We know that consumers are more connected to each other than ever before. That’s pretty much the story of the digital age: we can reach anyone, at any time, from anywhere.
But consumers are not just more connected to their friends and family — they’re also more connected to companies. And that means their expectations for a consumer-company relationship is different than it was before the digital age.
People view brands more and more holistically in today’s day and age. “Consumers increasingly view brands and companies as if they are human – they judge them by their purpose and personalities, ethics and behaviors – as much, if not more than minimal expectations for product quality,” CEO and author Peter Fisk wrote in 2017, neatly synthesizing the latest brand research.
Customer support is an overlooked part of that brand purpose and behavior that consumers nowadays look for from companies. Support needs to respond to a world where customers view brands as an extension of themselves and their network.
Customer support as PR
Say there are two companies you are looking at for booking a flight, a new accounting system, or a new pair of shoes. Before you purchase, you go to check:
- Social media
- Review sites
- Company policies and web support
A purchase decision is now made within a network. The consumer will look at brand presence, consumer sentiment, and comparison-shop, especially for e-commerce.
And when that customer finds a flood of complaints, people @-mentioning brands with complaints, hard-to-navigate help pages or worrying FAQs, they’re not going to purchase.
A quick poke into United Airline’s “tweets and responses” pulled up a number of complaints, including this specific exchange about their mobile app:
If I weren’t worried about United’s mobile app, I am now. And their response is worrying as well — the customer support that happens on social is vitally important, as it is one of the most powerful ways that shoppers see brands behaving.
There’s another consideration to considering customer support as PR as well.
When customers reach out to companies to complain on social media, it’s rarely their first stop on the journey. Most consumers aren’t there to blindly lash out — they’ve tried to get a problem solved and have made no headway, or feel that the immediate nature of social media is most likely to get them a fast response.
Offering quick support channels, like live chat for support, can keep complaints off of social, because they mimic what users want out of social (fast responses, easy on mobile, text vs. call). Then when a customer needs help, they don’t have to @-mention a brand on social to try and get the help they need.
Customer support as branding
As brands become more and more integrated into our personal networks, consumers have become more interested in seeing those brands take on the same values that they have. Research has shown that “brands and consumer goods have the potential to reflect various societal values and ideologies […] and brands are increasingly aligning themselves with various beliefs and issues, and consumers appear to desire this quality in brands.”
Economic crises and corporate missteps have left people with a bad taste in their mouths when it comes to corporations, the Financial Times reported in 2015. People increasingly don’t want to feel like they’re being targeted by a slimy corporate scheme.
That’s why brands that have started putting consumer concerns first — which could be anything from committing to an eco-friendly manufacturing process or subsidizing employee education (think: Starbucks College Achievement Plan), it also includes customer support and “people first” branding.
That’s because making it loud and clear that customer support is first says I care about my customers and their success, rather than buy more to help my corporate bottom line!
Take major players like Costco and Zappos: they have succeeded because of their relentless push to make customer service the cornerstone of their brand, according to Forbes. It is literally the first thing in Zappos’ mission statement:
Good customer support, and an emphasis for your brand on customer support is showing customers the values they want to see. This builds trust, goodwill, and brand advocacy:
- Emphasize understanding. When a customer comes to you with a problem, even if it seems trivial, it’s important to validate their experience. Simply letting a customer know that you understand their frustration can be a big way to show you care.
- Make things easy. A while ago, we went on a search to find the live chat help option from Apple. It took us minutes to get there, and we were redirected time after time. Whatever support methods you offer, make them accessible. Give an email box on your website instead of just an email address, and add mobile-friendly options.
- Be personal. People want to receive personalized interactions from support — it underscores that you’re thinking about them as a person, not just a number on a support ticket.
Excellent customer service is a tangible, accessible way for customers to believe that you’re on their side.
Customer support as CX
Customer experience was easy when things were brick and mortar. Someone would walk into a store, hear the store music, be greeted, and take in the experience of shopping with a brand physically. Even if you were selling something intangible, like a travel agency, customers could still go in and see your physical space and talk to a person face-to-face.
The digital age of customer experience means thinking beyond all of that. Brands need to understand that customer experience now must include every single time a customer sees or interacts with a brand. The social channels, the website choices, the email headers — every time a company is shaping the way a user sees them is CX in the digital world.
This intensive — and necessary — definition of brand experience means that support is a big part of shaping CX:
- How you integrate customer support into a customer journey is critical. Where on a purchase journey does a customer see an option for support? Do you have extensive help documentation or a video library? How quickly can a customer find your phone number?
- Which methods you put forward are hugely important for a good customer experience. Older people, for example, may prefer to talk on the phone, but millennials and Gen Z may prefer a live chat experience to calling. Who is your target audience, and what will work best for them?
- How you brand your customer support, e.g., internal chat guidelines, canned responses, graphics, policies on emoji usage, phone scripts, are all part of customer experience now, especially because things like live chat are directly embedded into the customer’s shopping experience.
Now that brands and shopping are seemingly available 24/7 on the internet, and customers can integrate any number of extra steps into their purchasing journey, being extra sensitive to customer support as an avenue of CX is best practice. Place live chat options at checkout, where customers are likely to churn if they have a question. Think of support online the same way you would think of a salesperson in a store.
CX grows ever bigger
As our connectivity grows and brands behave more and more “human” online, customer experience is going to continue to balloon. All those Instagram comments and brand partnerships, website updates, software updates, and support tickets come together to create a larger notion of a company, one that affects purchase.