Reinventing customer service

With demanding customers increasingly at the center of business models, companies are creating new digital and mobile experiences to keep them happy

AI applications in customer service
  • One‑third of customers who’ve had just one bad experience will ditch a company forever
  • Companies that deliver great customer experiences benefit from increased revenue, more loyal customers, and word‑of‑mouth promotion
  • Machine learning and AI capabilities can greatly personalize the digital experience

“The customer is always right,” goes the old saying. Keeping a new customer happy, though, is harder than ever.

Consumers now engage with companies both in the physical world and through a variety of digital tools, including mobile devices, web portals, apps, chatbots, text messages, and social media. Everyone wants an immediate response: Uber claims that even a three‑minute wait is unacceptable to most of its riders. Customers prefer companies that know their names and remember their purchase history, and they don’t think it should matter how they connect.

Delivering an always‑on, personalized customer experience isn’t easy. It means collecting and analyzing more data than ever before—from call center complaints to social media interactions—and then drawing out meaningful and actionable insights from the information. Companies need to sift through a catalog of technology options, including a growing number of artificial intelligence capabilities.

“It’s about using AI and machine learning to fix problems before customers know they have them,” says Farrell Hough, senior vice president of customer workflow products at ServiceNow. “By digitizing the underlying workflows, we can manage complex issues from end to end and take care of common requests instantly. That in itself is a great customer experience, but leaves room for deep personalization.”

With this in mind, smart companies are redesigning the customer experience, whether the customer is a retail shopper or a field technician troubleshooting maintenance issues atop a wind turbine. They’re also tapping AI to deliver customer‑tailored services and provide the same experience across every available channel—web, mobile app, instant messaging, or social media. And they’re making sure that users have instant access to the information they need.

Companies that can deliver an exemplary customer experience can benefit from increased sales, return business, and invaluable word‑of‑mouth promotion. But if they disappoint a consumer even once, 33% will ditch a company forever, according to a 2017 American Express survey.

Here’s a look at three companies that offer forward‑leaning models for improving the customer experience.

Noom: Making personalization pay off

As anyone who has tried to lose weight knows, changing behavior is hard.
A host of smartphone apps promise to help. Usage of health and fitness apps has grown by 330% since 2014, according to Flurry Analytics. But technology that offers a one‑size‑fits‑all approach is rarely successful. For dieting, customers demand a more personalized approach.

New York–based Noom combines AI and human coaches to deliver that customized weight‑loss help. Its AI‑based technology uses data from its 45 million users globally (four billion data points in all) to provide subscribers with a weight‑loss plan tailored to individual lifestyles.

The targeted plan helps create a great customer experience. But it’s also great for the company in other ways. “Our investment in AI brings the price of our program down for everyone,” says Artem Petakov, Noom’s co‑founder and president. “It also improves our overall quality of coaching.”

After you fill out a 12‑question online survey about weight goals, eating habits, medical condition, and home environment, the Noom app predicts whether you will meet your weight‑loss goals. If not, it recommends a more realistic target. Noom then offers personalized calorie and daily exercise targets, based on the person’s preferred pace. (Speeds range from “turtle” to “cheetah.”) Noom also provides one‑on‑one interactions with a human coach via text or, for some premium customers, by phone.

Using machine learning algorithms, the app tracks behaviors and recommends personalized actions. After collecting details about everything you ate in a day and how much you exercised, it can recommend you substitute wheat for white bread, or pick a salad instead of that lunchtime burger. It can warn you if your current behaviors aren’t helping you lose weight, and it can refine its recommendations based on the actions of its entire population of user. The more data it collects, the more personalized its recommendations become.

For companies, creating a personalized customer experience generally pays off—to the tune of 6% to 10% in increased revenue, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Noom has seen an 80% increase in revenue over the last three years, thanks largely to expansion in Korea, Japan, Germany, and Latin America, where it hired local coaches and added local food databases to make sure its programs remain personalized.

JetBlue’s omni-channel omniscience

There are many reasons why airlines are basement dwellers when it comes to customer experience. Crowded planes, delayed flights, countless airline fees, lost luggage, and crappy food all contribute to customer dissatisfaction.

To this list of woes, add one more: Having to explain (and re‑explain) a problem to customer service representatives with every phone call, email, or text message.

JetBlue Airways has taken an innovative approach to the problem. In 2017, JetBlue created an “omnichannel” customer service system that delivers a seamless connection between mobile, web, email, text, and social media communications. Whether the issue is a stray bag, missed flight, or canceled trip, the goal is to ease the frustration of the stressed‑out passenger having to explain the problem anew with each customer service interaction.

Imagine a flier searching for a lost suitcase. In the past, a call center worker wouldn’t know it was the customer’s third call, let alone that she had complained by email, text, and over Twitter. Now the flier can call one day, text the next, and try Facebook Messenger a week later. JetBlue’s customer service system records all the flier’s interactions. (Easing the flier’s ire over a week of lost luggage is a separate problem.)

For JetBlue, the payoff is twofold: With more seamless communications, customers have fewer opportunities for a negative experience. And, according to a 2018 survey by Gladly, a customer service software provider, 76% of consumers value a company that they’ve interacted with remembering their previous interactions.

Zinc: A mobile problem-solver for field techs

For field technicians, connectivity—anywhere, anytime—is essential. Nine out of 10 field service leaders from companies employing 50 technicians or more say real‑time communication is critical to their jobs, according to a recent survey by Field Technologies.

While numerous mobile software tools can connect these remote workers with the information they need, service techs increasingly prefer consumer tools, like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, that they’re already using on smartphones. But those products often fall short when it comes to security, and reliability. They also don’t give managers the visibility they need to monitor communications for quality control.

San Francisco–based Zinc provides field workers a messaging app with a user interface similar to many consumer apps they’re already familiar with. Among its innovative features is Hotline Groups, which allows technicians to communicate with groups of far‑flung colleagues who can share specific expertise in dealing with time‑sensitive problems. A company that services wind turbines, for instance, could form a group of specialists. Field technicians who encounter unexpected problems can post a video and get real‑time feedback from experienced mechanical engineers in another state.

Among Zinc’s customers is Vivint, a $2 billion smart home company that customizes 24/7 home security monitoring. When a motion sensor fails and triggers a series of random false alarms, a field agent could get the call at 3 a.m. and be able to text with a trained technician in another time zone to solve the outage in a few minutes.

For companies, the ability to get immediate response to service problems can mean fewer repeat repair visits. “When service techs go do a job, they know it’s done right the first time,” says John Stetic, chief product officer at Zinc. “It makes them more efficient and effective in their jobs, which improves first‑time fix rates.”