November 2015 | Point of View

Five ways to turn customer service into a strategic advantage


Customer preferences are constantly changing. 

Products that were once unique and cutting-edge become commoditized as the competition catches up on features and functionality. In the end, what provides a lasting and defensible strategy for companies is their brand perception in the market. We’re not just talking about branding and logos, but rather what that brand and logo stand for. There are numerous case studies out there, but to cement this point, the following are examples of brands that rise to the top when you think of excellent service: Amazon, Southwest, The Ritz-Carlton, Zappos. 

These companies have made an investment to use customer service as a strategic differentiator for their organizations. Customer service is a priority and is supported from the CEO to the front-line customer-facing staff.

Chapter 1: The reward

A company that puts their customers first is going to be around for the long haul and will reward their stockholders. Customers who know they’ll receive a higher level of service are willing to pay more for that company’s product compared to a competitor’s. The customer values that the company will do right by them and therefore the company can capture that value by charging more for that product or service. According to a recent American Express Global Customer Service Barometer study, 70% of Americans are willing to spend an average of 13% more with companies they believe provide excellent customer service. So, companies should take note that the customer service function should no longer be looked at or treated as solely a cost center. Putting together a comprehensive customer service strategy can materially impact top-line revenue.

Chapter 2: The new face of your organization

Customer service is fast becoming the face of your organization. As a function, customer service has more touch points with your customers or prospective customers than any other department in your company, even more than sales. A recent Gartner study states that 75% of all customer interactions are handled by customer service. Your front-line agents are spending the most time in front of your customers. The experience they deliver will significantly impact your customers’ perception of your company. A great experience can open the door to cross-sell or up-sell opportunities. A poor experience can lead to a lost customer and a social media nightmare for your company. Companies are realizing this. In fact, a recent Forrester report states that 93% of all customer experience decision makers say that a good customer experience is a top priority for their companies; 75% say they want to use customer experience as a competitive differentiator. While these are their stated goals, the report goes further to state that most companies still focus primarily on cost-control measures when it comes to customer service.

Chapter 3: Five steps to excellent customer service

Before we cover the 5 steps to excellent customer service we need to first set the stage by establishing the framework that encompasses customer service. People, processes and technology are the foundation upon which these 5 steps are built. 

The keys to delivering excellent customer service revolve around these areas: 

People: Building a service culture within your company and investing in continuous training and reward programs to support this goal. 

Process: Establishing processes that are repeatable to ensure you are delivering a consistent customer experience across your organization. 

Technology: Investing in a technology platform that enables and supports your employees with a 360- degree view of the customer so they can provide excellent service. 

Companies that use the people, process and technology principles are investing in a real strategy that cannot be easily copied or imitated in a short period of time; rather, it is an investment that is ingrained and becomes part of your company’s DNA. This strategic alignment is what separates companies that actually deliver great service with companies that just talk about delivering great services. As you are reading this article, you can probably think of a company that fits this profile. And chances are, you are probably willing to pay more for this company’s product or service when compared to others. You are likely less price- sensitive because you have placed a higher value on the level of service or support you will receive. 

1. Know your customer 

Today, it’s imperative to be where your customers are. It is important that you understand the demographics and usage preferences of your target customer base. There is now a proliferation of inbound channels for today’s contact center from phone, web, email, live chat, social channels such as Twitter or Facebook, online community platforms, self-service sites, and now connected products. Your customers expect to interact in all of these ways. And the list isn’t static. For example, recently launched Salesforce1 Service SOS, a new feature within their Service Cloud that is similar to Amazon’s Mayday button. This is just one more example of a new way for customers to get the help they need when they need it. 

Once you understand your customer persona and how they like to interact with you, you can create a roadmap to prioritize the other channels into your plan. Just remember this roadmap is not something that you should do once and then put on a shelf to collect dust. Your customer is constantly evolving and their preferences change over time. If your roadmap of 5 years ago showed that 90% of your customers prefer to interact via phone, your most recent study would likely show significant growth in the other channels we discussed. An organization dedicated to excellent customer service should be continually evolving their capabilities and enhancing service in the multiple channels their customers use. If you don’t do this, you risk losing customers and revenue to the competition.

2. Have a 360-degree view of your customer

Think of a recent example where you called into a company’s toll-free number to inquire about an order status, a service issue, a new order, or maybe even to make a return. As a fairly loyal customer who has bought many items in the company’s brick-and-mortar store and online, you have an expectation that you will be treated differently and even better than a first-time customer. How many of you have encountered this situation though: 

Company Contact Center Agent (CCA): “Hi, may I please have your name and phone number?” 
You: “Sure, Jane Doe, 999-888-7777.” 
Company CCA: “Ok, great how can I help you today, Jane?” 

Problem 1: The call center agent is currently using a technology platform that does not capture or provide any insight into past customer purchases. Because of that the call center agent has no way to identify and greet this customer as a “Loyal/Repeat Customer.” 

You: “I would like to inquire about the status of my order.” 
Company CCA: “Ok, one minute please.”

Problem 2: The agent is now scrambling behind the scenes to log in to a separate application that tracks historical order information that is not tied into their call center platform. The caller is now on hold, call handle time is increasing, the customer is becoming impatient, and the level of perceived service is decreasing. 

Ok, let’s stop there. As a company, if you state you are going to deliver a high level of service, you need to have the right tools and systems in place to support your front-line employees that interact with your customers 75% of the time. If you do not have this key leg of the three-legged stool in place then effectively the strategy breaks down. 

In order to have a 360-degree view of your customer, companies need to have a technology platform that surfaces all of their customer information into this platform. Companies need to be strategic and aware to stop creating one-off siloed applications that effectively wall-off critical data from other departments. 

A true 360-degree view of the customer would provide visibility and access into key areas such as: 

  • Purchase history: What is the lifetime value of this customer? When was their last purchase? 
  • Channel preference: How does this customer prefer to interact? 
  • Shipping status: Where is the current order at now? What is the estimated date of arrival? If delayed, why? 
  • Marketing campaigns: Has this person previously acted on marketing campaigns? If so, which ones?
  • Open opportunities: If this is a corporate customer, is the sales team actively working deals that I should be aware of? Upon call completion, can I easily notify the sales department of this interaction?
  • Service Level Agreements/Warranty detail: Once I have identified the customer can I easily assess if they have an SLA, the level of the SLA and whether the product is currently under warranty?

Companies that have a platform that easily enables employees to access this information have a higher probability of delivering excellent service. Further, with the right customer information at their fingertips, they are able to quickly solve the customer’s problem. This increases customer satisfaction because problems are solved on the first call and in a time-efficient manner. It also frees up your contact center agent to enter into an additional conversation for potential up-sell or cross-sell opportunities. Or, it frees up time to get to that next customer in the call queue, reducing average caller wait time. 

3. IoT solutions to drive proactive communication 

Customers are busy. With work, family and other commitments the average person puts a high value on their free time. We ignore communications that are interruptive. We DVR shows and skip most commercials. Click-through rates on online ads are lower than ever. 

For these reasons, it is imperative that companies drive proactive communication. 

People see value in “opting-in” to communications that make their lives easier: bank account notifications, bill payments, flight schedule changes or offers from restaurants. 

In this Internet of Things (IoT) era, we are seeing companies take proactive communication to a whole new level by connecting to their products in the field. As an example, let’s look at a company that manufacturers and services commercial refrigeration units used in restaurants, hospitals, pharmacies, etc. The company has also enabled each of these refrigeration units to communicate its health and status to the company’s contact center. They have configured 

and set operational thresholds for the unit. When the compressor on the unit falls out of a specified threshold, it signals that something is wrong. This signal triggers a Case to be created automatically in, which is routed to their contact center agent queue. The contact center agent is able to assess the problem, review the past machine data points, attempt remote fix options and then assign this case to a field service technician for on-site service. The contact center agent proactively reaches out to the customer to inform them that their commercial refrigerator is experiencing an issue—before there is any downtime or product loss informs that a service technician is en-route. 

Because the contact center agent knows what the issue is prior to deploying the field service technician, he or she is able to select the right technician based on skill-set, in-stock materials and location. As the field service technician arrives on-site, they access the refrigerator and make the appropriate repairs. Since they had more information about the issue beforehand, they are able to fix the issue in a timely manner. The customer didn’t have to call to report an issue. There was no downtime or product loss, and the repair was performed on the first call. 

4. Build a collaborative environment 

Your employees possess a lot of “tribal knowledge” and you can easily identify the employees who are the go-to persons for information. Those employees are your “A” players. They’re obviously difficult to replicate and even more difficult to replace. In addition to the “A” players, your collective team has a wealth of knowledge that needs to be shared with others. Without processes and the right tools in place you are creating a swivel-chair environment where everyone is turning to the people around them for help and information. 

Enter Salesforce Knowledge—tools to capture and document all of this great information so it can be easily shared and used. What we have found is that organizations implementing Salesforce Knowledge are most successful when also implementing Knowledge Centered Support (KCS) methodology. KCS looks at your organization’s people and processes to put together a methodology for capturing, authoring, refining and publishing information that is relevant for your employees and customers. With KCS, you establish roles and responsibilities in your organization for reviewers and publishers of content for both internal and external channels. A key guiding principle is to use the customers’ language when defining the problem or issue they are inquiring about. 

Using your customers’ language when creating knowledge articles helps new support agents when they are handling a customer issue. As mentioned earlier, Salesforce Knowledge is not just for internal use. Today’s customer is online doing their own research when they encounter a question. Companies should be implementing KCS with the plan for surfacing this information into their own company Community site. In doing this, they are providing relevant information to their customer base while also potentially reducing the need for an inbound customer call. This will increase customer satisfaction while driving operational efficiencies. 

5. Create a customer-centric culture from the top down 

We’ve talked a lot about strategy, the technology and the processes required to turn customer service into a strategic advantage. Last, but certainly not least important, is culture. This is arguably the most important component in this entire process. Establishing a culture that rewards employees for delivering a high level of service to their customers is critical. While you must have a strategy, processes and the right tools in place for your employees to succeed, you have to ask yourself, “What gets employees excited to come to work every day?” What is it that people see when you just flash a logo on the screen that makes them think “excellent service”? Arguably it is a customer-centric culture that has been established from the top-down. 


Companies that have succeeded in creating a customer-centric culture have ingrained their company story in their credo, motto and service values. During employee orientation or ongoing training, customer service excellence is a consistent theme. 

As you move to a customer-centric culture, you also need to ensure that the right incentives are in place for your employees. If you are running a contact center or a field service department, are you still measuring just on cost and average call handle time, for example, or have you added customer satisfaction and revenue goals into the mix? The point is, don’t overlook culture as a critical component as you use customer service as a strategic advantage for your organization.

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