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Bilateral Customer Service
How to satisfy digital consumers and avoid damaging word of mouth
Posted Sep 30, 2011
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Digital technologies have made customer service much more complicated than it used to be—it’s no longer about training employees in basic techniques and then keeping them motivated. The Web has opened up channels of communication that didn’t exist in the mainstream two decades ago, such as email, live chat, Twitter, and Facebook. As a result, customer expectations of company responsiveness and transparency have exploded.

Consumers today expect two distinct types customer service: full service and self-service. They want to be able to research a purchase, make that purchase, and resolve any subsequent issues online effortlessly. But if they decide they want personal help, they hope for the same warm, helpful touch they could get from the mom-and-pop stores of old.

I refer to this two-sided strategy as bilateral customer service. It may sound like a tall order, but it’s a necessity almost no one is exempt from. Whether it’s through user reviews, blogs, Yelp, Facebook or Twitter, just to name a few, customers have myriad public outlets for lambasting your business. As Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has said, “We view any expense that enhances the customer experience as a marketing cost because it generates more repeat customers through word of mouth."

Why Full Service Is Worth It

In early 2010, Google began selling its first-ever physical product, the Nexus One touch screen smartphone, solely through its own Web store. For customer service, Google set up some online FAQs, customer support forums, and an email service that said consumers could wait 48 hours for a response. There was no way to reach Google by phone.

Crisis struck when many new owners struggled to get its 3G connectivity to work. When they tried to reach Google, they were stymied. So they called T-Mobile and HTC, which had manufactured the phone under contract, but they generally directed people back to Google. This frustrated customers more. Many populated Google’s public online forums with comments such as “Dear Google, I used to love you, now I hate you. Keep your stupid phone.” Then the media picked up on the fiasco. The New York Times wrote, “Hey Google, Anybody Home?”

The next month, a chastened Google opened up phone support. However, the damage was already done. After seven months, Google discontinued the Nexus One due to poor sales. Google had failed to provide adequate full-service customer support.

Sufficient full service requires multiple avenues for customer contact as well as well- trained and friendly representatives at the other end of the line, whether they’re responding via Twitter, Facebook, live chat, phone, email, or in store. 

Why Self-Service Is Worth It

One excellent example is Microsoft. It sells some of the most complicated products in the world—software systems to large corporations. It addresses its complex customer service needs through MSDN, the Microsoft developer’s network, an online resource of helpful documentation, example code, discussion boards, and other tools to help developers solve their technical problems related to Microsoft software. This comprehensive level of information effectively avoids frustrating the company’s base of DIY customers and brings unrivaled transparency to the business.

Self-service involves having an easily accessible FAQ that addresses common customer needs; detailed product and pricing information, photos, and manuals; and support forums and bulletin boards where customers can answer each other’s questions. For it to be useful, however, the site does need to be carefully organized so users can find what they need.

Bilateral Customer Service in Action

About a year ago, when my second son was born, my family and I moved to a larger apartment. The new place came equipped with an apartment-wide stereo system that could store 50 CDs—50 CDs!!! Too bad I don’t own any CDs. It was time to buy a new system. To start I Googled the brand name of this marvel of entertainment technology circa 1995. A few clicks later, I ended up on Crutchfield.com, a home electronics retailer.

On the homepage, I immediately located tabs for “Support” and “Forums.” The site had tons of helpful articles and videos about home stereo systems, including how different types of equipment compared and how to hook them up. The articles were written by Amanda, the audiovisual editor, whose bio was there for me to read. Within minutes, I had done enough research to realize I needed to talk to a live person. Fortunately, at the top of every page was a phone number where I could reach “expert advisers” seven days a week; I was even told three representatives were available right now. So I dialed. Within seconds, I was explaining my problem to an “expert.” While on the phone, he had me unscrew the control panel so I could tell him about the wiring. After more questions, he recommended two systems, explained the pros and cons of each, and even helped me whittle that down to one option, which he helped me purchase over the phone after waiting for me to check out competitors’ prices online—though I must admit even if it was a little more expensive I probably would have bought with Crutchfield because they were so helpful.

Crutchfield hits all of the right customer service notes for our digital age. The company’s Web site supports “self-service” with massive amounts of customer support, but it also provides easy access to well-trained customer service representatives—an exemplary execution of bilateral customer service.


Aaron Shapiro, author of USERS NOT CUSTOMERS: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business (Portfolio), is CEO of HUGE, a digital agency that helps companies reimagine how they interact with customers and manage their businesses in the online economy.


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