Traditionally, the customer service department has been labeled as a cost center, pushing organizations to work endlessly to shorten call times, streamline customer responses, and do as much as possible to reduce the cost of a seemingly never-ending monetary black hole. In doing this, though, all personalization of company-customer contact has been stripped from interactions, and as we’ve mentioned numerous times before, the time has come when that’s just not acceptable to the general public anymore.
Taking the steps to reconnect with your customer base can be tricky, though, when you’ve outsourced your customer response, but there are some strides you can make toward reconnecting without pulling your entire program in-house.
Transactional vs. Relational Customer Service
Customer service representatives are most often tasked with the responsibility of solving customer support issues and resolving complaints, and that’s all they’re asked to do. There’s no push to chat further with customers about pain points, ask them for additional feedback about the company and/or products, or even recommend products for future purchase. In this regard, customer service-based interaction is purely transactional – a customer requests help, their problem is resolved, and the case is closed.
While that tack is certainly effective – and a necessary part of any service and support strategy – there’s a higher level of interaction that an organization can participate in to further develop customer relationships. That type of interaction is what we call “relational customer service”, and it’s based in the idea that proactive interaction on a more human level will develop trust, and trust is what gets people talking about, recommending, and returning to brands.
Relational customer service can’t really be outsourced, though, because a deep understanding of an organization – its culture, business propositions, service and product offerings, and expertise – is needed to succeed in it. That depth of knowledge can’t be sent outside the walls of a company.
Making Room for Relational Customer Service
Your transactional customer service can still be outsourced without damage to your brand, but in addition to developing a thorough response guide and policy for your external customer response team, you must also create strategies for determining when a relationship should be taken in-house, and lay out how your internal teams will handle customer outreach on a relationship-based level.
Here are a few tidbits to consider when making room for relational customer service:
- Select a few in-house representatives to steward relationships from outsourced customer service channels to the proper internal groups. These people should have an eye toward customer service, be strong representatives of your brand, and come from a variety of departments within your organization. By creating a team to play these roles, you’ve created a sure path for communication and removed any possible confusion as to who should be responding. This is also a great way to start the culture shift necessary to make customer service a bigger part of your company culture.
- Establish what sorts of customer-initiated outreach requires contact from someone inside your company. Sit down with your customer-facing teams and create a comprehensive list of reasons your customers reach out to you, then bucket those reasons into transactional and relational categories. Not only will this exercise get you started developing a relational customer service strategy, it’ll provide perspective as to what sorts of information your customers are looking for and get you thinking about how you can fulfill additional needs of theirs.
- Consult with your executive team and find out if they want to be accessible to customers via online social or traditional communication channels. Some executives – like ours here at Radian6 – have an online presence that allows them to share expertise and talk with the community directly, but not all corporate cultures are (or will ever be) ready to have their C-Suite that connected to customers. If a few of your executives want to get involved on a more proactive, relationship-oriented level, and are willing to find the time to do so, work with them to target where and how their interaction will be most valuable.
The key to making a relational customer service program successful is establishing criteria for what are transactional and relational customer comments and inquiries, mapping how those comments and questions will be routed into your organization, and constructing an internal team that has the customer service chops and a true understanding of your brand to handle that direct customer interaction.
This is just the tip of the relational customer service iceberg, of course. Don’t be afraid to bring some of your customer interactivity back into the walls of your organization — the opportunity to build relationships through direct connection is huge, and it’s an increasingly important piece of the customer purchasing (and loyalty) puzzle.