In customer service, can technology ever replace the personal touch?

When you’re running a small business, quality control is the most critical aspect of management. Often, it’s also the fastest skill you’ll learn. The risk of alienating a profitable customer is compounded by the risk of a bad review. But happy customers essentially do your marketing for you.

In Understanding Customers by Ruby Newell-Legner, it’s stated that only 7% of unhappy customers will complain about bad service. But 91% of your unhappy customers will never use your business again. If more people complained, businesses that are losing those customers could have the opportunity to intervene and put things right.

When you’re running your own company, it’s very difficult to be objective when someone complains, but it’s critical that you can deal with complaints with a calm and proactive attitude. It follows that the most successful businesses have learned to encourage feedback, rather than suppress it.

Continuous Improvement

Maintaining high standards isn’t necessarily about being perfect all the time. Few small businesses can achieve that. But in putting mistakes right, you must aim for two key outcomes.

First, you need to solve the problem for the customer in question, without accusing them of creating the issue themselves. The best way to do this is to speak to them directly, rather than sending emails or using social media. Listening and talking are the two best weapons against escalating conflict in a customer service setting, and focusing on what they say is surprisingly effective.

Second, there’s an opportunity for continuous improvement here, and it’s an opportunity that some businesses miss. If you get your complaint handling procedure right, those complaints are transformed from an inconvenience into a driver of change.

Great Relationships

One mistake some companies make is to de-personalise their customer service channels too soon, disconnecting them from their most loyal customers. As a small business owner, be wary of unnecessary technology that has the potential to hinder you, rather than help.

For example, customers generally want to resolve things with a human that they can ask for by name. Chat bots, automation, and social media can take the sting out of these conversations, but there’s a reasonably good chance that serious complaints will be escalated to a human correspondent eventually anyway. By that stage, the complainant might have become significantly more frustrated than they were at the beginning of their complaint.

Technology can certainly help in preventing problems from arising in the first place; it helps you align teams, organise workflows more effectively, and ensure that orders never slip through the cracks. But when it comes to the crunch, customer service technology will only ever be a sticking plaster if the personal connection is lacking.

Staying Alive

Approximately half of all small businesses fail within their first 5 years. Many of these businesses are struggling with cashflow and bills, and don’t have the budget for big customer support departments. That needn’t be a barrier. On Small Business Saturday 2016, 46% of customers said they were deliberately shopping “small”, which will support those businesses most at risk.

If a business can retain customers that it spends so much in recruiting, it can give itself a far better chance of survival in the longer term. Technology plays a part in the customer service process, but it rarely offers the entire solution.

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