Getting and Holding the High Ground: Proactive Customer Service

Lori Carr BlogReacting promptly and effectively to customer service requests is a performance baseline, but forecasting and responding to customer expectations proactively is an entirely different endeavor. A critical piece of that endeavor is preventing service problems before they occur by proactively eliminating customer dissatisfiers—as well as the burdensome cost of the services that those dissatisfiers incur.

Over my 25 years in customer experience, I confess that few things have perplexed me more than when companies demonstrate limited focus and accountability with what I consider to be “key leadership priorities” related to anticipating customer needs: that is, responding to those external issues proactively AND preventing the internal company issues that repeatedly dissatisfy customers and drive service costs up.

You simply can’t build trusting relationships and long-term loyalty if you’re ticking customers off because your company hasn’t prioritized fixing the problems that affect them. Along with mounting customer dissatisfaction, the resulting artificially generated service demand needlessly inflates service costs in the form of phone calls, emails, chat sessions, complaints (e.g., about incorrect billing), and more. (As a problem-solving example, AT&T used SundaySky’s SmartVideo to deliver uniquely personalized bills, resulting in reduced inquiries after the billing cycle.)

A truly exceptional customer experience happens when a company demonstrates the ability to anticipate issues and provide solutions of value BEFORE customers reach out—serving them in a proactive manner. Consider these survey findings: nearly 75% of customers say that a proactive call resulted in a positive change in their perception of that business, and nearly 90% of customers say they want to be contacted.

Advantages of Proactive Customer Service

  • Builds better overall customer experiences and positive customer relationships
  • Enables customers to get the most value from your products and services
  • Shows customers that you value them and that you’re a great company “on top of your business”
  • Increases customer engagement, satisfaction, brand loyalty, and retention
  • Uncovers opportunities to cross-sell or up-sell products
  • Increases employee engagement

Approaches to Proactive Customer Service

Lori Carr BlogThe approaches best used to proactively serve customers depend on their individual needs and, to a degree, on the way they are segmented. Some customers have not exploited the full value of the products and services they’ve already purchased; others have maximized that value and are ready to buy more. Opportunities to provide better experiences, to increase value, or to cross- and up-sell will be uncovered through proactive service.

While you’ll offer self-service or online chat options to all customers, you’ll likely conduct quarterly visits with only a few (your enterprise customers primarily). Regardless of your chosen approach, investigation and research are essential: learn what customers want, and learn what successful companies do to serve before being asked.

Examples of proactive service approaches include:

  • Using “big data” to identify customers’ specific wants and needs, then providing customized solutions individually
  • Nurturing relationships by placing your staff at customer sites (even briefly) to achieve specific customer goals, and conducting quarterly site visits or monthly progress calls
  • Offering monthly best practice webinars with actual customer case studies (a highly valuable opportunity for customers to learn from each other)
  • Providing continuous, customized online training based on customer needs
  • Providing proactive online chat options
  • Setting up comprehensive, logical, and intuitive self-service options such as a best practices portal and an easy-to-navigate knowledge base
  • Customizing marketing outreach to grow relationships with current customers
  • Enacting immediate customer outreach when a mistake is made or a problem arises with a product or service

Jeb Dasteel, Senior Vice President and Chief Customer Officer for Oracle since 1998, exemplifies a proactive attitude toward customer experience. At the 2014 CXPA Insight Exchange kick-off, he was lauded as “someone taking the customer experience to the next level and leveraging the power of the brand.” Asking a fundamental question—“Of all the things we’ve done, which has made the biggest difference in driving a productive, loyal relationship with our customers?”—Dasteel has found answers with important implications for increasing customer retention.

Lori Carr BlogAs noted earlier, a key aspect of proactive customer service is preventive service: the ability to understand and resolve customer issues before they occur, thereby avoiding negative customer experiences. Great places to look for potential preventive service issues are in customer complaints, voice of the customer data, and the experiences of your frontline staff.

Frontline staff are wise to the types of preventable customer inquiries they handle each day, and they often question why their company isn’t taking initiative to resolve problems at their root so customers won’t need to call in about billing errors or confusion, product malfunctions, software glitches, infinite-loop phone trees…the list goes on. (For more on this topic, see my earlier article, “Exceptional Service for Current Customers.”)

Advantages of Preventive Customer Service

  • Eliminates root cause dissatisfiers, which reduces customer frustration
  • Reduces customer resentment and public griping—both word of mouth and “word of mouse”—that impact company reputation
  • Reduces service costs by addressing issues within the company that drive unnecessary inquiries (e.g., if handling customer inquiries costs $10 per inquiry and 50,000 inquiries are handled per year, reducing inquiries by 10% will save $50,000 annually)
  • Increases customer satisfaction, retention, and brand reputation

An Approach to Preventive Customer Service

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”—especially when it comes to customers. There are many misconceptions about why customers leave; I’d like to emphasize that many causes of poor service (and ultimately, churn) have nothing to do with the customer service department. The truth is, delivering service excellence is a highly interdependent endeavor involving just about every department in a company.

Although service representatives (and often sales associates) are on the front line, your customers’ problems—and their potential dissatisfactions—often originate elsewhere. For example, customer experience breakdowns can stem from interdepartmental miscommunication, or from faulty or outdated processes, systems, policies, and technology, or from a lack of performance accountability.

I recommend launching a Customer Dissatisfaction Disruption Campaign to identify and permanently eliminate the dissatisfiers lurking within your company. To succeed, this effort requires cross-functional leadership and defined objectives, supported by roadmaps with assigned responsibilities and financial resources. The customer officer or a dedicated project leader, reporting directly to the CEO, is the best choice to spearhead this cross-company collaboration.

Proactive + Preventive = Exceptional Customer Experiences

Whether you are proacting or preventing, establishing and maintaining this level of focus on optimizing customer experience will take you to the competitive high ground and help you stay there.

Stay tuned weekly as I delve more deeply into the remaining best practices for higher customer retention identified in Mend the Holes in Your Leaky Bucket. This 10-article series will give you valuable insights and guidance as you plan, develop, and implement your own customer retention strategy.

Ready to move forward more quickly? Interested in personal assistance? Let’s chat. Please sign up for my complimentary one-hour Customer Insight Strategy Session by calling our office at 617.848.4589 or emailing [email protected].

Lori Carr is a customer experience pioneer and expert. Working with Fortune 500 companies for the past 25 years, she helps popular brands and emerging brands to dramatically increase retention, loyalty, and profitable revenues.