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Your new shoes are in the mail: how tech has changed customer service

The invention of the telephone really was the beginning of competitive customer service. Telephones saved us from spending the morning away from work trying to resolve an issue that shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and opened up the gates for efficiency in post-sales service. It was a revolution for customer service that would, years down the line, become a medium used by market-leading brands to instill loyalty and love around a seemingly unlovable object; a company.

The Madmen-era of marketing in the ’60s brought about call centres and soon these outbound sales machines began to become inbound customer pacifiers. They helped facilitate the post-sale feedback mechanisms instilled in order to smooth over unhappy customers, and prevent you from telling your best friend’s wife not to buy a Speed Queen. When toll free numbers were introduced in the ’70s, it all but opened the floodgates for the consumer voice to begin raising the water-level in call centres across the world.

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Technology though, came to the rescue, and allowed for more refinement and management of these calls. Interactive voice response (IVR) systems arrived on the scene and took us swiftly into the ’80s, but their price tags left most call centres sticking to one agent that just wasn’t equipped to handle all of your tears and anger.

As the price of these IVRs dropped, the number of options presented to the customer calling in grew. Before we knew it each phone call felt like a Leon Schuster prank, pushing you to new boiling points you didn’t know existed. Most of us have had to call Telkom or MTN, navigate through the triage of seemingly endless options, only to hold for 30 minutes and eventually be cut off due to what we would assume at the time to be their own faulty networks. It leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth, re-considering your entire communicatory existence in life.

But there was one company that emerged before the turn of the century that would redefine customer service on a broader scale and raise the global standard, as well as increase opportunity for brands to shine: Amazon.

Amazon, one of the world’s true ecommerce pioneers, began back in 1995 with the goal of harnessing customer data through technology in order to improve the experience users had with their brand. It knew that it could learn much from what was moving in and out of their warehouses. With digital accounts keeping a precise record of who bought what, it would soon redefine what it meant to shop online.

It began with simple recommendations based on past online purchases, recommending products to buyers based on other buyers’ purchases: “Customers who bought this item also bought this one…” Albeit simple back then, it certainly set the precedent early, and only now are we seeing big online retailers pouring millions into machine learning around modelling this behaviour. However, Amazon realized early enough that just as call centres became bi-directional channels to the corporates, so too would this data collection become a bi-directional tool of brand enhancement.

With the right data on hand, Amazon took focus on customer service. It bought out the emerging ecommerce player Zappos whose sole focus was removing the stigma around online shopping through stellar customer service. Don’t like the shoes we just delivered to your door for free? We’ll collect them and refund you. For free.

Raising an issue with Amazon about a purchase is a dream. After no more than two minutes of filling out an online form on your personal support page, your phone will be ringing with an agent on the other end who understands your problem, knows everything about you that they need to know, and probably already has an answer to cheer up your day. Through collaborative efforts with Zappos, as well as its wealth of data around each customer, it absorbed much of Zappos’ best practices and redefined what it is to truly service a customer.

The advent of software-as-a-service (being able to pay for web-based software on a month-to-month basis) reduced the price of game-changing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems for many small companies. Access to technology platforms that collect and centralize data in order to make it easier to understand customers is increasingly common, and almost a necessity for any brands who want to be a market leader in their respective field.

The modern day consumer has become increasingly powerful thanks to the internet, being spoilt for choice, easily empowered with the lowest purchase price (thanks to price-comparison sites like Price Check), and increasingly important thanks to social networks.

Where previously support-agents were figurative corporate punching bags, it’s now a case of how happy you can make a dissatisfied customer. One’s ability to exercise this conversion boils down to the tools your organization is equipped with, to be able to withstand the blows and provide mind-altering solutions. Customer data has the power to turn any interaction with a brand into a personal one.

Amazon has long been perfecting the use of computer-driven learning techniques (machine learning) in order to maximize the use of their huge data stores, and is once again pioneering the ecommerce space with the patenting of their ‘Anticipatory Shipping’ process. Put simply, it is able to anticipate your purchase of a product and begin the process of shipping it to you before you’ve even ordered it. This doesn’t mean that you start receiving goods you haven’t yet purchased, but that the time to get goods you are likely to purchase from a warehouse on the other side of the country is drastically reduced thanks to them already being en route should you opt to make the actual purchase.

I just wonder how long it will take before customer service incorporates this sort of technology, calling me to confirm my issues with a product based on other customer feedback on the same product, and telling me a replacement is on its way. It would certainly contribute to winning over my love of their brand. Even though I like the look of the shoes I bought from Topman, I would expect that everyone else who bought from this batch is also witnessing their two month life-cycle, and someone besides me would have taken the time to write them an email. All I know is that I’d rather just buy shoes from somewhere else in the future, unless of course it catches me in time… In which case, I may never buy from anywhere else ever again.

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