Customer service is not the same everywhere—it keeps changing even for a brand over a period of time. And the type of customer service a business offers is often a reflection of its brand personality.
Not too long ago, customer care used to be this cutesy department where customers had to physically arrive in order to get their problems sorted out. For a lot of customers, “customer service” evokes the memory of the hold tone while waiting—twirling their hair strands—for a service rep to process a simple refund.
But in-store service departments and 1-800 hotlines are just two of the many ways businesses offer customer service. Customer service is a must-have business offering in today’s age, but what types of customer service to offer varies according to a business’ needs and customers’ demands.
In this post, we go meta to explore the most common types of customer services and which one is best suited for your business.
Types of customer service: 1. Walk-in service departments 2. Phone and email support 3. Support via live chat 4. Self-service content 5. Communities and forums
1. Walk-in service departments
Many of us grew up knowing customer service as a department housed under their respective business establishments. These physically accessible business units displayed “customer care” signage in big letters where people would queue up to exchange defective goods, initiate a refund, or to "speak to the manager."
It's the place the infamous Karens from the meme world stomped their feet and raised a ruckus.
This type of customer service is naturally slow and inconvenient for people who have to visit the physical storefront in order to get their concerns addressed. Thankfully, that’s changing because this type of customer service is nearly extinct.
There are a handful of businesses (mostly in the consumer goods industry) that still offer in-house customer service departments. But now, it’s the residual reminiscence of the brick-and-mortar businesses that have rapidly transformed to digital platforms in recent years.
If your business sells online and wants to take good care of customers, don’t worry about establishing a customer service department within the four walls of your business.
You can save a lot of time and money by investing less in staffing a customer service team that can handle all customer problems virtually.
2. Phone and email support
The internet disrupted the way we do business starting from the dot com boom, and customer support has never been the same ever since. The traditional businesses realized the cost-saving potential of offering virtual customer service through phone calls and email and invested generously in establishing contact centers.
Sadly, customer service over phone and email is quickly flatlining because of how sluggish it is relative to the pace with which online businesses are pivoting towards higher and faster standards of customer service. Customers are falling out of love with the never-ending automated voice messages in confusing phone trees or the late responses to their email queries.
Consider the statistics from 2017, when businesses collectively lost $75 billion due to poor service and obstacles such as long hold times and multiple phone trees.
Buyer expectations from businesses are changing—they want faster delivery, just-in-time service, and highly personalized experiences. Phone and emails don’t do a great job of keeping up with the fast times.
Just to be clear, phone and email support are not entirely out of fashion. This type of customer service works great for some businesses but doesn’t cut ice for others. Businesses like Zappos bank on phone support for customer service because they believe they are able to create a personal connection with customers who call them.
Several B2B companies are comfortable with email for customer support because the nature of their customer service is not really urgent. Take companies that need server security updates or have initiated PCI DSS compliance with respective vendors; these are issues that can’t be done within a matter of few mouse clicks because of the colossal infosec risks they carry.
Customer service via email is a good fit for your business if you are in one of those B2B industries where keeping your customers waiting is not looked down upon. However, you should still maintain a good first response time even if the issue resolution time might take understandably longer.
Here’s an example of how big of a problem customer service is when it’s done via phone and email. Many companies neither offer a live chat option on their websites nor do they make it easy for customers to find their customer service phone number.
To circumvent this universally experienced problem, Paul English and Christen Allen founded GetHuman.com in 2012. The website helps desperate customers find the contact information of customer service of a particular business. They help callers directly talk to company reps without having to get through the automated prompts on phone menus.
The lesson to learn here is—don’t make your customer service hard to reach for customers. Avoid phone-tree menus, staff your customer support team well, or use live chat for instant support.
3. Support via live chat
We live in the golden age of instant gratification—and customer service is no exception to the pressure of delivering here and now. Buyers want brands to acknowledge their issues ASAP and businesses have duly heeded to it because the alternative is fatal to their survival. A scathing 140-characters tweet can send a brand in a whirlwind of bad PR if the company fails to honor its customers’ problems.
Live chat is the messiah that businesses have in an age of fleeting customer retention. It has the right mix of all the traditional customer service channels, the technical capabilities to automate a portion of your service delivery, and the speed to match the customers' expectations. For instance, customer service over live chat is personalized just like talking to a customer care representative in person. But it can also be automated when you have AI-powered chatbots that can interact with customers round-the-clock—even when you are sleeping.
Live chat is virtual and convenient—just like raising a service request over the phone and email. But it’s much faster and way more affordable than its predecessors.
Live chat is disruptive because the support it offers can be synchronous as well as asynchronous. Live chat conversations can be real-time, ongoing engagement.
Live chat also goes hand-in-hand with customer service that occurs in social media because of their overlapping nature of offering instantaneous and friendly responses. Customers from a different time zone don’t have to wait for a business to start their working hours to report an issue because live chat offers round-the-clock accessibility.
The correspondence can be asynchronous, but the engagement is on-demand. With advanced live chat capabilities, businesses can close the gaps with customers via an audio and visual medium. Modern live chat tools are more accurate because they have the capabilities to understand customers’ context.
Use live chat for your customer service if:
your business is primarily online
you want to stay closer to your customers
you want cost-efficient customer service, and
you want to offer world-class customer service
4. Customer service in the form of self-service content
Our understanding of customer service has traditionally been that of a reactive business requirement—like on-call firefighters. But customers these days demand more than just instant, friendly, and accurate service. They want to take problem-solving into their hands; they don’t want customers reps to always spoon-feed a solution to them.
Offering self-service gives you an edge in your customer service. It empowers customers to find solutions on their own, at their own pace. Self-service customer service happens via chatbots, FAQs, knowledge base articles, product guides, video tutorials, and so on. Many customers in today’s global economy find it liberating to use self-service the way they want it or when they want it.
No other service channel fulfills the need for self-service customer service like live chat. Customers can search within the chat widget to find answers to their queries or initiate a conversation if they want and get a response in real-time.
However, make sure you don't rely too much on self-service content to solve customer problems—to the extent where it lacks human empathy.
Consider self-service for your customer service needs if you already have a live chat support capability. Self-service is also a great fit for businesses that get service requests that are common in nature (e.g., refund and exchange requests, questions related to product configurations, billing requests, etc.).
Pro-tip: If many of your customers have recurring questions for your customer service, consider embedding an FAQ within the chat widget on your website. It makes it easier for customers to discover answers to their questions by typing relevant keywords in the search tab.
5. Service via communities and forums
Communities and forums are channels that are powered by users themselves. Businesses that invest in this type of customer service see a very low overhead cost because it virtually requires no staff to man the community and forums.
However, a business must initially be able to create a sizeable following and community around its brand to make this a possibility. Additionally, you might need a few people to moderate the community or forum to maintain community hygiene and service sanity.
The speed of response in this type of customer service is mostly arbitrary because it depends on how active the community members are. To an extent, the moderators can influence engagement among its members and customers who come looking for solutions to their problems. But it’s largely outside of a brand’s control to ensure the speed and quality of service in a forum and community.
Mozilla’s SUMO program is a classic example of this kind of customer service. Mozilla does not have an official customer support team and therefore no phone or email contact center you can reach out to. The community was created to support Mozilla’s open-source products such as Firefox, Firefox for Mobile, and Firefox Focus.
The community has volunteers who help the forum by creating and distributing support content, sharing product updates and reporting bugs to Mozilla developers. Mozilla’s SUMO program is a textbook case of the ‘prosumer’ movement that we are witnessing lately; the consumers are partly the producers who take part in deciding the design and service offerings of a product.
Customer service through communities and forums is great for your business if you have (or, want to create) a good community-like following around your brand who can self-regulate themselves. It’s mostly suitable for B2B businesses whose target market is driven by peer assessment and collaboration.
Which one will you choose?
Those are all the types of customer service you can choose for your business. Assuming you want your business to survive for as long as possible—it’s best to mix speed, convenience, personalization, and self-service to create excellent customer service for your brand.
But you don’t have to break the bank in order to include all this in your customer service. Start with live chat—it’s economic, offers the best of all worlds, and gives you the flexibility of downsizing or scaling in accordance with your business requirements.
A version of this article appeared originally in www.freshworks.com.