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United debacle underscores need for smarter customer service

United's computer systems challenges are illustrative of the need for profound changes when it comes to customer support and 'experience' strategies.
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Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

As I read more and more about ongoing customer service problems at the post-merger United Airlines -- problems that have occurred across all channels of contact -- boy am I happy that I haven't had any business trips in the past few weeks that required its services. Apparently, this has been the sort of systems migration and process transformation that people will use in case study handbooks for months to come as an example of what not to do. Nearly two weeks after the official merger, and the airline still hasn't gotten its act together.

This looms large in my mind not just because I happen to fly this particular airline a great deal, but because the sorts of problems that United has experienced are, sadly, not all that uncommon.

The fact is that many companies continue to look at the customer service function as a cost center. Bad, bad mistake in these days of social business. A poor customer service function is one of the quickest ways to completely lose a customer that you have spend bazillions of marketing dollars to win. So why is it that executives continue to shortchange investments in this function, seeking the lowest cost options?

A small personal example. In the past two weeks, I have had occasion to reach out via email in two different customer service scenarios. In both cases, it took more than five days for the businesses to respond -- although they actually did in the end, which sort of shocked me (sad to say). Neither response had the effect of making me feel more favorably inclined toward the businesses. Both focused on excuses, not resolutions.

The irony is that both organizations that I contacted had basically forced me to use email, which is one of the fastest growing vehicles for customer touch. A newly published guide from ContactBabel (sponsored by Zeacom) called  "The U.S. Contact Center Decision-Maker's Guide (2012 - 5th edition)" found that the use of email has jumped by 67 percent in the past five years, while the use of Web chat has grown by about 50 percent. Has your own company kept pace with that investment?

Here's another question: What would you think about a business that took five days to call you back after you reported a customer service concern over the phone? My guess is you would have taken your business elsewhere on day two or day three.

News flash, people: Social media and social networks are changing the rules for customer service. Get with the program or all the marketing dollars you spend could be for naught.

Some 2011 research from Forrester Research, cited in its report "The State of Customer Experience, 2011" suggests that a 10 percent improvement in customer experience -- something that is definitely tied to the support that a person gets before, during and after the "sale" -- can have a substantial impact on a company's revenue. In the case of a big company, that impact could exceed $1 billion. Plus or minus. Your call.

Forrester's more recent 2012 report, "Navigate the Future of Customer Service" offers more than a dozen trends that should be considered by those in customer service, customer experience or customer support roles -- however you want to describe it. Here are the issues that really strike home for me:

  1. Too many companies still maintain separate information siloes for different customer touch points (email, chat, voice, etc.)
  2. Speed of interaction is important, but not at the expense of leaving a customer wanting more, so incentives for customer service agents are changing
  3. Customer service agents need to be able to go off the script and to quickly find knowledge that might lie outside their skill set. That is one reason you will start to hear more about links between contact center applications, internal knowledge-sharing portals and (yes) external social networks. After all, if someone who doesn't work for your company has come up with a good solution to a problem, why shouldn't your agents share that solution?
  4. Seamless escalation and interaction is necessary. If someone surfaces an issue in a social network, that issue should be exposed to customer service agents who can address it. Likewise, the company needs full knowledge of an ongoing issue, regardless of whether follow-up happens via phone, email, Web chat, a mobile application or social means.
  5. Be proactive about communicating changes, issues and so on. The worst thing that any company can do is try to hide a problem. There are always exceptions, but most reasonable humans tend to be far more sympathetic to those who are honest about mistakes and forthright in their efforts to address or correct them. They have very little sympathy for cover-ups and non-apologies.

(Image by Ray Smithers, courtesy of Stock.xchng)

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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