Reap Big Benefits By Running Customer Service Like A Software Start-up

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Last week, my employer ServiceNow held its annual customer conference. With over 18,000 attendees, it’s an amazing week-long event. Among the many activities that take place, one of the most interesting is the customer-led breakout sessions. In these, customers share their business challenges, successes, and future plans and how our software is assisting in those endeavors. ServiceNow offers solutions for several lines of business, allowing customers to share their stories in customer service, information technology, human resources, and security operations. As I attended the customer service sessions, I found an interesting theme in many of the narratives.

Several customers had adopted a software startup-style approach to how they deployed new customer service capabilities. Their technique leaned heavily on agile software development (“agile”) and many of the concepts that are part of it or support it.

Agile has been around for several years. Replacing the prior “waterfall” design approach, agile is much more flexible. It permits requirements and solutions to evolve as a result of more collaborative work between a development team and their customers or end users. This, in turn, means solutions can be delivered more quickly, in an iterative fashion and with continual improvement. Its very nature encourages both a rapid and adaptable response to change. The Harvard Business Review actually wrote recently about the opportunities and challenges for companies considering the use of agile.

Let’s examine some of the techniques these customers had put into play.

Selecting Capabilities

Companies identified several common reasons when discussing why they realized  change was needed in their customer service technology:

  • Broken processes resulting in slow or poor quality customer service
  • Legacy systems that were cumbersome to work with, lacked flexibility, and/or were obsolete
  • The need to access multiple, disconnected systems (the “swivel chair” or “multiple windows” syndromes common in customer service) by agents for even the most simple of customer service requests, resulting in lower efficiencies and higher error rates

Companies attributed lower customer satisfaction scores, higher costs, and lost revenue opportunities as additional consequences of these.

Customer feedback in the form of satisfaction scores and comments also had a large factor in seeking to make changes and to adopt new customer service methodologies more rapidly. Examples here included demands for new communications channels–virtual agents (“chatbots”) and regular chat, for example–as well as self-service, such as knowledge management and automated solutions.

All of this is captured in the backlog, which I’ll cover shortly.

Journey Mapping

Though not in as many presentations, customer journey mapping was also mentioned as it relates to the customer service experience. This was not a surprise, since customer journey mapping, a part of managing the entire customer experience, is synonymous with user experience design in software development, where agile comes from.

Customers who had adopted customer journey mapping spoke of using it in two ways. The first was to understand the current steps customers encountered (or, to state more honestly, were forced to endure) in seeking customer service. The second use was in planning out exactly how a more ideal customer service experience would play out, thus guiding development efforts.

Minimum Viable Product And Agile Development

A common idea for customers was to launch their new solutions with a “minimum viable product” (or MVP) mindset. MVP is best defined as delivering just enough functionality to satisfy the critical requirements. An MVP approach was used in various fashions, from how the complete solution was measured (if replacing an entire system) as well as component parts or new capabilities being developed. The concept of MVP was applied equally to customer-facing features as well as those used internally by agents and teams supporting customer service.

Several advantages exist with this approach. The first is a faster time to solution deployment. By identifying the bare minimum necessary to accomplish a process, the basic needs can be quickly developed, tested, and made available to customers and agents.

The next advantage is the ability to iterate new, small capabilities over time. With shorter development cycles, it’s very easy to bring make new features available as well as to continue to enhance those previously delivered.

The backlog manages which capabilities are to come. The backlog is a prioritized list of new features, enhancements, and bug fixes that address the needs of the customer as well as that of the business. Until something is committed to from the backlog and a new development cycle begins, those items can be continuously reprioritized as needed, taking into account factors like risk, business value (both to the customer and internally), dependencies, effort, and delivery date.

By developing over time in smaller segments, there is also less risk of spending too much time delivering the wrong functionality. One of the reasons software companies moved away from the waterfall style of development was due to the common issue of all requirements being gathered upfront then completely developed. Over that long development period, it was common for requirements to change as the customers’ needs evolved, markets shifted, competitors developed market-leading features, etc. and thus the project was a partial or complete failure.

Change Management

Though not strictly an agile concept, change management was also a common theme. Customers had many stories of how it factored heavily into how easily, rapidly, and successfully they were able to deliver new solutions to their customers and agents. It makes sense: agile means rapid, continuous change, and staff, as well as customers, must be kept in-the-loop and educated for changes to take hold and add benefit.

The methods of communicating change were varied. Agents might be taught in classroom-style sessions or asked to complete online training. Customers might receive email notifications of new capabilities or processes, or directed to short video instructions. Customers who presented spoke of how they considered the nature and complexity of the change in determining how it was communicated: when training agents, for example, does the subject matter require an instructor-led class or does an online, self-guided tutorial make the most sense?

Better, Faster, Stronger

To deliver the highest quality, customer service faces many challenges in processes and technology. Be it replacing legacy systems, addressing disconnected systems and obsolete methods, or simply adding new capabilities to enhance customer service, improving customer service is a complex and lengthy process that never ends.

As pointed out in the Harvard Business Review article, many businesses have or are considering adopting agile across their entire business. This past week illustrated to me how many leaders in customer service organizations have already done this, making rapid, iterative improvements by using agile techniques. They are seeing the results in the form of greater customer satisfaction, lower costs, and higher productivity. Would your customer service organization benefit from this approach?

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