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14 experts on the biggest customer service challenges faced by businesses today

customer service crm

Providing great customer service is a challenge for many businesses today.

Companies like Amazon and Zappos have raised in the bar in terms of what customers expect, and there are an increasing number of tools and technologies that businesses people can use to improve their support.

So, I asked 14 customer service and customer experience experts this question:

What's the biggest customer service challenges today's companies are facing and how can they overcome it?

Here's what they said:

1. Steve Curtin: customer enthusiast and author of Delight Your Customers

 Too many companies focus myopically on the infrastructure and technology to support voice of the customer (VOC), customer experience (CX), and enterprise feedback management (EFM) and neglect their greatest customer experience asset and feedback source: competent, customer-focused, and engaged employees who are both capable and inspired to consistently provide superior customer service.

A majority of companies employ capable workers who possess adequate job knowledge and demonstrate sufficient job skill. These employees know WHAT to do and HOW to do it.

Where most companies fail (and where the consistency of customer service quality routinely breaks down) is they stop there, assuming that employees are now equipped to consistently provide exceptional customer service.

How can they overcome this challenge?

What these companies overlook is the need to define and share the organisation’s purpose, which informs employees about their highest priority at work.

Employees need to know WHY they are doing WHAT they are doing HOW they are doing it.

Instead of just being given something to work ON (duties and tasks), employees must be given something to work TOWARD (purpose).

The result is a workforce that is not only capable of providing superior customer service, but inspired to do so consistently.

2. Kate Nasser: The People Skills Coach™ 

 For most companies, the biggest customer service challenge today is meeting diverse customer expectations in public on diverse channels – email, live chat, telephone, face-to-face, and social media.

If you think far back in history, interactions with customers were local, one-to-one, and face-to-face, advances in travel brought diverse customers to businesses and companies then had to meet more diverse expectations. Telephone introduced the challenge of understanding people without seeing them.

Email brought the challenge of understanding emotions and communicating well with no tone of voice. Now with social media, companies face all those challenges with the extra pressure of doing it in front of the world.

To meet this challenge:

  • Hire staff who love to serve others. Then give them training on how to deal with difficult moments. I can help you with this!

  • Give staff permission to use their talents and skills. Staff who can only escalate requests can't serve.

  • Respond to customers in a timely manner. Late responses tell customers you don't care.

  • Create irresistible customer experience moments – positive and easy. The easier and more positive you make it for customers, the greater your success.

  • Be flexible! An innovative can-do approach and attitude beats procedures/process every time.

3. Martin Hill-Wilson: customer engagement, digital business strategist and author

 The degree of change that all service operations are facing is unprecedented.

It is clear that choice, availability, responsiveness and personalisation are all pretty much engrained in customer expectations.

Yet few service organisations have delivered the corresponding responses in terms of omni-channel, 24x7, real time and tailored customer journeys.

Budget allocation, business cases and ability to change at speed are still holding back the mainstream. A few are finding the real start point is about changing mind-sets and behaviours in the first instance.

As has been said before in many other contexts, 'you have to be digital to do digital'. This costs nothing apart from the willingness to leave behind familiar ways and learn new habits. The real challenge right now is us.

4. Shep Hyken: New York Times best-selling author of The Amazement Revolution

 The customer’s expectations are changing. They are smarter and demand a level of service that is no longer compared to your competitor, but to any good customer service provider.

In other words, you may be in manufacturing, but you are being compared to the great experience your customer had with the restaurant they ate at last week, or the hotel they stayed at on their last business trip.

So, the first challenge is to meet the every changing and demanding expectations of the customer.

Another big challenge is technology:

Are you keeping up?

Do you connect through channels other than the traditional phone support?

Customers are enjoying “self-service” solutions that go beyond a website with a list of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions).

Customers want information fast, which is why they like instant chat, videos, and other solutions that help them get the answers they need without the hassle of calling a company and being put on hold while waiting for a CSR rep.

The challenge is knowing what’s right for your customer and your industry.

5. Adrian Swinscoe: customer service expert for small and large businesses

 1. Many companies are still struggling to achieve a single view of the customer Customers are walking into stores, placing orders online, calling companies when they have a difficult problem, self-serving and interacting with firms via the web and social media.

In their minds they are having ‘one’ conversation albeit across multiple channels with one organisation.

The challenge for firms is to integrate all of these conversations into one system, integrate that with order and account history as well as equipping staff with the right tools, training and authority to be able to deal with every and any customer problem or question that comes their way.

Companies know this, customers expect this but yet many firms are still struggling to pull this off.

One of the main reasons is that many firms are attempting wholesale and complete transformation and encounter too many problems along the way with legacy systems, culture, management style, staff skills etc etc.

However, perhaps firms should try to go slower in order to go faster and further in their efforts and start with a ‘pilot’ approach in one or two areas of their business where they can trial, test and learn from a new approach, adjust and then scale one they have it right.

2. Re-evaluating the role and value of customer facing staff If we assume the above challenge is right then there is an additional challenge that comes out of that and that is how we recruit, organise, train and reward our customer facing staff.

In many organisations, retaining an organisational structure that is very silo based, is very focused on risk minimisation and limits the autonomy and responsibility of staff acts as a real hindrance to delivering then sort of service and experience that organisations want to deliver.

BT and Avaya in a recent report: SuperAgent 2020: The Evolution of the Contact Centre stated that:

“The primary function of the Contact Centre will be largely complex problem solving because products and services are becoming more complicated and more customers are using web, social and mobile self-service to do the simple, transactional stuff."

This type of 2020 scenario doesn’t seem to be the domain of employees that are paid, on average, 30 percent below the average UK salary.

Isn’t it time that we re-evaluated the role of customer facing staff, for us to give these roles the appropriate level of respect and value that they deserve and then recruit the right people, equip them with the right skills and tools and reward them well?

Many companies want to be customer-centric, but few actually plan or provide for that. They are challenged by viewing customer service as a purely reactive exercise.

Organisations focus on putting out fires instead of never creating them in the first place.

6. Jeannie Walters : Founder and CEO of 360 Connext

 The best companies see proactive customer service as an important function in their organisation.

Having a customer experience mission is a key part of this. Ordinary mission statements saying things like "to be the best" aren't directing everybody in the organisation with how to delivery exceptional service to customers.

The well-known service leaders have missions that see serving customers as part of their core mission. Zappos and Southwest Airlines missions, for example, don't dwell on products or shareholders at all.

They both focus on providing service to customers.

If an organisation doesn't share this sort of focus, customer service will always remain an afterthought.

Service reps will be left to clean up very big messes again and again. And organisations will never stand out as being customer-centric.

7. Bob Thompson: CEO of CustomerThink and founder/editor-in-chief of CustomerThink.com

 I think a big challenge for customer service is making sure it’s an integrated part of the end-to-end customer experience. Customers don’t like to repeat themselves.

When an interaction starts on the web or an IVR and then transfers to a live agent, don’t require the customer to start from scratch.

Unfortunately, my research finds that about 80% of companies suffer from this “touchpoint amnesia” – forgetting customer information during a multi-touch experience.

The right technology can help, either by using one platform or through integration. However, it’s not just a tech issue.

Most large organisations also find customer-centricity hampered by a lack of cooperation across organisation silos.

Each department or function does its own job but sometimes treats one customer differently in marketing, sales, purchasing, and service.

Senior leadership, sometimes with the aid of a chief customer or experience officer, can help foster better collaboration and an improved total customer experience.

8. Alan See: AMA content marketer of the year and Forbes most influential CMO on social media

 Customer service is about human interaction and solving problems. Often times under very stressful situations.

CSRs are usually under pressure to quickly solve the case which can make empathic interaction a challenge. But, empathy is number one. To be able to understand the emotional issues impacting the customers experience.

An additional challenge to ensuring that you have high-quality interactions with customers is in the area of empowerment.

If you want your people to act like it’s their business, make it their business. Empowering your CSR staff will lead to them never losing a customer over a stupid rule.

9. Robert Bacall: author, customer service consultant and trainer

 The biggest challenge lies with conquering the mindset of trying to drive customer service costs down, particularly using technology.

If the desire is to "win" the customer service wars in a niche (and to profit from the victory), the winners will be those who hire enough PEOPLE, amd train those people properly, recouping those costs through improved sales, lower customer acquisition costs, and better retention.

People CRAVE human contact. The winners will be those who build relationships, even if the process has short term financial hits.

10. Mike Wittenstein: Customer experience expert, business speaker, and interim CXO

 Let's look at this question from the end and work back toward the beginning.

Assume that a problem has been overcome. That creates requirement for success #4: the ability to implement a desired change.

Going backwards one more step lands on #3: having a clear picture of the change you want.

Stepping back one more time gets to #2: finding the sweet spot between what customers truly want and what the business can deliver authentically well.

Finally, we arrive at #1. Its requirement for success are being able to listen to customers accurately and having the corporate will to do so.

In my humble opinion, the biggest challenge is #1 – getting the organisation to truly listen to what customers want and act on it.

Many brands I've worked with (successfully) have a predisposition to use ROI (return on investment) which is biased toward doing things the way that's best for the company – not necessarily best for the customer.

As a result, many cool ideas don't make it pass the first consideration cut because they don't meet a back-of-the-napkin ROI threshold.

That's too bad because I've seen data that shows many customers (especially those of commodity brands) truly want the businesses that serve them to do so differently.

There's lots of opportunity. The first challenge to overcome is to provide inside innovators with the latitude to listen to their customers' needs –then to do something about it!

The techniques to overcome this first challenge are proven and pretty straightforward.

  • Use internal incentives for coming up with ideas, carefully defining ideas, and getting them implemented (use multiple incentives if you want more work done)

  • Set up an incubator or innovation center (older people would call it a skunkworks or tinkerer's garage) that allows the company to try out new ideas without running them through the typical chain of command (and that super stubborn ROI process)

  • Encourage top execs to set examples by publicly clearing the way (through organisational bureaucracy) to get several projects done–then leaving the path (you can call it a faster innovation adoption infrastructure if you prefer more words) in place for others to use afterwards.

11. John Ragsdale: vice-president of technology and social research for the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA)

 TSIA surveys members about top business challenges, and we categorise all of our member inquiries to track which business challenges are generating the most questions.

While there are some interesting strategic and technical issues on the list of “what’s keeping people up at night,” including knowledge management and the retiring workforce, shifting service operations from supporting on premise to cloud technology, optimising renewals, and improving adoption of self-service, the number one challenge by far remains a more tactical problem: understanding key performance indicators (KPIs) for support services.

One of the key values of TSIA membership is benchmarking.

We track hundreds of operational and financial metrics from our members, show them how they compare to their industry peers, and provide guidance on how to improve problem areas.

Understanding which metrics to track, how to calculate them, what ‘best practice’ ranges are for the metrics, and how to move them, continues to be the #1 issue technology support operations are dealing with.

There are a number of underlying problems here.

Though metrics such as response time, resolution time, first contact resolution rate, operating margins and retention rates are common to all support operations, there aren’t any recognised standard definitions.

Most support managers were promoted because they were good support technicians, and as I experienced early in my career, there isn’t always much training provided to new managers on the science of support and the metrics involved.

Add to that the challenge that most technology companies have rapidly grown through acquisition and mergers, and information required for metric calculations may be spread across a dozen or more systems.

In my conversations with support executives about service technology, CRM remains a hot topic.

Not only picking the right solution, but also how to increase adoption by employees, how to standardise processes and data capture across global enterprises, and how to optimise reporting to automate metrics programs.

Having a good metrics program in place is critical to calculating ROI for any new technology purchase, and unfortunately, many companies don’t have a strong enough understanding of “before” metrics to accurately calculate the business impact of new processes or tools.

Here are some high-level guidelines to better understanding of support metrics and improving a metrics program:

  • Understand industry standard metrics, and how they inter-relate. For example, improving first contact resolution will impact talk time, resolution time, hold time, and abandon rates.

  • Don’t run a metrics program in a vacuum. Benchmarking your metrics performance is critical. We typically see companies beating themselves up to improve a metric, when they are already above the industry average, while ignoring metrics that are far behind their peers.

  • Consolidate systems for metrics tracking. Moving from a dozen CRM instances to one will not happen overnight, but companies must be more aggressive in standardising on a single platform and migrating outlying data one system at a time. This streamlines reporting, improves accuracy, and obviously reduces operational costs.

12. Richard Sharpiro: president of The Center For Client Retention

 Services and products have become commoditised. Competition is stiff and companies like Amazon are consistently reinventing ways to provide better and faster service.

When consumers evaluate your company’s service delivery, they are thinking how quickly and easily it was to do business with the Amazons or Zappos of the world even if those businesses are not direct competitors.

The companies that can deliver personalised service will be able to create and build relationships to positively impact bottom line revenues and profitability.

Organisations can meet these new challenges by employing technology used to enhance, not diminish that relationship.

Make sure any features added make it easier for the customer to do business and help provide a more customised experience.

Training and coaching for representatives must include teaching them to be welcoming, listening to underlying emotions, as well as what the customer is saying, and leaving the customer with the feeling that the company cares about them as an individual.

The right technology, coupled with the human-to-human touch, is a winning strategy.

13. Kent Huffman: B2C marketer and change agent

 There is an ever-greater emphasis on improving the customer experience as competition intensifies, margins shrink, and buyers more actively compare suppliers.

In this digital and social age we now live in, based on their last interaction, your customers are probably sharing how your company treated them—positively, negatively, or indifferently.

Instead of just meeting, talking about, and guessing what the customer experience is, make it a point to experience being your customer, so you can better understand your customer experience.

You may be delighted or disappointed with the results, but either way, you’ll be a much more effective champion for the voice of the customer within your organisation.

14. Annette Franz: customer experience expert at CX Journey

 I think the biggest customer experience challenge organisations face today is getting executive buy-in.

Without company leadership committed to changing the culture and changing the company's focus to make both the customer and the employee experience priorities, there's no moving forward.

Companies might have localised or departmentalised efforts, but those will be silo'd efforts that translate to silo'd experiences for the customer. Without executive commitment, you'll never get resources - human, capital, or other - to execute on your customer experience strategy.

The most effective way to get executive buy-in is to build the business case. Identify your objectives and then align the outcomes and benefits tied to each. Clearly, the stronger the business case, the better.

Your outcomes may be customer retention, account growth, new business through referrals, culture change, etc.

Benefits might include cost savings and other efficiencies. Communicate objectives, outcomes, and benefits to gain buy-in.

To support the business case, show some quick wins, which can be achieved through service or account recovery examples or by listening to customers at a specific touchpoint, making improvements, and showing ROI.

To help build your case, focus on what's important to the customer as well as to the business; use a critical touch-point or moment of truth as your stepping stone.

Providing world-class customer service with CRM

Providing great customer service means never letting a customer down, and according to these experts it's more important than ever. Great service is what today's customers expect, and it's the key to building lasting relationships that will help grow your business.

If you'd like to learn more about how a CRM solution can help you, check out 5 must-read reasons why CRM enables better customer service.

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