I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of customer service recently. Two trends – social media and mobile device technologies — have lots of business leaders thinking along the same lines. As a recent article in McKinsey Quarterly notes, these two technologies are giving companies unprecedented access to data on customer interactions, while changing the interactions themselves—for example, by amplifying the speed and impact of customer complaints. The authors urge the idea of focusing on the human side of customer service, which can lower costs by 10%, according to McKinsey, and improve customer satisfaction by up to 30%.

So, with some inspiration from a BlackBerry video I saw the other day on YouTube, I cooked up a future customer service scenario of my own that embeds several customer service components that we’re starting to see today but will definitely be common in the next few years. Here goes:

“Joe” just got a cool new “3D projection entertainer”. But when the excitement of unpacking and opening subsided, he can’t get it to work. He is perplexed by some error code and message. Frustrated, he pulls out his mobile communicator, snaps a picture, uploads it to the Net and his social circle, and asks for help.

He quickly hears back from friends and acquaintances, who help lighten up his mood and recommend some approaches. He also hears from fans of his particular device, who offer advice but none seems to work. Within a few minutes, he also receives an email from the manufacturer with additional suggested solutions. But alas, they also fail to get the device to show anything. Joe quickly added a follow-on comment indicating that everything suggested has not work. With real-time analytics, a service rep at a contact center notices the buzz on Joe’s problem and chimes in, apologizing and asking if she can be of assistance. They quickly have a video chat where the rep helps Joe link up the device to his mobile communicator so that she can run a remote diagnostic.

The diagnostic determines that the device has a defective part should be replaced. She asks Joe if he prefer to bring the entertainer back to the store (where he bought it) or have a replacement deliver to him the next day. Joe responds that he wants to bring it back to the store. The rep then sends the replacement order to the store and places a hold on a replacement unit for him to pick up. Within an hour of his request for help, Joe is happily opening a new entertainer box. And unlike the first one, this one just works when he turns it on (as it should). The following day, the same rep calls back to check if everything is working with the replacement unit. She also offers Joe a substantial discount (to be used anytime) on wireless speakers as a way to make up for the “less-than-stellar” experience with entertainer.

This scenario provides an illustration of many of the components I see coming into play in the future of customer service:

  • Smart integration of new (e.g. social media) and traditional (e.g. phone, emails)
  • Pervasive knowledge for self-service
  • Social knowledge and crowd-sourcing
  • Mobile technologies
  • Proactive customer service powers by real-time analytics
  • Appeal to human emotions

These components warrant additional discussion that I’ll cover them all in more detail in a follow-up post. I’m sure many of them sound familiar, but over the next few years, I believe they will converge and evolve to elevate customer service as we know it today. As Peter Drucker said, ‘I never predict,’ he said, ‘I just look out of the window and see what is visible but not yet seen.’

What are your predictions for customer service? Will it be unrecognizable, or are you starting to see the future today? Please share your stories and ideas with us.