisfaction dipped during the pandemic, Amazon responded strongly, launching new customer service features like AI knowledge support for human agents, longer return periods, and streamlined customer authentication.

Consumers have become used to such levels of service and learned to expect it from all other companies. They expect 24-hour deliveries from their local florist and round-the-clock support from their neighborhood health clinic. For many businesses, this spike in customer service expectations has been a rude awakening.

Historically, a company’s competition was limited to its geographical and service rivals. So long as an organization’s service was on par with its neighbors, they would not lose business. But that is no longer the case. Today’s businesses face fierce competition from ruthlessly innovative technology companies.

“Customer service at high-growth tech-enabled companies is an on-demand model via text-based interactions with limited human interaction,” explains Mahler in an interview with Freshworks. “To resolve unique customer issues at scale, high-performance companies direct customers via automated channels where issues can be triaged and addressed efficiently.”

Some SMB owners and leaders will inevitably shirk away from the issue, assuring themselves that their customers are content with the status quo. Others, however, will rise to the challenge, learning from their new competitors and striving to deliver better customer service. 

As customer-centric companies continue to raise the bar, customers will increasingly expect more businesses to harness technology to deliver rich, seamless customer service. The choice leaders have to make is a matter of determining when to follow Mahler’s lead and face this challenge directly, and when to batten down the hatches and hope for this sea change to wash away.

A new bar for customer service

For years, executives at large companies have treated customer service as a cost, rather than an asset. It was functionally necessary, but experientially moot. No one built a business on exceptional customer service, they reasoned.

This notion of customer service hindered its structure greatly. If you were to visit the customer service department at several large companies, you’d be greeted by a familiar sight: rows of desks as far as the eye can see. Indeed, most contact centers look more like factories than offices at first glance. Agents take one call after another, rushing through scripts to minimize call times. Managers and supervisors walk the aisles, swooping in on escalated calls, resolving the issues as swiftly as possible. Once or twice a day, they may pluck an agent from their work to review their performance or address a complaint.

But customer-centric technology companies saw the world differently.

They recognized that positive customer service isn’t a fortuitous byproduct.

Great service exists only by design that takes into account the operational context.

“We can see companies that master customer service before any customer concerns arise,”  venture capitalist Zain Jaffer tells Freshworks. “Successful tech companies embed this in their operating model from the ground up.”

There is no greater example of this than Amazon, a company openly customer-centric for as long as it has existed. In a 1997 shareholder letter, then-CEO Jeff Bezos proclaimed: “We’re not competitor obsessed, we’re customer-obsessed. We start with what the customer needs and we work backward.”

Amazon’s entire existence relies on that obsession. It has combined customer service, experience, and strategy to create a new industry standard for excellent customer service. Studying what the eCommerce giant does well provides a roadmap for all businesses following in their wake.

Immediate self-serve service

The traditional customer service model is reactive: Companies wait until a customer experiences a problem and then work to rectify it. Under Bezos, Amazon took a different tack. The retail giant empowered customers to manage their own service. For example, they can submit return requests via without ever talking to an agent.

The company’s investment in self-service technology and automation is based on Bezos’ philosophy that the best customer service is no customer service. “It’s already too late by the time you’re doing customer service,” he explained in 2012. “The best customer service is if the customer doesn’t need to call you, doesn’t need to talk to you.”

Self-service isn’t just limited to websites, either. Mobile apps, IVR, and chatbots are all growing quickly. Nearly half of all businesses used mobile apps for customer service last year—up from just 16% in 2018. And while customer satisfaction remains higher on agent-assisted channels, customer preference is swinging towards self-service.

While Amazon built self-serve service the hard way—through proprietorial systems and original technology—SMBs can take shortcuts. For example, low- and no-code chatbots tools allow any business to leverage the kinds of technology others spent decades developing. Alongside advanced AI tools, businesses should invest in low-tech self-service channels like knowledge bases and community support.

Always-on support

Amazon’s strategy aligns with a growing trend for immediacy. Nearly half of all consumers expect a response to their question or complaint within the hour. Rigid opening hours are very much a thing of the past. By offering round-the-clock support through live chat, email, and social media accounts like @AmazonHelp, the company ensures there are no customer service blind spots.

While the gold standard is always-on human support, that’s often not feasible for smaller organizations. Here, chatbots play an increasingly important role. They can engage customers at all hours of the day, triage problems, and solve the simplest queries, questions, and complaints without help from humans.

Three-quarters of customers say valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide good customer service. How you engage customers is less important: self-serve, human-powered, chatbot, and community are all viable options. What matters most is that you’re there to support customers whenever they need you.

Automation can alleviate a significant portion of the customer service workload—but not all. Amazon recognizes that human agents will always have a place in customer service. They use their limited human resources to engage customers immediately and address the most complicated issues.

Unified data across customer service

Historically, contact centers have sat away from other business units, often because they were offshored to regions with low cost of labor. This created an inevitable disconnect between tools, services, and data. Without immediate access to customer records, customer service agents simply couldn’t do their jobs.

Where Amazon has addressed this is by unifying customer data and harnessing the information to connect the dots of customer service. When you contact support for the first time, it feels like they already know you.

“They see where you’re from, your purchasing history, shipping preferences, and more,” enthuses Dmitry Azarov, CMO at Itransition. “All of this serves to optimize assistance, making it fast and efficient. It’s like you’re a club’s member.”

Unifying data goes much further than providing more informed customer service. Amazon personalizes its customer experience to each individual using algorithms and deep learning to adapt to user preferences. Indeed, it is perhaps the single most important cog in Amazon’s customer-centric machinery. 

Smaller organizations typically struggle here. Their customer data is scattered across myriad different tools—marketing automation, sales automation, customer success, and so on. They lack a single source of truth so their agents work with piecemeal understanding of their customers.

Enhanced integration is one option to get agents the information they require. Allowing your customer service platform to pull data from other tools means your agents can access the information they require. However, there’s no guarantee your tools will work together. Often, this approach creates an unreliable Frankensteinsh network of technologies.

The alternative is to centralize your go-to-market strategy on a single platform like a unified CRM. By centralizing customer data, rather than building integrations, you create one reliable source of truth, which your customer service agents can then access.

Whatever the specifics, your end goal is the same: Get your agents enough data to understand their customers before the conversation.

In the challenge, there is an opportunity

Facing down a customer service challenge from customer-centric companies like Amazon is daunting. They have unfathomable customer service budgets and significant resources to pour into research and development.

Personalization is essential—40% of consumers have left a website because it presented too many generic options. Omnichannel support is no longer optional. Indeed, Adobe found that the companies with the strongest omnichannel strategies enjoyed 10% year-on-year growth. Automation is bearing more of the workload with 80% of businesses using some sort of chatbot.

The bar has been raised, and all businesses are expected to clear it.

But the challenge need not be disheartening or draining. 

Companies like Cytologics have proven that even small operations can rebuild customer service systems to match modern consumer behaviors. Over the last few years, Mahler and her colleagues have done just that, transforming Cytologistics’ approach to customer service.

“We rarely speak to customers on the phone anymore. We deliver customer service via email, chat, and even social media,” Mahler says. “We frequently need to ship products within 24 hours of the customer order.”

While it’s curious to think that a consumer-facing eCommerce retailer like Amazon is dictating customer service demands in B2B biotechnology, Mahler is pleased at the shift. It’s pushed her team to innovate, adapt, and grow. Ultimately, she says, the end result is better service for their customers.

2 Responses

  1. A good read. This has been my approach for the last 8 years so I wouldn’t say it’s a new phenomenon for me.

    1. Hi Daniel. Do share your experiences from the last eight years. It’d be great to learn what’s worked and what hasn’t.

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