Being Human is Good Business
Issue № 334

Being Human is Good Business

Customer service, by definition, is about serving people; it should be genuine, personalized, and compassionate—or, simply put, human. For most organizations, customer service is an afterthought. And since servicing customers is primarily viewed as a cost center, customers are often treated as a liability. Yet, customers are a valuable resource: their feedback is integral to shaping your product and building your brand. Customers are not shy about exercising their clout, shouting their experiences—good and bad—to the world.

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Your customers are the reason your company exists: serving and retaining them is essential. Results from a recent JD Power retail banking satisfaction study show that poor customer service is the most common reason why customers switched banks in 2010 1. Of respondents, 37% who changed their primary bank did so because of poor customer service at their previous bank.

If you don’t recognize the value of your customers, they leave. If you treat them with compassion and respect, you can inspire their loyalty.

Current approach: issue-centric customer service#section2

Current customer service models focus on resolving issues instead of serving people. Focusing too much on the issue makes it easy to forget the person behind the issue. And, if you lose sight of the fact that you’re serving people, there are direct consequences not only for the quality of your service, but also for your product.

What is issue-centric customer service?#section3

An issue-centric customer service model resolves issues on a case-by-case basis, completely divorced from the company’s relationship with that customer. The agent platform is a central queue of incoming issues—user-reported incidents—from which all agents pull. Issues are generally handled by any available agent and done so on a first-come-first-served basis. From an agent’s perspective, an issue is (1) a subject line, (2) a brief description of the problem reported by the customer, (3) the customer’s email address, and (4) the issue’s status and priority. Agents typically know little to nothing about the customer reporting the problem. At best, an agent may be able to locate case histories related to a given email address but even that may take some digging.

What’s wrong with issue-centric customer service?#section4

Inefficient and impersonal agent-customer interactions
As an agent, you need some insight into the customer to communicate effectively. De-emphasizing the customer in your support practices doesn’t remove the need to get to know them; on the contrary, if you have no context or customer background, it’s necessary to start from scratch each time. And you end up spending more time overall just learning about your customers rather than solving their problems. Moreover, with no mechanism for storing and relaying helpful customer information, there is no lasting benefit to your customer or business beyond the fleeting, one-time interaction. We waste considerable time and resources in this issue-centric world.

Besides inefficiencies, another clear drawback of issue-centric customer service is impersonal agent-customer interactions. Even worse, common metrics in issue-centric models only reinforce and encourage an impersonal approach. It’s impossible to avoid this trap if you measure service quality by counting the seconds it takes to respond to and resolve issues, and by tracking the number of issues in the backlog. As an agent, your performance is measured in speed, not on the quality of your relationship with your customers or your interactions with them. You are trained to think “How quickly can I close out this issue?” instead of “How can I best help my customer?” The ever-present goal to have zero “issues” in the queue reduces people to numbers.

More resources spent on marketing, and hiring and training agents The issue-mindset doesn’t just influence the customer experience, but the agent’s attitude as well. When you must handle issues that are divorced from a person, your job becomes mundane. This leads to a general lack of motivation and high agent turnover, both of which have large-scale business implications. The customer service team helps set the company’s reputation and if that reputation is poor, marketing must compensate.

A product that doesn’t solve customers’ real problems Beyond the negative effects to your service organization, providing issue-centric customer service has consequences for your product as well. Issue-centric models simply aren’t built to capture customers’ stories and thus don’t lend themselves to useful product features, enhancements, and fixes. Since issues are collected out of context, deriving meaning from them is extremely difficult. In this way, issues are merely fragments of much richer customer stories. Gathering requirements and constructing customer use cases from a disembodied database of issues is like trying to assemble a massive puzzle from a jumble of mismatched puzzle pieces.

When customers share their story, they’re not just sharing pain points. They’re actually teaching you how to make your product, service, and business better. Your customer service organization should be designed to efficiently communicate those issues.

Cry for help Customers are fed up with the quality of service current models offer and resort to creative means to empower themselves. To make a point, customers use public social channels such as Twitter and Facebook for support requests to humanize themselves and simply be heard.

  • A customer is not an issue or a channel.
  • A customer uses channels to communicate issues.
  • A customer is a human being.

The future: human-centric customer service#section5

A human-centric customer service model revolves around people. Every component of the solution is humanized, acknowledging that customers and agents are real people with daily life struggles like the rest of us. It is a model that recognizes customers are a valuable resource, key to a company’s success, and therefore built to respect them.

customer profile in a human-centric agent platform featuring customer service solution Assistly.

Figure 1: An example of a customer profile in a human-centric agent platform featuring customer service solution Assistly.

With human-centric customer service, agents genuinely know their customers and issues are never divorced from the people who are seeking help. Customers have digital profiles that include pictures, personal details that they choose to share with an agent, as well as recent tweets or other social media info. And agent-customer relationships are not only encouraged but reinforced through preferred-agent routing mechanisms. This optimizes the chances that customers connect to agents with whom they’ve already built a common history. Finally, it’s the agents that are the heart of the human-centric experience; they possess extraordinary communication skills, celebrate diverse personalities and genuinely enjoy helping others.

Why is human-centric customer service better?#section6

Companies may balk at getting to know customers and building relationships. The mere word “relationship” conjures up thoughts of effort, time, and resources. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, a support model that centers on building relationships may be the most cost-effective and scalable solution.

Personalized and efficient agent-customer interactions When you promote agent-customer relationships in your support methods and tools, with features such as preferred-agent routing based on past contact history, each interaction is more likely to be rewarding for both agent and customer. When agents and customers have a common history and established communication dynamic, they work together more effectively. This results in faster resolution times because it eliminates the need to start from scratch every time.

As a simple example, consider a recent exchange I had with a former customer from a previous company—a retired doctor living in Texas, married to his first love and passionate about fishing—who called me directly because he was having a problem updating his iPad apps. He happened to be recovering from triple bypass surgery at the time. We spent a quick moment catching up on our respective lives. When he described his problem, I suspected nothing was broken because I had dealt with him before. Indeed, after some quick troubleshooting, I realized that he didn’t understand the app’s new UI. The entire conversation took less than five minutes. In that time, I reconnected with a customer (and friend) and we solved his issue.

Customer retention and customer-driven marketing Building relationships with your customers earned through authentic communication leads to customer loyalty. Loyalty is key, especially when things go wrong, because your customers cut you slack. And when you tell them you’re working on a resolution, they actually believe you!

Since “it costs six-to-seven times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to keep an existing one 2, simply keeping an existing customer happy can often be more important than trying to win new ones. Moreover, “happy customer” means customer growth through referrals.

Agent retention and higher-caliber applicants If you truly recognize the value of your customers, then recognize the value of your agents. When your agents are trusted and encouraged to build relationships with their customers, you create a rewarding environment for customers and agents. And when your company becomes a desirable place to work, you reduce agent turnover and attract higher-caliber candidates who will share your passion.

A better product that exceeds your customers’ expectations The best way to ensure you’re delivering a product that meets your customers’ needs is to build it based on their stories, those told in a holistic and cohesive way. Indeed, their stories are your use cases as you develop your product and your test cases when you’re ready to release your product to the public. In a human-centric customer service model, agents become an integral part of capturing product requirements and delivering them to engineering.

Being human works#section7

In an era when companies see online support as a way to shield themselves from “costly” interactions with their customers, it’s time to consider an entirely different approach: building human-centric customer service through great people and clever technology. So, get to know your customers. Humanize them. Humanize yourself. It’s worth it.


About the Author

Kristin Smaby

Kristin Smaby started working on the front lines in technical support after receiving her undergraduate degree in mathematics. Kristin quickly advanced her career through a number of customer-facing roles in a variety high-tech companies, including a software tools vendor, a financial services firm, and a digital broadcasting company. Most recently, Kristin established the customer service practices and philosophy at TripIt and BankSimple.

13 Reader Comments

  1. Thank you Kristin for bringing the issue of customer service (vs customer support) into the typically tech and design focused world of A List Apart.

    The tyranny of statistics and queues can make it a real struggle for customer service workers to spend time thinking about service, as opposed to thinking about how to resolve the immediate problem.

    Treating people as people and not problems is one way companies can differentiate themselves from the surrounding mass of services and tools. Your customers can probably find 10 other products that offer pretty much what you offer, but if they *like* dealing with you, they won’t jump the first time something goes wrong.

    At the same time, it is important to measure the effectiveness of a customer support team. I’d love to hear feedback from others about how to measure customer service without creating the wrong incentives.

    37signals “smiley”: is one promising option. Asking customers to rate their support experience. Combining that with the more traditional time and ticket numbers might give a fuller picture.

    So glad to see this article here, it is an area that so many web designers and web developers have left alone for too long.

  2. Thanks, Mathew! I agree that 37signals is taking a step in the right direction. I hope others follow suit and inspire creative ways to measure customer service successes beyond the standard issue-centric stats. I look forward to more feedback.

  3. Great article. I’m a one woman band and keep in regular contact with most of my clients. They seem to like that I know them well and that we can talk face to face, rather than them submitting a support ticket or going into a call centre queue every time they have an issue. Being human definitely is good business in my world, and I think a lot of larger organizations could benefit from not entirely automating their support and communications with clients.

  4. In my experience of being always a costumer, i have noticed that when the company does not give a penny about you. They want only to profit. Forgeting that the one that brings them the profits are US the clients. This wonderful solution that you are providing should solve the majority of this problems. But the company knows they are not “cost effective”.

  5. Great article Kristin,
    It’s something that I wrote about recently on “SmashingMag”:

    As we’ve all moved toward online business, automation has been the false idol. _”Your call is important to us_” , _”Your issue has been ticketed”_, _”Do not reply to to this email”_

    Could you imagine running a bar, restaurant, cafe, with this level of blatant apathy for customers? It’s crazy.

    We built “Intercom”: to force people to focus on the relationships they have with their customers, and to help them grow it. We’d love it if you’d check it out.

  6. I wrote a blog about this yesterday and I love how your article explains the “why” behind serving customers as individuals. Derek Sivers writes about making business more human in _Anything You Want_ and I think that idea is becoming more and more popular.
    Thanks again, I’ll certainly be sharing this with my team.

  7. I have run a “kent web design”: business in the UK for the last 10 years, customer service has always been important but hard to deliver in an industry of geeks. I have always found if you employ the right people it falls into place not to say I haven’t made a few mistakes along the way. Firstly have a culture where everyone can talk to clients and banter is OK, secondly only employ people who you would happlily spend a long car journey or go down the pub with ! Get the people right and everything else falls into place.

  8. Your comment about support agent’s lack of motivation is spot-on. Too often Level 1 support is the dirty job that no one wants to do, and they hire day jobbers on minimum wage, or worse, outsource it!

    What you propose is brillant – Hire good, caring people, and use their talents to really get to know the customer. Everyone works out happier in the end.

  9. Great article!
    Having worked in the design industry, I definitely know the importance of understanding the client. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t stop to hear my client’s story and find out where their passion lies. Passion inspires great design and a powerful brand, which appeals to a broader range of people.

    And as a customer, I always continue to give my business to a company that treats me with informal respect and hears what I have to say. I really don’t think it takes much effort to do this, either. It takes more effort to be inhuman in my opinion.

  10. One of the reasons I started my own business was because the company I worked for before where so engrossed with turn-over that they did what ever it took to invoice as soon as possible and if needed, cut corners to get projects out of the door sooner. What is absolutely crystal clear to me after 8 years in business is that services is everything.

    My “Cheshire Web Design (Web Design Cheshire)”: business has only survived and grown because myself and the team truly care about the work we do and our clients. Customers and empowered by contemporary social media tools so poor service and criticisms can and will spread like wild fire. With the global economies in turbulent times customer care and service will become an ever increasing factor in who survives and who does not.

  11. This is a great article, and is valuable for business owners and consultants alike. Being in both forward and internal facing roles in my company, I typically compare the client approach to the team member approach. This entire article could be read from the perspective of a leader considering how he/she interacts with their team. Being human with our team members promotes good business and, most importantly, creates a working environment that people want to be a part of.

    Thanks again for this article, it’s incredibly insightful.

  12. I have been in the customer support industry for some time and I just wanted to add that the mentioned personalized customer support requires a range of skills that are not freely available on the labor market. People with advanced peoples skill and with a sense for the big picture will usually find more rewarding jobs. If you want to blame it on the system put in place by the organizations, bare in mind that the performance of each agent needs to be monitored, and monitoring puts numbers on people. This automatically leads to issues raised by your article.

  13. I hate it when you have to deal with these companies that quite clearly dont care about customer relations because they show no sign of “being human”, in other words all you get is automated replies on the phone and by email, how on earth do such companies manage to keep getting more clients when they cant even take the time to talk to the ones they already have?

    I think showing your customers you care by taking the time to talk to them, be that by email or phone, is a very important part of business!

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