If only Comcast’s customer service were as smooth as its lobbying

I was passed on to a supervisor. Then to another supervisor, and another and another. We went round and round for weeks. Weeks turned into months, during which I was still being sent two bills, while I vainly sought someone with enough authority to sell me what I was pleading to buy.

LivePerson buys Germany’s Synchronite to add co-browsing to customer service tech

The not-at-all-creepily-named “digital engagement” firm LivePerson has bought a German startup called Synchronite for its co-browsing technology. The deal should help LivePerson boost its real-time customer service product by allowing agents to see what the customer sees, so they can guide him through form-filling, completing purchases and other functions of the client’s website. Other outfits doing similar things include Unblu, LiveLook and Firefly. The purchase price for Mannheim’s Synchronite was not revealed.

The gamification is on

Gamification has broken through to mainstream coverage and threatens future ubiquity.
This week saw a slew of stories on the trend. An ABC News roundup covered applications ranging from health to finance and dating. Of course it’s not just consumers who are targeted with the technology, as employees are coaxed to better performance through an increasing number of applications as well.
The Guardian offered a sampling of gamification apps used by charities, including games designed to create empathy and increase awareness for the plight of youth the streets or in developing countries, reward abstinence in recovering alcoholics or pitch in with crowdsourcing on cancer research.
The principles have long been understood
The principles of gamification have been applied for millennia in education, where simple rewards, peer recognition, and ladders of achievement have long held sway. Recognition has motored groups from Weight Watchers to Alcoholics Anonymous and the Shriners. Top sales people have likewise been rewarded by more than straight cash commissions. And marketers have similarly used gamification incentives, such as to sell candy bars and get Violet Beauregarde and Augustus Gloop into the Chocolate Factory.
Gamification at work
Sales, marketing and customer support might be the most obvious applications for the automation of gamification, as the consumerization of the workforce continues to gain ground. But employees are prime candidates for behavior modification in a host of areas.  WestJet was recently profiled for its impending application of gamification to ERP in four areas of expense reporting:

  • timely submission of expense reports,
  • timely approval or rejection of reports,
  • the attachment of receipts to expense reports, and
  • the use of corporate, rather than personal, credit cards.

Further ERP applications, from the supply chain to the factory floor are inevitable. The gamification of hiring is likely to gain pace as well. While this may be good news for job candidates who’d like to punch through the limits of their traditional resume, it could also be seen as a growing burden for those asked to do more for consideration in a competitive hiring market.
Social media
Social media applications for customer support and online forums are among the earliest widespread uses for gamification. Rewards including badges, trusted reviewer, and moderator status have been thoroughly tested, and both virtual and real prizes clearly drive participant behavior in guidable directions. Providers like Gigya and Badgeville continue to find ways to steer users to crank out reviews, post more comments, join more live events, and the like.
More experimentation
More refinement of gamification techniques is inevitable in the workplace, too, as the technology is more widely applied. Already, it is clear that various personality types respond differently to the recognition of status and to various rewards. Great engineers, sales people and customer service reps all tend to have different motivations. For example, as we have seen with consumers, some people volunteer for punishments. (E.g., Pact users have cash on the line if they falter in their diet or exercise regimens.) But in the workplace, will such discipline and punishment always be voluntary?
The backlash begins?
Backlash against this incipient ubiquity is inevitable, and in a small way may have already begun. 2048 is a math game recently launched by a teenage developer. Apparently it was something of a phenomenon when in its simplicity it lacked ease of use, sophisticated graphics, and a leaderboard. Once those elements were added, making it adhere more closely to the recognized principles of gamification, interest waned.
The sinister underbelly
Some technologists are already dismayed that the Internet has become a modern version of Bentham’s Panopticon, as foretold and warned against in Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”, providing surveillance at a level seldom imagined. Now gamification threatens to make the use of technology, especially at work, a modern version of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber. Although gamification promises more carrot than stick, we can all expect more mazes, intentionally moved cheese, and the occasional, mild shock.
Just as the cubicle became an icon of corporate conformity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as an update to the Man in a Grey Flannel Suit, gamification may become a symbol of work in the Twenty-teens and beyond.
Implications for the enterprise
But we have shorter attention spans than previous generations, new entrants to the workforce were reared on computer games, and the science is finding more ways to make repetitive work fun. So enterprise managements and IT departments can look happily toward the positive gains that the technology promises.
A workforce that is satisfied and feels valued is always a competitive advantage, and businesses would do well with combining the broader experience of vendors and users in corporate environments with their own limited, gradual and carefully tested experiments. The close study of psychological literature in the field can help to align game rewards with the intrinsic, deeper satisfaction and purpose that various employees seek.
Still, less will likely prove to be more. Overkill is a real risk in this application, and a spirit of employee involvement in creating, testing, and sometimes ditching new uses is probably in order. For the near term at least, once the sense of playing a game is lost, so, likely, is lost the value of gamification.

Holiday season service lessons for retailers

Retailers typically take something of a hit to their customer service satisfaction levels during the holiday shopping season, due to the high volumes handled during that time. But Zendesk‘s latest benchmark report shows that customer service staffing was especially overloaded in 4Q13, with a resultant, oversized drop in customer satisfaction:

  • The sequential volume of tickets handled per agent was up 42% for 4Q13, compared to just a 34% increase in 4Q12; and,
  • As a result, customer satisfaction was down 6% sequentially in 4Q13, compared to just a 2% drop in 4Q12.

Zendesk compiles these results based on the service records of the 16,000 companies among the 40,000 customers of its customer service platform that participate in the benchmarking.
Inadequate anticipation of and preparation for demand
The trouble was that many retailers hadn’t adequately anticipated demand and ramped up staffing accordingly. According to Sam Boonin, Zendesk’s VP of Products, some large catalog-sales retailers are quite sophisticated in anticipating demand based on the mailing and return patterns of their catalogs, but e-commerce firms can have a harder time predicting demand.
So what can be done about it?
There are several ways that retailers can prepare to better satisfy their customers through the next holiday season:

  • Think strategically with a longer lead time. As Sam points out, service departments are not used to thinking strategically with the lead times by which retail marketing departments, for example, are already preparing for Christmas 2014. Better technological, tactical, and hiring solutions all need planning in advance.
  • Use technology to segment and triage service response. By targeting high-value customers, those nearing a subscription renewal, or other factors by which customers can be segmented for the level of support to be provided, retailers can minimize the damage if their staff and system experience an overload.
  • Test solutions in advance. Just as marketing departments have become adept at A/B testing of mailings, campaigns, and the like, service departments need to leverage the ability to similarly track trials before launching full-scale changes to their support processes.
  • Use technology to optimize specialization among agents. Increased efficiency can be achieved in part by tapping the specialized skills and experience of agents to handle returns, account inquiries, or other functions via the routing of tickets.
  • Stay ahead of customers’ rising expectations of service. Zendesk benchmarking has previously shown that customers are expecting seamless, omnichannel support across in-store, on-line and phone interactions. Leading retailers are upping the ante on customer service by providing unexpected value, such as personal-shopper, stylist-level knowledge and advice on products over the phone. Retailers as always have to balance costs with premium service, but the integration of an online knowledge-base and community with exceptional telephone support is enabling some retailers to manage costs while differentiating themselves with an old-fashioned level of service.

Microsoft buys Parature, Verint buys KANA: A trend?

Two competitors in the customer service applications market are being acquired.

According to Alex Williams at Techcrunch, Microsoft has acquired Parature to integrate the company’s customer support knowledge base technology into Microsoft Dynamics as a counter to Salesforce. The prices was supposedly $100 million, but the acquisition and price have not been confirmed by Microsoft or Parature.

Meanwhile, Verint, the business intelligence player, has announced the near-term acquisition of KANA, the customer support and social metrics company, and add its 900 customer companies to Verint’s 10,000.

Sometimes having two deals like this happen so close together is random, but I think there is a trend here. And it’s one that was articulated by Duke Chung, the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Parature in a recent HBR post. The trend? The confluence of customer support and an internet of things:

Duke Chung, Customer Service in the Age of the Internet of Things

Today, innovative customer service means being able to contact a company on multiple platforms — not just by phone, but via email, web, Twitter, Facebook, and mobile devices. However according to ABI Research, by 2020 more than 20 billion additional devices will be wirelessly connected to physical things — TVs, washing machines, thermostats, refrigerators, even cars.

Good customer service in this age of the Internet of Things will take one step further and take place right on the device itself — screens to tap to search knowledge bases for answers, chat live with a rep, or schedule a service appointment. Imagine a service rep talking you through changing your tire, or a virtual agent who advises you to adjust specific settings on your refrigerator so that it runs at greatest efficiency.

With this kind of customer service evolution happening over the next few years, big changes will be in store for support departments across major industries.

Chung goes on to catalog those changes: more robust knowledge bases [which is why Microsoft bought Parature], invest in a strong data analytics platform [ditto], and hire and train smarter customer support agents [he cites Zappo’s, Warby Parker, and Nike as examples]. More importantly, in a world of smart refrigerators, light switches, thermostats, and slow cookers (yes, Belkin debuted one at CES this week), customer support access will need to be embedded in the devices, and well-designed to keep customer support costs down.



Customer service only comes from the top

Customer expectations are rising, but companies are failing to meet them. That’s what the folks at Zendesk are reporting with their latest global customer survey, The omnichannel customer service gap.

In short, customers want a speedy and seamless service experience whether they contact a company by phone, social media, email, chat, or in store. Only 7% are extremely satisfied that brands are providing consistent and integrated service, however; and only half rate the speed of response or resolution as good or excellent. A clear majority of customers in all countries surveyed believe that brands pay more attention to generating sales across channels than to providing integrated customer service.

More than a cost center

Zendesk VP of marketing J.D. Peterson sees this difference as reflective of the traditional business culture that favors sales as a profit center, while customer service is only considered a cost center. But he also sees that changing, with more viewing service as an opportunity to deepen customer relationships and increase sales, and he believes the rise of social media is contributing to that change.

Providing a fully integrated experience for customers across channels—where customer interaction is consistently fast, friendly, and satisfactory, and previous interactions are immediately recognized—is still the exception rather than the rule. Zendesk provides a multichannel service platform that theoretically enables such consistent ‘omnichannel’ support.

Technology ahead of the corporate culture

J.D. still sees only a minority of businesses with online and brick-and-mortar stores fully integrating their multichannel capabilities with their in-store service, although that practice is clearly rising. Likewise, first-tier social media service support is still often handled by the marketing department, where listening platforms were first brought into organizations, rather than by the service department. Just under a quarter of Zendesk customers have enabled the firm’s direct/native Facebook/Twitter integrations, although some have accomplished the same by integrating third-party tools (e.g., Hootsuite, SproutSocial) through Zendesk’s applications platform.

Only from the top

J.D. says that when he sees a high level of integrated customer service, without exception, the CEO or another C-level executive is driving the firm to a customer-focused culture. A good first step toward meeting customer’s rising expectations is the implementation of a multichannel service capability. But to approach the level of integration and consistency that customers are coming to expect, a firm needs to be organized around the customer experience. That vision and commitment must come from the top.

Related Gigaom research:

Sector RoadMap: Social customer service in 2013

Millennials in the enterprise, part 1: strategies for supporting the new digital workforce

Millenials in the enterprise, part 2: benchmarking IT’s readiness for the new digital workforce

Survey: phones still best for customer service

Social media and the Internet have made customer service issues more acute; and holistic, omni-channel support is becoming the norm. However, customers are least satisfied with their service interactions through social media in particular.

Zendesk’s benchmark report released today shows that customers are most often satisfied with phone-based service (at 91%), followed by online chat support (at 85%)—and least satisfied with their service experience through the social channels of Twitter (81%) and Facebook (74%).  These latter channels are of course newer and, in many enterprises, stilled handled by marketing rather than service departments. They are also more often public and seldom as instantaneous as phone and chat support. But the newer, more public Twitter scores almost as well as email (82%), which, though older and more private, may be the slowest and most formulaic of the major service channels.

My guess is that a combination of factors offset the different channels. The telephone is the most human and can provide the quickest service response, though we all know that phone wait times, transfers and ill-prepared or difficult-to-understand representatives can be frustrating. Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, may be the easiest for customers to access at the height of pique or when a customer feels the need to lash out publicly in order to get a response.

Service satisfaction varies by industry. The more business-oriented and higher price-point sectors that have reason for service interactions other than problem resolution or cancellations (IT services, government and nonprofit and education all at 95%) than consumer-oriented sectors without positive or neutral reasons for interaction (social media, entertainment and gaming, and financial services from 67% to 76%).

Service satisfaction also varies by country. With Canada and Australia scoring over 90%, but China and the United Arab Emirates below 60%. These trends tend to persist and Zendesk has found them to be correlated with the satisfaction of service center employees within different countries as well. Further, these findings somewhat parallel the results of ‘happiness’ surveys that are sometimes conducted with global citizenries. Denmark is not only reliably among the top five countries in in Zendesk’s benchmark, but it has also ranked as the happiest nation worldwide.

Is it thus a coincidence that the customer service firm Zendesk was started by three Danes? Perhaps not. And maybe that is the takeaway from their benchmark. A customer service prayer may be for the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can—and the wisdom to know the difference.

Verizon ends AT&T’s J.D. Power winning streak

AT&T may have won the crown on J.D. Power’s first two customer surveys this summer, but Verizon won the title that probably mattered the most to it. It ranked highest in network quality.

Sprint cuts 800 jobs in wake of SoftBank deal, Nextel shutdown

Whenever a company is party to a big M&A deal, layoffs always follow. Sprint(s s) confirmed with Bloomberg on Tuesday that it is cutting 800 jobs, but claimed that this doesn’t have anything to do with redundancies produced by its massive three-way tie up with SoftBank and Clearwire. Sprint told Bloomeberg it’s trimming its customer service workforce because it’s getting fewer complaints into its call centers. A big reason for the drop off could be the shutdown of its Nextel iDEN network last quarter, which likely generated calls from millions of customers about to lose service.