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True innovation isn’t self-centred

Too many companies seem to be rolling out one-sided innovation that only benefits them, and not their customers. This is especially outrageous when it comes to how customer service technology is (mis-)implemented.

Have you recently taken a company up on their suggestion to WhatsApp their helpdesk, instead of calling them? Sounds reasonable, you might have thought. WhatsApp is asynchronous so I can get on with other things at the same time. And I don’t have to sit here for who knows how long listening to elevator music and waiting for my call to be answered.

Is that in fact what happened? Sure, the conversation might have been asynchronous from the business’s side, as call centre staff probably battled to field too many incoming requests per person. But from your, the customer’s side, was the conversation truly asynchronous? Almost definitely not. It’s more than likely that, unless you were watching your messages like a hawk, you’d have soon received the “We see you haven’t replied so are now closing this thread” message, whether your query had been dealt with or not.

This is only one example of how technology that is supposed to improve things actually doesn’t because of how it is implemented. Think about the frustration of chatbots, interactive voice response (IVR) systems and websites that don’t share contact details, only catch-all forms. Of course, this is not the fault of the technology itself. Instead, it seems that businesses are setting up this technology to save themselves time and money, with no consideration for the customer they are supposed to be serving.

Then, to add insult to injury, the company sends out a self-congratulatory press release, talking about how they have used innovation and digital technology to improve the lives of their customers.

I guess, at a very literal level, this strategy – I do think it’s a deliberate strategy and not ineptitude that is driving this – does deliver on technology’s promise to cut costs. Implementing customer service innovation in this cynical way can allow a company to reduce the size of its customer service team, and avoid dealing with any customer query that doesn’t fit into the “ideal customer” template. (You’ll know this has happened to you when you keep reaching a dead end on an IVR system.)

Companies need to start putting their customers at the heart of their innovation and stop the pretence that what they are doing improves things for customers if they don’t have that mindset. Just because the bar is low, it doesn’t mean you have to match that. The clever thing to do is to win and retain loyal customers by thinking of them first.

At what cost?

If short-term savings are driving innovation mindsets that place the customer second to the business, companies should consider what the long-term costs are likely to be. Brand reputation, customer loyalty and trust will inevitably suffer. The rule of thumb is that it costs five to seven times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one, so businesses will need to redeploy those customer service cost savings into sales and marketing initiatives. Or risk having no one communicating with them at all.

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