Neil Hammerton, CEO, Natterbox
Communications today are less likely to involve having a conversation over the phone. A study by O2 gives credence to the stereotype that millennials hate to talk on the phone and reported that telephone apps used to make voice calls on smartphones are only the fifth-most-used app among consumers. When you consider the range of digital communications methods now available this is perhaps unsurprising. Instant messaging and email, WhatsApp and Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram are examples of the evolving channels we use to communicate – where once we would have simply picked up the telephone for a chat. Over the phone, businesses and their customers connected on a human level and relationships were built and loyalties developed. Now in the age of digital communications, is it unreasonable to ask if the softer human side of customer services is simply becoming a thing of the past?
Losing the human touch
The technology that has changed how we all communicate has also revolutionised how businesses speak to their customers. And developments in AI and robotics seem set to take businesses even further away from the traditional approach to customer service. Systems and solutions ranging from social media to chatbots and virtual assistants, are now providing opportunities to interact with consumers in innovate ways; while helping to attract new customers and capture valuable data and insights. The danger, however, is that businesses are losing the softer skill sets that give communications with customers the personal, caring touch. Central to this is a decline in the age-old art of conversation.
The digital wall
While emerging technologies offer benefits in terms of costs and efficiencies management, they can also become a digital wall to protect businesses from having potentially difficult conversations with customers, which are likely to require confidence and training to handle correctly. Considering the range of communications channels available, this type of avoidance might not seem like a major problem.
In reality, however, it could have devastating effects on a company’s survival in the long-term if poor customer service experiences accumulate and generate backlash. In such a case, the lack of an over-the-phone channel can appear like a glaring oversight. An example of this involved the British firm Iresa Energy, which was banned by Ofgem from taking on new customers after repeated customer service failings. One customer reported being unable to contact the company to resolve an issue for three months.
The role of voice
While the development of automated solutions and artificial intelligence continues to gain momentum, the example of Iresa Energy indicates that voice and the telephone continue to have a role to play in customer services. Chatbots and virtual assistants might be capable of helping customers with pre-approved and pre-programmed solutions to their problems, but often customer problems are unique and require the reassurances of direct human intervention.
Being able to speak to an actual person can deliver instant peace of mind, while laying the foundations of a longer-term business-to-customer relationship. Reflecting this point, a recent report by Salesforce indicated that by 2020, 79% of business buyers will expect suppliers to have knowledge of their company. In addition, they would prefer to be remembered as an individual when they contact customer services.
Technology for softer skills
Technology does not, however, represent the end of traditional customer services. It can, in fact, serve to refocus and enhance the softer side of customer engagement. For instance, emerging solutions are streamlining and personalising the customer experience by using data to ensure they don’t have to repeat themselves every time they call. When a customer is made to reel off the same details and repeat their need to a representative, having queued to speak with someone, they’re going to have little patience left to build rapport. And safeguarding a productive relationship at this point could prove almost impossible.
Advances in technology mean that businesses can automatically assess each customer call to capture and analyse essential data and personalise subsequent communications. Aside from enabling a more personalised customer experience, businesses can analyse calls, good or bad, and use the insights to train customer services employees to provide customers with the best possible outcomes.
The best of both worlds
With the right customer services strategy, technology can offer businesses the best of all possible worlds, along with previously unimagined degrees of customer insight. Emerging technologies mean that a holistic approach to customer services is now both possible and increasingly essential. Having a great digital profile is important, but businesses with the edge can also engage technology to support the softer, more personal side of customer services.
With more competition and choice on offer today, customer loyalty is now fickler than ever. The key to securing loyalty lies in the cross-section of positive customers experiences and productive customer relationships – a merging of technical with great interpersonal skills. The playing field for building a rapport and establishing a relationship is now more open than ever, with a greater range of tools available to businesses. And with voice and the telephone now as important as any other. It’s as true today as it has ever been: customers sense they will be taken care of when they have someone to speak with on the other end of the line. And we know that to build a relationship relies on developing a personal connection, one that is far more difficult to achieve via email or instant message.
Neil Hammerton, CEO, Natterbox
Neil Hammerton, CEO and co-founder of Natterbox, and has been in IT for most of his working life. A serial entrepreneur, Neil began his career as a research laboratory apprentice with British Telecoms where he obtained an HND in electronics. The idea that became Natterbox occurred to him when he realised how poorly a big company he was working for dealt with incoming phone calls. Working with two co-founders, Neil launched Natterbox in 2010. Neil is passionate about the telecoms industry, technology and what Natterbox is helping its customers to achieve. He considers Natterbox the biggest success of his entrepreneurial career to date.