Dec 11, 2012

Mobile as the New Customer Service Channel
I remember being amazed by the exceptional customer service by American companies, when I first came to the US in 1997. The  ability to call the 1-800 number practically 24/7 to solve any problem was unlike anything I had experienced in India. However, in the last 15 years in the US, I have seen the quality of customer service plummet. Today, most people would dread calling the 1-800 number (if you can even find it!) raising the question 'Is Customer Service Dead?'

Customers are retaliating by fleeing to social media channels. It's  easy and convenient and Social CRM/ Social Customer Service tools have been getting more sophisticated (e.g., SAP Social OnDemand). However customers might be embracing social media due to the failure of normal channels. Frustrated customers realize the only way to get service might be to subtly 'threaten' the brands with public humiliation (or the marketer's worst nightmare - a PR fiasco!) Personally, I would rather have my problem resolved privately, than having to complain publicly and I suspect many would feel that way.

Social Media is primarily designed for person-to-person interactions. People don’t typically think of social media as a channel to engage with companies. Even when they do, the vast majority of interactions on public social media (observable by brands) is driven either by highly positive experiences or highly negative experiences.

Why don't we see many consumer mobile apps for customer service? The key promise of mobile engagement is to help brands understand the 'hidden' customer behavior. Mobile is a highly personal, convenient and always-on channel. Most people use mobile today primarily for price comparison ('showrooming') & offers, but consumers have many other motivations beyond price that could probably be best addressed in a mobile app:

•       What is the right product for me and my family (lifestyle preferences or restrictions)?
•       What do other people (friends & experts) think about it?
•       How do I fix a problem?
•       How do I get personally relevant information (e.g., product updates/ recalls), when I want it, instead of being spammed? 

For brands, engaging with the consumers after-purchase to drive loyalty and repeat purchases is often more profitable than expensive acquisition of fickle consumers (a la Groupon). Customer service is not usually the best place to start an interaction, but if handled well, it could be a strategic tool to increase loyalty and brand advocacy. You might even agree with the (provocative) statement ‘Customer Service is the New Marketing’.

Some early adopter retailers are beginning to do this (beyond coupons & deals). It may be even more important for consumer products manufacturers that are disintermediated from the end-consumers. Mobile gives them a direct engagement channel - not just to reduce costs by self-service, but to know who their consumers are (which many don't know, as few customers register) and get insights on how they use the product.

Mobile does introduce many challenges. There are only very few successful examples of engaging brand mobile apps (such as Nike+) with high customer adoption. It might be partly because of the app fatigue ('download yet another app!') and probably because of the pushy sales approach without offering much value to the consumers (the same reason why many brand Facebook pages struggle). 

Today, Most of us are happy (or at least, got used to!) going to our computer and Google (or Facebook) for any customer service issue. However, just like any digital consumer interaction, I believe customer service is moving to mobile too, if it's designed well to deliver value to both the consumers and enterprises. I am interested to hear what you think.