For Zappos, Customer-Centricity Means Knowing When NOT to Answer the Phone?

Contributor:  Brian Cantor
Posted:  05/29/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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In a much-anticipated session at the 4thCustomer Experience Summit, presented by Call Center IQ, two Zappos professionals explained a controversial call center management decision as the best possible path to customer satisfaction.

Challenged by an attendee over their decision not to turn off the phones when dealing with a credit card breach, Scott Klein and Christina Colligan explained that while the decision was a tough one, it ultimately provided the best possible experience for customers.

The two justified a sentiment that had been released by the organization at the time of the breach.  While the organization wanted to do everything in its power to address each and every customer personally, it simply did not have the bandwidth to avoid massive hold times en route to the interactions.

As a result, relying on the call center to communicate would have only heightened customer dissatisfaction and concern stemming from the breach.  The war on the phones was simply unwinnable, and there was thus no sense to be had in diverting valuable resources to a lost cause.

By instead directing employees to offer support and information through other channels, Zappos assured a maximum return on its organizational investment.  The business was able to more quickly and efficiently provide information and assurance to customers, and the end result was the highest level of satisfaction that could reasonably be achieved in such a situation.

Would some customers have preferred a reassuring conversation with a live phone agent?  Absolutely.  But if the alternative to support through other channels was spending 30 minutes or an hour on hold just to learn what they could in a quick email, few would have opted against the latter.

The lesson here is not that all customer-facing organizations can minimize their call center investments in favor of the more cost-efficient e-mail and social channels.  It is not a sign that customers will always be just as satisfied with email support updates as they presently are with phone updates.  Customers retain their specific channel preferences, and for many in the foreseeable future, that paramount preference will be the traditional call center.

What all organizations should instead learn from Zappos’ experience is that channel strategy must be designed with the actual customer in mind.  It must make sense as an element of the overall customer experience the brand seeks to create.

A jaded person can certainly claim that Zappos was just being “cheap” and trying to retroactively excuse the fact that its risk management strategy is lacking, but at the end of the day, Zappos was able to retain satisfaction by using its alternative channels to improve the experience for customers.  It used its channels wisely, and at the end of the day, its strategies made sense for the concerned audience.

E-mail support, in this case, served a purpose for customers—it gave them the information they needed in the timeliest of fashions.  It was not an undesirable imposition on customers, nor was it a way to pass the buck on “transactional” support issues.  It created legitimate value for customers by using technology to improve efficiency without undermining totality.

Brands turning to the array of technology-driven channels, including email support, chat support, text support and Twitter, need to approach these channels from the standpoint of the customer and assure their strategies offer legitimate value and relevance.

Chat can be a valuable tool by combining thorough documentation with rapid, personalized service.  But if the organization simply uses it as a self-service channel in a hopeful attempt to minimize customer service effort, it is missing the point of the channel and undermining its overall customer experience.

If your organization can use alternative channels to better deliver exactly what customers want, then it should absolutely direct those customers away from phone lines.  But the key is assuring the channel strategy enhances the strength of the interaction and the value of the customer relationship.

Alternative channels need to be used for optimization, not minimization.

Brian Cantor Contributor:   Brian Cantor

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