GUEST BLOG: "Too much automation is killing customer service"

The internet has changed the way we find information forever. You can find out about virtually any subject within a few mouse clicks and we can order pretty much any type of good or service without stepping outside the front door.  Many successful businesses are now based on a web operation that requires less resources and overheads, yet delivers bigger profits.

However, have you ever noticed how many online brands have lost that human touch and are at risk of actually alienating existing and future customers?

One of the biggest frustrations for consumers is not being given the choice to speak to a real person. Typically telephone numbers are conspicuously absent from a site or the details are deliberately concealed to dissuade calls. Of course it costs money to employ people at the other end of a line, but what potential damage could this do to your customer relationships over the longer term?

Consider, for example, if you are selling online insurance. Like many industries, it is fiercely competitive and brands often need to differentiate themselves from the crowd. It is also critical to ensure that new and returning customers complete online applications successfully. The challenge of abandoned transactions is something shared by many online businesses, but can often be avoided if a lifeline is provided.

By opening up the lines of communication, in the eyes of the consumer you move from being a faceless organisation to one with a personality, and perhaps more importantly it also shows that you care.

Hiding behind a website means you lose the dialogue and all that goes with it; valuable feedback, up and cross-selling opportunities, market research, referrals, repeat business and loyalty. So how can you find a balance between offering the convenience and economies of self-service with the comfort and reassurance for the customer in knowing that someone is there to listen?

Whatever your size of business, whether you're operating from your back-bedroom or whether you a large blue chip with thousands of customers, there are economical and practical ways of giving you and your customers a voice. For some it may not be cost-effective to set up their own in-house customer services team, especially if calls are likely to fluctuate during seasonal periods such as pre-Christmas, but there are other options such as outsourcing, whereby a third party answers and manages all enquiries on your behalf. This approach can often be set up for a fraction of the cost of employing and housing a permanent in-house operation.

And it's not just calls that can be outsourced, with the rise of social media you can also get someone else to monitor and respond to customer questions whether they're on Twitter, FaceBook or via email. The key is to offer a response and/or dialogue within an acceptable time-frame.

The question you have to ask yourself is, 'Are you really saving money by putting up barriers to customer communication'? People buy from people. If there is nobody there, then you will surely lose loyalty and sales.

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