Marketing & sales focus on customer acquisition and essentially the buyer. Customer support focuses on the user and is required for customer retention. This is valuable in businesses where customer lifetime value is significant; (ex: we keep visiting amazon repeatedly to shop); Especially, online retailers, automobile companies (who depend on significant revenue through service), hospitals, machinery/OEMs, technology products, SAAS products and other such businesses where delivery, service, maintenance and renewals are important. So, while there is value embedded in the product or solution, there is also the concept of “value in use”. The embedded value comes from the product, performance, price. However, significant “value in use” comes from the continued experience of the product that is often neglected by companies. This can be delivered and enhanced by our Customer Support Service (CSS) function. When CSS can deliver high level of personalization and timely responses to customers’ need for support, there is an enhanced customer experience which is valuable to the customer and this leads to customer loyalty as well as a stronger brand.
CSS functions are often relegated to the background. There are companies that have been around for decades, and may have thousands of industrial customers, but rarely do they give importance to sale of spares or repeat sales and the experience of those existing customers. Once the deal is done and the tender is successful, the product is delivered, and a minimal level of customer support is provided for the stipulated period.
Due to the fact that CSS functions are typically closer to customers, they develop amazing insights on user behaviour and can actually play a significant role in reshaping the product/solution offering, customer segmentation (say in terms of the way customers use the product) and in evaluating the lifetime value of customers. CSS can also play a major role in product development and improvement, since they have unique insights into usage that others in the organization do not.
Move CSS closer to the leadership
CSS can actually be used to build the brand, customer loyalty, increase customer lifetime value and grow the revenues of the company. It should therefore, be a strategic function in the organization. CSS should be close to the leadership in terms of reporting structure and close to the customer as well. This will demonstrate its importance within the organization and enable this function to be taken seriously. When leadership and top management decide to take customer experience seriously and start to measure and monitor customer experience, naturally CSS becomes a very important function to deliver these values.
Being close to the customer
The function should be so designed that it should integrate with the customers organization and be completely involved in the usage of products and solutions. The quality and closeness of interaction with the customer determines the quality of customer intelligence that is collected. CSS is therefore in a position to provide strategic inputs to an organization. Customer strategy should be closely linked with business strategy. Customer strategy should also be clearly defined and road mapped (stuff like customer segments, their needs, our unique proposition and value, the customer experience we wish to create, and our internal structure and capabilities to deliver this). All customer touchpoints should be brought under a single umbrella and data that is collected has to be managed to extract insights for necessary action across the organization.
This is therefore about moving CSS from an administrative to a strategic function; moving it from a cost centre to a profit centre where CSS can also be responsible for revenues. The necessary governance processes and metrics need to be then put in place to manage a sophisticated CSS function.
Customers typically remember the person they interacted with and say “employee’s assistance was appreciated” and place a lot of importance to such human interaction; but companies rarely treat CSS employees as important. We think it is the system that served the customer and not the employees’ approach or reaction which made a big difference.
So, the role of employees needs to be emphasised in CSS. Leadership should play a crucial role here to help employees understand the importance of this role and move them to think about customer experience. This requires a lot of internal marketing and training. Employee experience (in terms of ability and the years put in) also plays a major role in the quality of service delivered. It has been found that employees who have spent more time in this function, as well has employees who have a positive experience of their own job, are better able to handle customer requests in an unstructured manner and thus provide a superior level of customer experience. Systematic re-training and sensitization of employees to such issues is very important.
Operations – Systems & process
A typical CSS function handles customer enquiries, complaints, merchandise returns and payment related issues. It is quite normal for CSS functions to grow from a rudimentary role to one where large volumes of transactions are handled as the organization grows, resulting in chaos and low service quality.
But there are ways to enhance the effectiveness of CSS by designing robust processes, systems and policies and enforcing them across the function. Rather than tweak existing processes, it is much better to undertake something like a Zero-based design, where we start with the outcome required, and work backward using agile-scrum methodologies to design the CSS function. First get a minimum-viable-design out and then rework and improve from thereon.
The design and structure should also keep in mind cross functional linkages with the rest of the organization. Going in for certifications like CMM service certification is not a bad idea either. It helps bring in a level of seriousness and the required level of discipline in the function. Needless to say, strong management control systems need to be implemented and suitable performance frameworks have to be put in place so that the right metrics are measured and monitored. Hence operational governance is crucial.
Technology & AI
Use of technology is crucial. As the function scales, cost of the function needs to be evaluated. Voice and email are typical tools used in a human transaction. Significant volume of transactions can also be automated, thus increasing accuracy and productivity by using AI tools and technologies such as IVRS and AI chat bots. This reduces the cost of transactions and the load on human operators. Amazon for example, has a very sophisticated machine learning algorithm that provides suggestions to customers based on what they’re looking for. Similarly, a lot of banks have implemented AI chat bots to help human agents in their interactions and these bots not only provide information to customers but also undertake some standard transactions. (We’ll discuss how some companies have used AI in CSS in a separate blog).
Align sales under CSS
For industrial organizations, or even software solution providers selling to business customers, it also makes sense to bring the key account management/ sales team under the CSS function. The key account management sales team can then leverage on the insights of the CSS function to sell to strategic customers. This combination of key account management and CSS actually lends itself to a very powerful CRM or customer relationship management capability within the organization.
Above are some steps organizations can take to transform CSS from a support function to a strategic function that also delivers additional revenues and value.