While Automated, Electronic Customer Service 'Voices' are Getting Better, some Brands are Missing a Bigger Opportunity.

Companies around the world continue moving customer service to automated systems to cut costs. But in doing so, they may be damaging their brands instead of helping them. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlights the recent moves to shift these automated voices from “cold to homey”.

In some business categories, customer service is the critical touch point where the brand is actualized. While marketers have been focused on advertising and other traditional marketing tools to define brands, it may well be that customer service is the one place where a company has control of shaping the brand in a tangible and powerful way. The service interaction is an enormous opportunity to build the customer relationship with the brand and engender deeper loyalty and advocacy.

How many times have you been frustrated by confusing automated menus, circular information paths, and ultimately a frustrating waste of time. There is a lot of data to support that customers seeking service try very hard to find the fastest path to a live representative. But companies are trying to make it difficult to do this because to the cost of human time – estimated to be $3 – $9 per call. Perhaps they are looking at the issue from the wrong perspective.

Since the 1960’s, it’s fair to say that in most categories, products and services have become commoditized, meaning that differentiation has become extremely difficult. So products essentially look and smell the same. And it is very hard to win on price or product characteristics alone. The result has been that customer experience management, and specifically customer service, have become an important brand-defining element. A 2009 study of over 860 corporate executives indicated that companies that increased their investment in customer experience management over the past three years report higher customer referral rates and customer satisfaction (Strativity Group, 2009).

While smart companies have been thinking about the ‘customer experience’, it was formally introduced in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article written by Pine and Gilmore. They identified that it was the engaging experiences that made businesses successful. So marketers have been more formally discussing the customer experience for over a decade. But two things have impacted delivering the good old personal customer service that we yearn for – the drive for lower costs and the rapid growth of technology.

There is a lot of data to support the relationship of good customer service to growing a business. But what companies have overlooked is the role of the human, real-time interaction in building that relationship. They have let lower-cost automation trump human contact.

Think of it this way. The benefits of a very strong brand-building relationship comes in the form of a) not losing the customer and keeping a relationship for multiple purchases, but also b) getting referrals from a converted customer who becomes a brand advocate.

More than ever, smart companies should revisit the larger investment benefit of stronger customer relationships, and not the cost efficiency of automation. It’s not right for every business, but it could be extremely powerful way to differentiate a brand for many. In fact, it may be the only way to differentiate.

Do you agree that a human interaction would be better than an automated voice in some instances?