People who are old enough to remember life before the Internet tend to view the wiring of the workplace as the most consequential commercial evolution since assembly lines, and it certainly did change everything, including the way companies handle customer service. But the workplace has kept right on evolving in ways large and small, and several major developments in how businesses deliver customer service to their business customers haven’t received the attention they deserve. One of the most underrated evolutions in B2B customer service is the transformation of customer support itself from a cost center to a profit center – and on a fundamental level, it’s driven by horizontal integration.
To put this evolution in the proper context, it’s helpful to step back a moment and appreciate how dramatically the customer support function has changed over the past 10 to15 years. Much of the change has been driven by technology advances. For example, customer service contacts a decade and a half ago took place almost exclusively via phone or email. Today, many customers get help via chat or by accessing a customer service portal that provides rich media resources like instructional videos as well as advanced FAQs. Rather than accessing support in a vertical structure with knowledge flowing from the top down, customers have a number of other choices.
Another change is in the perception of the “self-service” concept, which used to be widely derided as an admission of failure to provide adequate customer support. Today, with people accustomed to turning to Google for answers to almost any question, customers welcome the idea of a searchable knowledge base they can use to get solutions quickly – as one of many support options. Peer-to-peer support is also increasingly popular, and today, more businesses are providing forums where customers can talk to each other about the products they use. That concept is making inroads into the B2B realm and is another manifestation of horizontal integration – customers receiving support from multiple sources.
In addition to the technology advances that are driving the evolution in customer support, an increased emphasis on collaboration is another critical factor in modern customer service delivery. This is particularly true in the B2B environment, where it’s important to manage the entire relationship rather than focusing on resolving individual tickets. The companies that are most successful in delivering support have horizontally integrated the function within the organization, providing platforms that enable cross-departmental collaboration, eliminate data and knowledge silos and allow individuals to access the collective wisdom of the team.
In a horizontally integrated customer support organization, not only are problems solved correctly the first time the customer contacts the team, the lessons customer support learns about customer pain points and product pitfalls are shared more widely, which results in better development and product road-mapping. This process is accelerated by another trend that has driven the evolution in customer support – the shift from large capital purchases of installed software to a subscription-based SaaS model.
With a SaaS solution, there’s typically no onsite deployment and process integration team; the customer subscribes to the service and accesses it via the cloud, with the software provider handling upgrades and patches remotely. That’s good news for subscribers, but it also means the customer support team handles all issues as the primary contact. This trend puts the onus on the support team to provide answers to customers and makes a collaborative approach – and closer integration with the sales team – more important than ever.
As a result of these changes, C-suite perceptions of customer support are also shifting in a positive way, especially on the B2B side: Instead of viewing the customer support operation as a money pit, more CEOs are seeing it as a profit center, a key advantage that differentiates the company in the marketplace and informs every facet of operations from product development to sales. This too reflects the horizontal integration of customer support. It’s a truism in development that the closer coders are to users, the better the product. Flatter organizations and integrated support strategies tend to bring users and coders together, and that may be the most significant B2B customer service evolution of all.