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The Customer Service Arms Race

The other day I had several questions about Olark, a San Francisco-based software company. So I went to the company’s website to find answers. But before I could even begin to look for a link to an FAQ page or help center, a pop-up featuring three smiling faces beckoned from the home page: “We’re Olark. Chat with us. Have a question about Olark?”

I wrote back: “Is anyone there? I have a few questions.”

In exactly seven seconds, I got a response. “I’m Richard. I can help. What do you want to ask?”

After I typed my questions, Richard told me someone named Karl could answer them best. Twenty seconds later, Karl Pawlewicz, whose official title is “The Voice of Olark,” was on the chat, answering my questions. We eventually migrated to email, and my quest for Olark knowledge was fulfilled.

Welcome to the new world of online customer service. Today, companies are creating sophisticated apps and web plug-ins that allow real-time communication with consumers. At the same time, the meteoric rise of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and other instant messaging services promises a whole new environment and approach to customer service. It all adds up to surprisingly helpful and efficient corporate communication.

Help me help myself

Answering customer questions lies in a gray space between CRM (Customer Relationship Management), basic product support, and content marketing. Addressing feedback varies a lot depending on the situation. One person might ask, “How do I get this thing to turn off?” Another will want to know, “Where do I send my payment?” And a third person could say, “What does the future hold?” (That person probably took one too many philosophy classes in college.)

But worrying about which department should own a website’s FAQ section is like worrying about whether Pharrell Williams makes pop, soul, or hip-hop music. Consumers don’t care; they just want to be happy. And that means answers, fast.

New research from Forrester shows that 73 percent of adults say valuing their time is the most important thing a company can do to provide good online customer service. And 53 percent claimed they are likely to abandon an online purchase if they can’t find a quick answer to their question.

Simply put, consumers want to control the process of getting answers. The Forrester study also showed that, for the second consecutive year, more people turned to self-service web and mobile tools than customer call centers. Additionally, 81 percent of adults used a help center or FAQ on a company website in 2015, up from 67 percent in in 2012.

“I think the website FAQ is alive and well,” Karl Pawlewicz said.

At Olark, Pawlewicz’s company offers software that enables websites to launch a real-time chat from any page, which he sees as supplemental to FAQs and other established communication tools. Two industries have been particularly drawn to the product: retail and SaaS (software as a service). That makes sense since retail sites tend to get transaction-related questions and SaaS providers get lots of technical questions. In both cases, the questions are often urgent.

“Customers don’t want to wade through a laundry list of answers; they want self-service sites to serve up the one right answer to their question,” The Forrester report concluded. “To do this, organizations must strengthen the foundations of their knowledge management programs so that content is easily findable and contextualized to the customer’s situation.”

A customer service arms race

Today, a wide range of software companies offer innovative help desk solutions that pull in consumer questions, automate the support-ticket process, streamline the response functions, and layer on analytics to see if there are particular bottlenecks or weak spots in your operations.

Zendesk, one of the more respected companies in the space, has software that gathers inbound queries from all locations—chat, social media, web, email, and phone—and helps you manage them. It also offers tools for creating and organizing FAQ pages and help centers in intuitive, easy-to-navigate ways.

Other software companies, like Olark, let clients add a live communication tool to the standard website customer-service functionality. The live-chat product “is the frontline in building and refining an FAQ or help center,” Pawlewicz told me.

LivePerson, meanwhile, allows companies to chat with consumers in web, mobile, or app environments. Initial interactions are automated, and the software posts a message in the chat that estimates how much time it will take someone to answer. Consumers have the option of marking a query as “urgent,” which triggers a quicker response.

There are even free options like Tawk.To, a messaging app that provides chat tools and a full suite of analytics. Rather than selling the software, Tawk.To generates revenue by selling live answering services.

Off site, on app

While FAQ pages and most customer-service tools live on websites, there are some indications that big name instant messaging services may be taking over. As we previously reported, Facebook Messenger has high ambitions to become the “app for everything,” including allowing companies to have ongoing, personalized conversations with individual customers inside the confines of a mobile app.

A “Bots and Businesses” space has quietly appeared on Messenger’s search function in recent weeks that allows people to search for companies and then have basic questions answered or requests fulfilled by their automated consumer response system. The news even sparked this recent news headline: You May Soon be Texting Robots as Often as Your Friends.

Zuckerberg recently used the example of 1-800-Flowers at his keynote to F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference. He showed that, instead of calling 1-800-Flowers, customers can simply chat the company using Messenger. The “1-800-Flowers.com” listing on Facebook Messenger has the line “Typically replies in minutes.” Tap on “Send Message,” and you’re told “You can now order flowers or talk to support without leaving Messenger.”

While instant messaging services haven’t proven to be a viable or large-scale customer service tool in the U.S. just yet, they are already highly successful channels for B2C communications in China and Europe. And with Messenger now boasting 800 million users, Facebook has the cash, power, and customer base to replicate those successes in America. Google and other aren’t far behind in developing customer-service bots as well.

The arms race to provide the best digital customer-service experience is just beginning. For millions of people who have struggled to navigate bureaucracy over the years, finding the right information is no longer out of the question.

Image by Getty Images
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