Last week I attended a roundtable about customer service hosted by Foviance to mark the UK’s National Complaints Day. 

A recurring theme was how customer service is often overlooked by those in the digital sector, despite being an area which permeates so many parts of an organisation. 

Consequently, I began thinking about how companies need to identify and implement different areas of customer service.

As customer service continues to shift online, the traditional models of delivery are being replaced by a wider variety of channels and touch-points.

This is having an impact on who is responsible for the daily management of digital customer services. Is it marketing, offline customer service, sales or PR? 

The ability to respond online means that any department or individual within a company can potentially be responsible, from frontline staff to the CEO. It is becoming increasingly apparent that customer service needs to be considered holistically, within the framework of an inter-departmental strategy which covers both online and offline channels. 

Getting this right can potentially be enormously beneficial to an organisation, as it can create highly positive sentiment and good PR, as well as generating financial ROI through customer retention and acquisition. 

However, failing to run effective customer services can result in poor business performance and negative feeling towards an organisation, both of which are damaging in the long run. 

But how can you identify where customer services should fit into your company structure and how do you develop a strategy that will work? 

As with any strategy, the foundations for success are based on good planning and a focus on business objectives, instead of just picking the most appealing options. The impact on business operations and performance should not be under-estimated. 

In his own blog post about the roundtable, Guy Stephens (who hosted the event) talks about how social media and smartphones are becoming “the catalysts for business change”.  

Social media is a customer service channel which is currently the subject of much discussion, with a great deal of information surrounding this particular area.

But it’s not just about social media. As well as forums and reviews, online customer service also encompasses site search, intelligent FAQs and live or virtual chat. 

The following points should hopefully provide some pointers for integrating customer services into your organisation. 

What is your current customer service culture? 

How does customer service fit into your organisation? Have you already got an established history of trying to provide exceptional customer support, always going the extra mile (benchmark yourselves against the likes of Zappos) or bending over backwards to help both potential and current customers? 

This is important. If you’ve already got a strong emphasis on providing the best support to your customers, then it’s likely your organisation will already have a strong structure in place that can be harnessed further.  

Are your goals for customer service in line with your overall business objectives? 

Customer service isn’t necessarily about creating a tangible financial return. Although it can work as a supplementary sales channel, it can also be used to create warm, fuzzy feelings and a sense of loyalty among your customer base. 

It is important to define your customer service goals and strategies, before looking towards the best channels to implement them. Equally, internal policies need to be formed, with all employees trained in the relevant processes.  

Following on from this, who in your company is championing customer support? What departments are currently responsible for maintaining online and offline service channels? Does your approach need to be realigned or streamlined? There is a fine line between delivering enough levels of service and overwhelming customers with too many options.

Also, think about whether you might be providing services that are too expensive and resource-heavy to contribute positive value to the organisation.

Where are your customers and what are they doing online? 

Social media is great for delivering customer service, but if your core demographics aren’t using sites such as Twitter, then other online options should be considered, such as official forums (also great for improving SEO visibility), online chat or on-site intelligent FAQs.  

Can you keep customer service universal? 

Providing great customer service isn’t just the responsibility of a single department. Overall, even if there is a specific service division (online or offline), delivering exceptional service falls to every individual employee. Company-wide, everyone needs to understand how to identify issues before they escalate, be able to communicate problems to the relevant departments and understand that it’s often better to lose a customer, but give a good experience than convert through a bad one. 

Even if staff don’t work directly in customer-facing roles, if common objectives are understood, then these can be achieved, rather than creating internal conflicts.

Customer services starts and ends with employees. If they don’t understand its importance then you are facing an uphill battle. 

[Image credit: HikingArtist]