Why you should treat customer care like it’s your core product

I'm taking a break before the final CRM Watchlist, but it's just such a good break. I got Eric McKirdy, who is Ask.com's Global Customer Care Manager here, to talk about how he takes care of the 100 million Ask.com customers -- and how you might think about this. Check it out.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

I've known Eric McKirdy less than a year. I met him at Ray Wang's CCE event last year (an event I unequivocally recommend you go to). But in that time, I've come to both admire him and even more importantly, like him immensely. He goes by the title of the Global Customer Care Manager overseeing Ask.com’s worldwide Customer Care and Technical Support operations. He does that incredibly well. But more importantly, he's managed to distill what he does well and provide it to audiences and to friends and to whoever is in earshot who is interested. I'm incredibly impressed by the work he's done. As apparently are others since in February 2014, Eric won a Stevie Award for Customer Service Manager of the Year.  I can't give him a Stevie — I could only give him a Paulie if I had that award, but what I can give him is a forum for his thinking and thus give you what he knows oh so well — how to think about customer care. It's an almost counterintuitive set of terms, but it is so customer centric it just plain rocks. As do you, Eric. So take it away, sir. 

We all know technological advances in communication impact not only the way people communicate with each other, but also how they engage with companies and brands. However, no advancement has disrupted the customer care landscape on the same order of magnitude — or as quickly — as social media. Consumers now have personal promotional platforms at their fingertips, and the powerful ability to broadcast the good, the bad, and the ugly pertaining to their favorite (or least favorite) brands with the click (or the tap) of a finger. 

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For better or worse, social media has also shone a spotlight on a brand’s approach to customer care — fails, successes, and all. Consumers are able to effectively and easily vent frustrations with customer care reps’ processes — so much so, that many brands look at social platforms like Twitter and Facebook as the true barometer of the health and effectiveness of their customer support systems.

Think like a product manager

With all of that in mind, customer centric companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines view the care of customers as almost a core offering in and of itself — not a tack-on function designed to just capture complaints and vitriol, but an end-to-end offering informed by market trends, competitive landscape, data and analytics, and of course, customer feedback.

Make no mistake: Approaching customer care in such a product-centric manner is no small task. It means applying the same rigor and thoughtfulness you would for any concept or idea traveling through the product development process.  

Here’s a quick guide to doing it right:

Assess the landscape and market opportunity:

  • How are customers talking to you today? Are you effectively listening?
  • What are your customers doing? Where are they spending time on the web — social media, certain types of content sites, forums, email? Where is the opportunity to add the most value and make the biggest impact on their daily lives? Where are the gaps in the marketplace?
  • What are your current strengths and weaknesses, in both your operations and your offering? What assets do you have that are potentially underleveraged?  
  • What are your competitors doing? What are organizations in different sectors doing and is there anything you can apply to your company? Which brands are doing it right/wrong?
  • What are your specific customer care goals, and how can you revamp your existing solution to better meet them?

Product discovery and rapid iteration:

  • Get a holistic view of customer care — not just for your particular company or competitive set, or even industry, but overall. What do retail brands or healthcare companies do that you can potentially replicate — or avoid? Get out to conferences and read voraciously.
  • Learn about technology tools and platforms and get on the phone with vendors. Be open to testing a slew of products that can potentially accelerate success.
  • Get a regular dialogue going with your customers (or at least a sub-set of them), and glean feedback on new features and functionality on a consistent basis. At Ask, we launched our web Help Center after exhaustive testing with Ask users to study their responses, get a sense for how they would want to be able to get help with Ask products, and how they would interact with a self-service based portal.
  • As part of the design process, remember to keep it human. Avoid unfriendly language whenever possible, such as “submit a ticket” — use “send us an email” instead. Personalize the touch-points in order to personalize your brand at the same time.
  • Once you’ve established your support presence, monitor it like crazy. Set up Google Analytics to measure where traffic is coming from, and how people are finding the site. Also analyze exactly what they’re typing when they search for articles in the self-service channel. Many times, customers will come up with different words to ask for help. Does your knowledgebase account for other iterations of a question, and still show relevant articles to answer them?

As you’re developing your alpha and beta test versions, think about:

  • KPIs — Key performance indicators, which should be tied to the broader business. Make sure these are in place, agreed upon, and easily measurable.
  • Scale: Does your current system easily enable you to scale up or down depending on business requirements?
  • Feedback loop: Solving customer issues and capturing feedback are two distinct use cases — make sure you have an effective solution for each.
  • Are you optimized for mobile and tablet devices? Forrester projects that tablet sales will eclipse laptop and desktop sales combined by 2015, so the time to optimize is now, both in terms of customer use and customer care agent mobility and flexibility.

The way brands and consumers interact has forever been changed by the web. Customer care organizations today must go beyond manning phones and collecting complaints to truly delivering on whatever promises its brands make — today’s discerning customers will accept no less. Approaching, investing, and benchmarking customer care as a unique offering all on its own will not only result in happier customers, it can actually transform your customers into true brand advocates.

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