3 Customer Support Trends of 2017 [Podcast]

May 1, 2017 Drew Walters

Maria Abbe sits down with Katie Wirka, Lead Client Support Specialist at PrecisionLender, to discuss some of the recent trends in the world of customer support. We'll cover each of the following:

  1. Switching from reactive to proactive support.
  2. Encouraging empathy in client interactions.
  3. Using new technologies (AI, predictive analytics, natural language processing).


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Podcast Transcript

Maria Abbe: Hi and welcome to The Purposeful Banker podcast, the podcast brought to you by PrecisionLender where we discuss the big topics on the minds of today's best bankers. I'm your host, Maria Abbe, Content Manager here at PrecisionLender. Today I'm joined by Katie Wirka, Lead Client Support Specialist here at PrecisionLender. Thank you all for joining us.

Katie Wirka: Thank you.

Maria Abbe: We are very excited to have Katie on today. She has extensive background in customer support, and she's going to share some of the trends she's been seeing in the world of customer support, which can be really applied to anyone in a customer-facing role. Katie, to kick us off here, do you mind sharing a bit about your background and then what you do here at PrecisionLender?

Katie Wirka: Sure thing. My role here at PrecisionLender is to be a helpful point of contact and an advocate for clients. Each day we receive calls and emails from clients, and me and my colleagues help answer their questions and turn their really great ideas into feature requests and advocate on their behalf within PrecisionLender to resolve issues when the software doesn't really work as expected. In addition to that, the support team helps create articles in our support center. We have also been spending some fun time training our new colleague, Andi.

Maria Abbe: That's exciting, and what an important role that you have. Being someone who is always in the world of customer support, are you seeing any trends or upcoming trends in 2017?

Katie Wirka: There's so much going on in the world of customer support in 2017. There's really a lot of exciting things going on and more than I could ever talk about in a single podcast, so if anyone is interested there are really great resources and organizations out there that have a lot of great content, from Support Driven to Nicereply to the Customer Service Institute of Australia, among so many others. They have inspired this podcast and informed what I'm about to talk about.

Of all that I've heard regarding customer trends in 2017, my top three would have to be, number one, the switch from reactive support to proactive support; number two, encouraging genuine empathy during client interactions; and number three, what's on the minds of most are the use of technology like artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and natural language processing to enhance the customer experience and save organizations time and money.

Maria Abbe: Great. We'll include links to those other sources that you mentioned so that our listeners can go there and look at what you've been looking at. Looking at trend number one, you mentioned reactive versus proactive support. Do you mind defining the two?

Katie Wirka: Sure! I think the best way to define them is actually to give you an example. I want everybody to think about this example that I'm about to give, which I think is a customer experience that all of us have had. You're on your computer and you're working in a program, and an error message is thrown. You reload the page a couple of times thinking that maybe this is just me, and after about five times, you realize that it's broken. You think to yourself, "In an hour or so, this will probably be resolved. I'll go work on something else." You finish that task, get back to that program, reload the page, and lo and behold there's an error message. At that point you're thinking, "I should probably contact the company." Much to your dismay, it takes you two minutes to find their support page and there is an email support line, there's a phone, there's chat, but you want this solved now. Which one are you going to use to get the best response?

I know that's something that I've gone through and has really irritated me. Even when I get in contact with a support rep and they resolve that issue, I'm still kind of irritated that I even had to go through that rigamarole to actually get an answer. What that was, was an example of what's referred to as "reactive support." It's when a customer has a question or encounters and issue and they have to actually find the resources, reach out to the company, and wait for a response.

What proactive customer support is, it's an approach to customer support in which businesses make that first move to help customers. These businesses will go out of their way to, first, find potential problems, and then resolve them before customers need to even ask for help. Ways to approach this include identifying frequently asked questions or points of frustration and providing timely information throughout customer interactions. That's a great way to think about proactive support. There's also this buzz phrase - is what I'm going to call it - floating around customer support, which is called "mapping the customer journey." It's a way that an organization can deepen their understanding of their customers' behaviors, thoughts, and feelings across several touchpoints, multiple touchpoints within the organization. Each of those touchpoints is an opportunity to engage or even alienate a customer.

Taking a step back, some of the general and well-known examples of proactive customer support is having an easily accessible knowledge base, support articles, having in-application help pop-ups, and then also having informational videos, instructional videos. PrecisionLender does have all of those resources available to clients and we're constantly trying to improve those as a support team. I feel like we also go a step farther, which shows that we're rock stars in proactive support.

Go back to that previous experience that I was sharing with you, about receiving that error when you're working in your program. Instead of having to stop your task and find that support resource and contact somebody, imagine for a second that all of a sudden you get a phone call. It's somebody from that company telling you, "We've received an error message. We know that you're experiencing this. We're really sorry about that. Our developers are working on a fix, and we'll let you know as soon as that's resolved." That's a pretty amazing customer experience, in my opinion.

Maria Abbe: That's huge.

Katie Wirka: Yeah. I've actually been able to personally do that in my role here at PrecisionLender. Having worked in customer support for several years in a very reactive role - taking those phone calls, emails, tickets - I can't tell you how much more I enjoy being with an organization that's so proactive. The reaction that I get from somebody when I tell them that we're aware of an issue and they never even thought to contact me is huge. It's great for the client, and it's great for the support specialist. I can tell you firsthand. Another thing I like to point out as an argument for proactive support is if you go back to that situation and you think about receiving that error, how many times have you actually reached out to a company to tell them that you've had an issue?

Maria Abbe: Not many. I usually just wait until it goes away.

Katie Wirka: Right? You just don't do that. Unless it completely impacts my life or my work, I'm not going to reach out. That is somebody who is dissatisfied, somebody who is irritated with your product, and they're not even on your radar. Just because you're not receiving tickets and phone calls does not mean people like your product. It could just mean that they don't have the time to tell you that they've had a bad experience.

Maria Abbe: That's a great point.

Katie Wirka: Another thing with proactive support that's worth taking into account is having feedback within the application. Even if it's a thumbs up/thumbs down, we did well, we didn't do well. It's a simple click of a button. It makes it easy for clients to be able to give you feedback. You're not requiring a lot of their time, and it's one indicator of customer satisfaction where you had zero in other cases.

Maria Abbe: That's great. It seems like with proactive support, you're really putting yourself in the customer's shoes. Which kind of leads us to the second trend, in that organizations are encouraging their staff to be genuinely empathetic when supporting their clients. Why is that so important?

Katie Wirka: That's a good question. I'll start out with a bit of a story. A few years ago, my brother was in med school. I remember him telling me about a decades old study on physician-patient communication that showed that primary care physicians were sued less often, they had less malpractice suits, if they exhibited empathy or had empathetic behavior towards their clients from the get-go. That means that they spent time educating their patients, exhibited humor, laughed, elicited questions, really were human towards their patients.

Maria Abbe: Built relationships.

Katie Wirka: Yeah. This study, it relates to medicine, but I feel like it relates to any field where people are working with people. It drove home that demonstrating genuine understanding and empathy towards others means that they're more likely to demonstrate that towards you. I feel like it's the best way to prevent a situation from escalating. If instantly or from the start you're very nice to somebody, they're less likely to escalate later. It's kind of like the golden rule, right? It seems pretty self-explanatory, but it's there and it needs to be reiterated. As if the golden rule wasn't enough of an argument, there are a bunch of studies out there that relate directly to client support, that show if a customer is frustrated they're more likely to churn. Trust me, if a client is frustrated about not being understood, the customer service rep is equally as frustrated.

I mean, it all makes sense in that those two are two-fold. I'm just putting myself in that customer's shoes. I've been there before many times, where you're frustrated and whatever you are using that's broken is, one, broken so you're frustrated, two, you can't find the support contact line. I've done this many times, where I have to google it. You shouldn't have to google it. Then once you get there, it's a voice recording and you're not even speaking to a real person. You have to listen through the whole list of options, and then they sneakily put in how you can talk to a real human. It really sounds like it's two-fold. The being human part is such a huge, huge aspect in making sure your customers are happy, making sure that they don't churn. I feel like, and you probably know, if you are human they're more apt to be open with their feedback, which then in turn - if you get good or negative feedback - can help you and whomever is working on your application make that application better, based on their feedback.

Maria Abbe: That is so true.

Maria Abbe: Adding to that, how can organizations encourage their support specialists to be genuinely empathetic, when they're supporting those clients?

Katie Wirka: Through the years, it's really become clear to me - and I think the industry as whole - that in order to provide really great customer support, businesses actually need to bring about a cultural change at every level of their organization to the point where it's not just good intentions. They really have to build great supports and principles into the foundation of the company.

A company designed for service will naturally display the behaviors - being human and being empathetic - that makes for a great customer experience. For example, in my former life I worked for a company as a support person. As part of my training, I was told explicitly not to apologize to clients and to also not give them any sort of timeline as to when issues would be resolved because we had a limited number of developers. This message came from the top down. The thought behind this is "we don't want to have anything in writing that says that we're sorry, because that shows that we made a mistake and that could be held against us in the future." It was a very protected kind of environment. I did my job, but I found that there were so many cases where I really wanted to apologize. I truly felt like they deserved an apology. I stressed out so much about it that I was thinking about "how can I apologize without actually apologizing?" It was weird. I know it was a client-facing policy, but I felt like it really did permeate our company culture. I felt like leadership and staff communication was ambiguous and strained.

Here at PrecisionLender, conversely, our guiding principles are to be helpful, humble, be honest, and be human. Essentially the company just wants their employees to be empathetic. These guiding principles are posted everywhere. You know this. Around our office, it's on the walls, it's on our T-shirts, it's on my mouse pad, so I'm looking at them every single day. Everybody, from support to developers to marketing, really take them to heart. This empathy I really feel spills over into our interactions with clients. We are really tasked in support to be the client's advocate in the office. We make the client's issue our issue and work within the company to help them out. For the first time in my support career, I'm encouraged to apologize, which is amazing and to truly say, "Yeah, we messed up." This has really empowered myself and my colleagues to honestly engage with clients in a way that I know I would appreciate if I were in their shoes.

Maria Abbe: Yeah, truly. Something that we do that I think is pretty cool, especially since I'm not personally on the client support side of things, you all do a great job of sharing throughout the company examples of good support emails, good support interactions. Not only can everyone in the company see that as an example, but it also makes the employee feel good about the work that they're doing as well and they're more apt to, then, be more empathetic. They're supported in that way, which I think is wonderful.

Katie Wirka: Exactly.

Maria Abbe: Now, we've all received apologies a little less than genuine, like the "I'm sorry you're upset," which is a pretty empty apology. What is the right way to genuinely apologize to a customer?

Katie Wirka: It can be an art form. I think the first step is empathy. Really know what you're apologizing for. Do your best to put yourself in the customer's shoes. I know I've said that so many times, but I really try and keep that in mind. Remind yourself that when you're receiving a phone call or a ticket, the client has most likely been struggling with whatever issue it is for a very long time before you ever hear from them. A friend of mine told me once that he was working with a particular software at work and it kept crashing. He finally submitted a support ticket to the company, and in there, he said, "The amount of time that I've spent trying to troubleshoot this and the amount of work that I've lost due to these crashes has actually totaled around $5,000 of billable hours."

Maria Abbe: What?

Katie Wirka: Yes. While we don't get tickets like that, with such a figure for the amount of pain that we've actually caused clients, it's always good to keep that in mind when you're working with clients. You're helping them after they've probably struggled for a very long time. Personalize your response and let clients know that you understand. Using phrases like "I can totally see how that would be frustrating" and other things like "I can definitely understand how this fix is critical to your workflow." Just be human about it.

The second step is actually apologizing. By apologizing, I don't mean saying something like "we apologize for the inconvenience." We've all hear that, and it doesn't really seem genuine. It's overused. Simply saying "I'm sorry" or "I'm really sorry," does the trick. It's straightforward. It says what you mean.

The third step, if at all possible, to a good apology is to offer and explanation. People really just want to know what happened in the first place to cause the issue. I've worked in support a long time, and I know that when you're working with a client you can't always give them an explanation right away. It is your job to try to figure that out in the future and provide them with that information.

The fourth step of a good apology is to actually work to fix the client's problems. Apologies tend to lose their meaning, no matter how good they are, if you keep apologizing and fixes don't happen or if you keep apologizing and the same thing keeps happening. Be honest. If you say you're going to fix something, fix it.

Maria Abbe: That's awesome. Those are some great tips. Thank you for sharing. We're going to switch gears dramatically because there's been a lot of talk surrounding artificial intelligence. How is artificial intelligence playing a role in the customer support world?

Katie Wirka: AI and machine learning is everywhere. We're all interacting with it countless times a day. When you google something, when you shop on Amazon and you get a suggestion, when you're reading the news and you get suggested articles, or you're watching Netflix and you get suggested series and things like that. Our lives are being impacted by AI. I don't know about you, Maria, but it's becoming a bit of an expectation for me that organizations I'm working with have some sort of automation, number one, and also kind of know a little bit about my preferences. It's a little scary but that has become the expectation for me.

AI within customer support can be anything from using chatbots to providing personalized or contextualized recommendations throughout the customer journey, quickly analyzing questions for effective triaging and then also surfacing data really quickly that will help customers and support reps make better decisions. AI is helping customer service professionals by supplementing their workflow. Carl Ryden, our CEO, has always said that AI is doing what machines do best so humans can do what humans do best. I think there's some fear within the customer service world that AI is going to replace people, which I can totally understand, but I think it's important to know that AI doesn't come with a ton of knowledge right out of the box. AI requires humans to train it to do their job, just like we at PrecisionLender are training Andi. AI will continue to be a lifelong learner. People are going to be needed.

Maria Abbe: Well, that is hopeful. Can you give an example of how AI will help allow for a better customer experience and help organizations?

Katie Wirka: One example that I really like involves the use of what's called natural language processing. It's a field of computer science, AI, and computational linguistics concerned with the interactions between computers and human language. Essentially it's computers being able to analyze a sentence for the intent of the sentence, so "what is somebody asking?" Then also the emotion, being able to say "this person is irritated, this person is fine." Stuff like that.

A few months ago, I was chatting with someone who works with this type of technology about a client they have, who has a two-tiered support structure. There's tier one, and they're average price per support ticket is around $1. Tier two, which has more technically-based support structure, is around $16 per ticket. Before AI, they had somebody looking at questions coming in. They had to triage the questions to either tier one or tier two. They, from that one single question, had to figure out what the intent was because if they were to send let's say a password reset ticket to tier three, which could be easily answered by tier one, that's a loss to the company. Tier three still has to answer it, but that's a $16 password reset. Which is rough. They're now using AI to be able to triage those questions a lot quicker and with a lot more accuracy.

Maria Abbe: That's incredible! Now why would a company like PrecisionLender or a bank need to be thinking about artificial intelligence now?

Katie Wirka: Have you ever heard the phrase "context is king?"

Maria Abbe: Sure have.

Katie Wirka: That's something that I've really taken to heart recently, when thinking about customer support interactions. I don't think that companies are just competing with other companies like them anymore. I mean, just think about it. The average person has dozens of customer service interactions each day, which affect the way that they perceive other interactions moving forward. An example that I had just recently was shopping on Amazon. While shopping, I saw a suggestion of something that I needed and I totally forgot that I needed. I was like, "Yes! Sweet! I'll add that to my cart." Then when I finally check out with my $20 purchase, I get free two-day shipping - thank you Prime - and then after I'm done with my purchase, I go to a chat support person because something that I purchased broke after the first use. I explain that to them, and within a minute they had given me credit in my account for that item.

The next time I have to really know what I want on a website or pay for shipping or wait in a phone triage to try to get to a support person for a refund, I'm going to already be having a bad customer experience because I'm measuring it to the other things that I work with and interact with every single day. Organizations really need to keep that in mind and keep up with consumer preferences, regardless of their industry. The service, industry-wide, the bar for that is being raised every single day.

Maria Abbe: Yeah, that's such a great point. Whenever I need to reach out to say Wordpress.com, they have such an amazing customer support experience that I thoroughly enjoy speaking to them. Then when I go anywhere else, like we were talking about in the beginning, you push it off until the absolute last minute because the experience can be so terrible. That's a great point, not only focusing on how your industry is handling it, but you have to focus on everybody is handling customer support. A lot to look at.

Katie Wirka: Yeah, a little daunting.

Maria Abbe: Yes. Thank you so much, Katie, for joining us today and sharing all of your wonderful knowledge. That will do it for us today. Thank you all for listening. You can always find more information about today's episode in our Resource Center at explore.precisionlender.com. We will include links related to the topics that we've been talking through today. If you like what you've been hearing, make sure to subscribe to the feed in iTunes, SoundCloud, Google Play, or Stitcher, and we would love to get ratings and feedback on any of those platforms. Again, thank you all for listening. Until next time, this has been Maria Abbe and Katie Wirka, and this is The Purposeful Banker podcast. 

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