Photo by Justin Visser from FreeImages

The year is coming to a close. While the busy holiday season is still underway, it’s not too early to start working on resolutions for 2020.

One to consider: proactive customer service.

For businesses offering connected products (using the Internet of Things or IoT) and digital services, this would seem like an easy proposition. The always-on connected state of both offerings can monitor the current status and ongoing health. Consequently, the company can benefit from early warning signals if a product or service is heading towards a problem or has stopped operating entirely. Affected customers are typically subscribers (meaning the company has contact details) and can be alerted, customer service is notified (in case the customer contacts them), and engineering or technical teams can immediately begin working on a solution, potentially restoring service before the customer is aware of the issue.

But even companies that don’t offer IoT products or digital services can deliver proactive service. Consider these customer issues that might occur in any business:

  • An instruction manual is printed missing a step
  • A product fails under certain usage conditions
  • A widespread shipping or billing issue occurs

These issues range from inconvenient to aggravating for customers, and can quickly overwhelm customer service if every affected customer attempts to contact them.

Customer service doesn’t need to brace for the telephone calls in these circumstances. Instead, these are key opportunities to proactively notify customers of a problem and its solution, when available. A few things are necessary to make this possible.

Customer insights

Proactive service isn’t possible without some customer details. Regardless if they purchase direct, through a third-party sales channel, or customers register their products and services, customer information must be gathered for proactive service to be possible.

The products and services they own and use must be identified. In addition, any special usage conditions that might cause issues or breakage is needed. And, of course, a preferred method of contact is necessary. There may be other qualities worth identifying that can help with segmenting customers into similar customer groups.

Proactive opportunities

Chances are a customer having a problem is not alone. Look for case topics on the rise or already causing high volume. These scenarios are perfect candidates for proactive service efforts.

From the case information, examine the customer details of those that have been affected and determine:

  • Characteristics – is there anything unique to the customer or their use that causes them to be affected; and if so, what? (Also important: is there anything beyond the customer information you normally collect that you should start collecting in the future?)
  • Severity – what is the impact on the customer? Is it a minor annoyance or a major issue?
  • Likelihood – using the characteristics, what are the chances of customers encountering the issue?

Knowing the specific characteristics, if present, help to zero-in on only customers most likely to encounter the problem. Weighing severity and likelihood assist in prioritizing which topics necessitate a proactive response, whether the solution can be a workaround or requires a permanent solution, and which will have the greatest positive impact on customer experience (as well as address high volume, costly customer service requests).

Team problem solving

Recall the examples where proactive service might be used: a connected product or digital service is down, a misprinted instruction manual, a product failure, or shipping or billing errors. None of these problems originated in customer service and require assistance from another department to address.

Customer service must work cooperatively with the rest of the organization—engineering, manufacturing or product development, shipping, finance, and others—to identify a solution. A workaround may be necessary in the short-term, but that remains a poor customer experience and unneeded customer service work; eliminating the root cause–for example, correcting and reprinting the erroneous manual–is a permanent fix.

Solution delivery

Earlier, it was discussed how to use the characteristics of currently affected customers who had contacted customer service to determine the likely affected customers. With a small set of customers, it’s possible to communicate directly with them using email or telephone. If the problem is likely to affect a larger number or even all customers, telephone calls might not be realistic. Email and additional efforts, such as adding highly-visible messages to company and customer service web pages may be in order. Also consider playing a recorded message in the phone queue.

Does the solution require action by the customer in some fashion? Use self-service–knowledge base articles and chatbot responses, for example–on your website to provide remedial steps. In some situations, automation powered by workflow may be in order, allowing customers to easily make a request, such as product replacement. This decreases the effort and resolution time for the customer while allowing customer service to focus on other issues.

Resolve to be proactive

Customer service exists to respond to customer problems. Its nature is to be reactive. But that doesn’t mean customer service must wait for and be buried by calls, emails, and chats for known issues with solutions.

With knowledge of customers and the products and services they use and by monitoring trends in the contact center, companies have an opportunity to up-level their customer service. 2020 is the year: make the move to proactive service and deliver solutions to problems prior to customers experiencing them. Your customers will appreciate it.