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Neil Hammerton: Why customer service failures are usually the result of improper technology use

Neil Hammerton, CEO, Natterbox, considers why ineffective technology knowledge is often to blame for failures in customer service and experience

Six years ago Gartner called customer experience ‘the new battlefield’, following research showing 89% of companies expect to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience. This figure had risen by 150% since 2010. Despite the clear trend, businesses are still failing on the customer service front, with some accused of chaotic month-long refund waits.

This failure is particularly noticeable when using the phone – proven by the existence of hour-long call queues followed by the inevitable ‘please hold’. This has left many of us dreading customer service calls.

So the question must be asked: what is the source of continuing customer service failures?

Some may argue it’s often to do with the people. However, I would argue people are largely the source of everything good about customer service: personability, relatability, empathy. And some recent research on the topic shows over half of customers still want to interact with a human when contacting a business – clearly they play a huge role in our experiences.

So, if not the people, what is the true source of this problem?

I would suggest it’s the technology (a little ironic given where I work.) But by that I don’t mean the technology itself. Rather, businesses aren’t providing customer service agents with the tools or expertise they need to maximise their customer service potential.

To overcome this challenge, businesses must invest in the right tech, stay up-to-date, and make sure new tools are implemented in a way that means the business can use them to their full advantage.

Put your money where your mouth is

Businesses love saying they put their customers first. But do they live it?

One of the biggest problems in business today is that we are at a disconnect. On the one hand, business leaders know they can only secure long-term success by valuing customers. On the other hand, they’re not investing in the right areas to fulfil their endless promises.

One of the key reasons businesses don’t invest in new tools or update old ones is because of expense. This was made clear when over 50% of respondents in a BT and YouGov survey said there was no commercial benefit in AI or machine learning investment. The cost factor is important to consider. In the short term, investing in new technology can require substantial capital. But this mindset isn’t as rational as it may seem. In fact, businesses that don’t invest are often confronted by serious problems further down the line that can incur more significant costs.

For example, underinvestment in IT resulted in the WannaCry ransomware cyber-attack in 2017, when hackers exploited an outdated Windows protocol. The results were devastating. In customer service, it’s the diminishing line of customers resulting from potential ‘screw-ups’ that presents the scarier prospect.

In fact, in 2013 Microsoft discovered that over 90% of consumers would consider taking their business elsewhere rather than work with a company that uses outdated technology. So, while the expense of investment in new tools might be daunting, the risk of avoiding it has its own dangers.

Always read the instruction manual

Not all businesses shy away from investment. Some choose to invest in technology that can support employees to improve customer service. But here, many run into another problem: the business has the capital, but it doesn’t have the expertise. This leaves it unable to implement new tools appropriately or provide the training to get the most from them.

When lacking training, employees may find a way to stumble around new tools to complete basic tasks, but the value of their most sophisticated functions are lost.

PwC revealed the extent of this problem in 2018. Its global research discovered 90% of C-suite executives believed their company paid attention to people’s needs when introducing new technologies. However, when it came down to it, only half of the staff agreed. In other words, businesses are making the first step, but stopping there.

Don’t buy a farm because it will rain next year

If businesses want to maintain a loyal customer base in the coming year, which is again expected to be a disrupted one, they must consider these challenges and ways of overcoming them.

Businesses must realise the tech will ultimately provide a strong return on investment, but only if they don’t stop there. They must train their employees and find out how to get the most out of new tools. Technology partners can provide huge value here, and businesses should look to vendors that can provide them with ongoing support beyond installation.

In a Squawk Box interview last year, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet said: “Nobody buys a farm based on whether they think it’s going to rain next year.” In other words, you should buy a farm because of its lifetime potential; you can’t guarantee it will be profitable within a year.

Businesses should approach customers with the same attitude. Don’t invest now because customers will use your services in the immediate future, but because they will be returning for years to come.

By giving your employees up-to-date tools and the training to use them, you could achieve a level of customer service most companies aren’t prepared to commit to. You will talk the talk and walk the walk. And customers will realise it.