Mundane, operational and associated with enraged callers, customer service (CS) has had a bad rap but its time has come. Internal and external forces—including technology, revenue and customer expectations—are driving the function beyond operational efficiency to become intrinsically linked with marketing, public relations and CRM.
“It’s become a much more strategic function within many corporations and is now a point of differentiation,” says Daniel Ziv, VP of customer analytics for Asia-Pacific and global product strategy for customer care enterprise firm, Verint. “CS is at the front line of engaging with customers daily and is probably the most critical function today as it impacts both the experience and engagement level with customers.”
A 2015 study by Forrester correlated revenue increases in firms against their Customer Experience Index scores. It found a 10-point improvement in a company’s score translated into more than US$1 billion in revenue for firms across 13 industries.
“Social media has resulted in such a monumental shift in power to the customer,” says Ryan Hart, a principal analyst at Forrester who leads the firm’s customer experience practice in Asia-Pacific.
These days, a bad incident gone viral has the potential to impact a brand’s performance—just look up Comcast and ‘asshole’. But while it’s true that 95 per cent of customers will share a bad experience with customer service online, finds Zendesk, 87 per cent will also share good experiences. This could just as easily drive up brand value, particularly when a brand appears to have gone the extra mile for a special customer—such as when UK supermarket Sainsbury’s renamed its ‘tiger bread’ to ‘giraffe bread’ following a letter from a three-year-old girl.
“This phenomenon reflects the shift in marketing,” says Hart. “It’s about niche marketing and empowering ambassadors [customer care executives] to go out and promote your brand for you.”
But beyond social media, enterprise technology is also helping to raise the importance of CS within organisations. With day-to-day FAQs available online, the types of calls made by customers now require a more sophisticated, nuanced approach from CS agents. Customer expectations, adds Hart, are much higher than before thanks to companies which excel at CS, such as Apple and Ikea.
Furthermore, enterprise software is now able to transcribe phone calls from speech to text in real time and analyse it for data and patterns which can then be used to power marketing insights. Verint’s offering has also started to challenge that of Salesforce, Oracle and Adobe as it also scans social media for the problems associated with customer calls.
Bhupinder Singh, who heads customer solutions for Vodafone Global Enterprise, Asia and Africa, notes that customer service teams are being challenged to manage more devices and data.
“At the same time, we know more about how and why our customers use the telecommunications services they buy from us,” he says. “This places greater responsibility on service providers to analyse and evaluate the usage of data and suggest ways in which our customers can become even more efficient in the way they manage their business.”
This insight, so valuable for marketing and product development, places the CS team in an organisational sweet spot.
“CS now serves as a central business intelligence centre for the rest of the enterprise, representing the voice of the customer,” said Ziv.
The shift in power is largely due to a shift in the focus of the business environment. “Traditionally, business leaders tended to pay a lot of attention to metrics such as revenue, cash flow and profitability to assess the health of their company. But today the focus is on customers as the real drivers of business performance,” says Paul Bichsel, director of success at Zendesk APAC. “This means that marketing, customer service and CRM are becoming increasingly intertwined within organisations.”
These functions are being forced to work together, notes author and customer service expert, Shep Hyken. "The best form of marketing is through an amazing customer service that customers talk about. That immediately ties the departments together. When and if customers call in, it shouldn’t matter who they talk to or what department the employee is in."
This certainly is the case for Prudential Hong Kong where both customer service and marketing are lead by Anthony Shaw. "Our decision to combine these functions into a single department is based on a view of the future where our ability to understand our customers, particularly through data, and deliver a high quality end-to-end customer experience, is a competitive edge," said the chief officer.
As these functions grow increasingly integrated, firms have started to find ways to combine leadership of marketing, customer service and communications in one person, the chief customer or chief experience officer who reports directly, or even leads alongside, the CEO.
Recently, Banana Republic and Gap both eliminated the global CMO role in favour of the global chief experience officer (CXO). This raises the question, who will lead customer experience (CX)?
Both Gap and Banana Republic chose their CXOs from their ranks of marketers, but Forrester’s Hart—who has been working with several companies in the region which are in the process of restructuring their customer service—says that many equate CS with CX. Hart regards this equation as somewhat of a misnomer, but says it does place customer service near the head of the pack.
“More and more companies are asking how they can create a position that has governance over CX across all verticals in a company.”
In younger firms, such as GoGoVan, the ‘Uber’ of delivery services, customer service belongs to everyone in the organisation. While the firm has dedicated CS agents, everyone—right up to country managers and the head of marketing—fields customer and van-driver queries.
“CS works seamlessly with marketing and sales as we’re keen to avoid siloes and want to provide our customers with a seamless experience,” explains William Ban, country manger for GoGoVan Singapore. “CS manages not just consumer facing queries but also the drivers on our network, the team uses software we’ve built to build a database so we can continually improve how we work.” The goal of customer service at GoGoVan, he says, is to build personal relationships with customers. “We don’t them to be a faceless drone. We want them to be able to go that extra mile. For example, in Hong Kong, a customer wanted a van to reenact a flash mob proposal in the US that had gone viral online. Our CS agent was able to make it happen.”
Our View: While marketing has the upper hand at present in leading CX, that may change in the near future, with customer service growing ever more central to organisations.
Editor's note: This version of the article includes additional sources that were not included in the magazine version for reasons of length.