How companies are rethinking customer support for this day and age



I prepare to return to work, I’ve been thinking about where companies were last year (and way before that) vs where they are right now in relation to supporting their customers. One minute I’m admiring a super experience I’m having with the likes of Starling, and the next I’m singing yes, my name is Igglepiggle, Igglepiggle, niggle, wiggle or stacking blocks for them to be knocked down before I got to the top — the variety is real right now.

Naturally, there’s been some fantastic stuff that’s come out of companies reacting to what’s happened this year, but the purpose of this post isn’t to focus on this specifically, but more generally, on companies that are getting it right when it comes to supporting customers.

To get it out the way though, here’s some covid-reaction stuff I’ve seen and thought was interesting:

Dunelm — deliver to your car (tell us when you get here). So when you place an order with Dunelm you can choose to collect at the front of the store. Turns out, on the email to say your order is ready, there’s an option to have it dropped to your car. You enter your car registration, make and model, and ta-dah, someone pops it over to you. I didn’t realize this until I jumped out of the car and looked at the email — perhaps it could be made more obvious?

Examples of the email from Dunelm to say deliver to car along with the screens to enter registration number and car make

Aldi x Brew Dog — IPA. Okay, it’s not really a support thing, but it was fun to watch. Aldi and Brew Dog came through with some joy and collaborated on a beer. It’s pretty tasty, you should try it. The big thing here for me is that by bringing the right people together, great things can happen, quicker than if you carry on doing things the way you’ve always done them, in siloed teams.

Next, collect & return pods. Next have partnered with Morrisons to launch pods in supermarket car parks around the UK, enabling customers to collect & return their online orders. Starting with just 3, this feels like a nice build > measure > learn approach — bravo Next.

Marks & Spencer collect & return pod in Morrisons car park

M&S book a shopping slot. As much as we Brits love a queue, it can be pretty annoying sometimes, especially if the weather is bad. M&S created not just any queueing experience, they created an M&S one, where you book a 30 min slot, skip the queues like a VIP.

Banks — pause your mortgage. As we know, many people have been furloughed or even worse, lost their job. Banks enabled customers to pause their mortgage payments during this awful time. A friend leads a team that was busy taking calls from customers to do just this, and then that was manually do all the work in the background. They’re traditionally an office-based team that didn’t have the right setup to work from home, but turns out their performance is better than ever, and absenteeism down massively.

Halifax — checking in on customers, well-being calls. I was driving along and I heard this nice thing about calling customers to see how they are, and then I realized it was a bank. Turns out Lloyds are doing this too. This is nice. I mean if it was Howard, it’d be even better.

Lots of companies — playing hide and seek. A lot of companies ended up in the let’s hide every single way of getting in touch with us followed by notifications and pop-ups to re-enforce just how busy customer service teams had become. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, I did, and the rage was real. It’s not an easy one to handle, but surely making the self-serve content and experience better would’ve helped, or looking at other channels like messaging and having other team members from the company handling customer service conversations — if it’s a message they have time to find out the answer and reply when they’re ready to, but also manage expectation.

People change, and so should companies

In the last decade, we’ve seen the rise of digital, the ‘internet-era’. We’ve seen a shift in how people communicate with one another, in how customers get things, the rise of smart devices and companies that have disrupted whole industries — the banks with no branches, the music services with no artists, the tv/film services with no studios, the holiday rentals with no rooms, and the taxis with no radios on hire. Not only are new companies emerging where there’s a product/market fit that’s not being filled, but legacy companies are adapting to customers changing behaviors, and getting better at what they do, or going as far as extending their business model into relevant areas.

Both these types of companies that are winning are those that are putting customers front and center. Here are some examples:

  • New (last decade or so) emerging through product/marketing fit — Obvious example, Airbnb. I’m going to guess that you’ve used Airbnb (if you haven’t, you should). Despite the year they’ve had, they finally filed for an IPO this month (November 2020) and are reportedly aiming to raise $3bn, and to reach a valuation of $30bn. Founded just 12 years ago, in 2008 (the year that Woolworths, MFI, and Zavvi closed all their stores). A friend had a place booked and on the day, it fell through — Airbnb gave them £500 to stay somewhere else within 30 minutes of the original place. No question. Just did it.
  • Improving themselves — McDonald’s, the fast-food giant founded in 1955, has adapted so much in 65 years they’ve stayed completely relevant to customers' behaviors. A new strategy ‘Accelerating the Arches’ is focused on not just the food, but how customers order it with a focus on the ‘three d’s’ — drive-thru, delivery, and digital. All of these things will come together in a new experience called MyMcDonald’s. This comes with a Brucie Bonus for loyal customers, a loyalty scheme — being trialed in Phoenix first, but expect it to ‘go large’ soon.
  • Extending business models — it would be easy to mention Amazon but I won’t. Instead, Disney. Disney+ has totally smashed it, sure timing and brand have been on the side, but their focus on the customer is awesome. Want to sign in on your tv but think 🤔 what’s my password again, what a hassle having to use my remote to enter all of this! Don’t worry about remembering your username and password, open the browser on your phone, enter this web address, enter the code, and boom, you’re one click away from Buzz Lightyear to the rescue. So there are not only nice touches like this to avoid getting access to content for family time on Saturday, but their support is ace too.

    A friend had their account hacked, went on to chat to them, and said it was the friendliest ever — consistency, from theme park to live chat, the brand lives on!
Disney+ app on my tv showing how to sign in using a web url and a code

When it comes to customers changing behaviors, things really hit home when your Grandad decides he doesn’t want ‘the internet’ anymore. So his bills lower but his tv box is slower, to discover (like we told him) he’s missing the ‘Super 6’ from Aldi, submitting his meter readings, and seeing fifth, sixth cousins popping up on So I’ve now had to get a sim card and a 4G mobile wifi box. Bingo, he’s back on Aldi and getting me to buy two boxes of grapes from the ‘Super 6’, a beef stew, and a floor mat from the middle aisle.

Anyway, I’m sure we can all agree that the pace of change is pretty wild. If you think back to just five years ago, we’ve seen incumbents, traditional FTSE companies continuing to ignore their customers changing behaviors — some have been to adapting, others it took a pandemic to get them to think/act differently, and some have stood still, who will be the next Blockbuster?

Let’s not use technology for the sake of it

I’m in awe of many companies like ASOS for their absolute killer shopping experience to 20% off codes (I could probably tell you when they’re dropping the next code), DPD for their precision and timely nudges, and Starling for their joined-up online and offline journeys — despite being a ‘digital bank’. These companies are providing super experiences, so super, I can’t remember the last time I need their help, because if I did it was clear and easy go it alone (or reach a human if I needed to). I mean that’s the goal right, launch things that work for your customers. If something you launch is causing customers to need something they can’t get, there’s a problem right?

Here’s an example of ASOS killing it — notice I can do everything I need to do to return my item (course it’s loungewear!), and I get timely notifications along the way.

Example flow of ASOS return journey, screens in the app and emails that follow

What I’m not in awe of is when companies do stuff because it’s ‘new tech’, it’s ‘cool’ — for instance, chatbots. I’m all for conversational support, using a bot to provide easy/common/low-level support to a customer, but there’s not one experience I’ve had where I’ve thought, wow, that was so amazing and I’ve tried many. In fact, I end up furious and usually get transferred, “human please” (that’s worked in some cases, most recently, with Zara)It’s funny that chatbots are finally in the trough of disillusion on Gartner’s ‘Hype Cycle’. From ‘innovation trigger’ to ‘peak of inflated expectations’, I saw the trough coming, and oh what a year to happen — 2020.

Gartner’s hype cycle for 2020 — a line graph that plots new and emerging technologies on a hype cycle.

Financial services have always fascinated me and since writing about banking back in 2016, I do feel like there’s been a shift, maybe it’s because of the Starlings, Monzo’s of the world. They’ve been setting the bar, but also smart people have been rethinking what’s working/not working for customers, and banks are being more open to partnering with companies like Flux to deliver new features to customers without recreating the wheel.

For a few years now, there’s been noise around voice, “wouldn’t it be amazing if we launched an Alexa skill”, “no Mike, no it wouldn’t. We should only focus on that when we’ve got the basics working and it’s something our customers would get value and use from”. I still feel like it’s a gimmick over being mega useful given that most people use their smart devices to listen to their favorite songs. For accessibility, for sure, it has its uses, but people need to get their websites and apps accessible for all first.

The most recent data I could find around smart speakers was from Strategy Analytics and it shows that 20% of UK households had a smart speaker up to the end of June 2019. That is still low, and I’d hedge my bets that most of those people are using their ‘smart speaker’ to listen to music, rather than interact with a company.

In terms of using your voice, banks like Santander and NatWest have recently started asking if you’d like to record your voice as a way to verify yourself if you call them again — pretty useful, saves going through press 1, press 4, press 2. This is the kind of voice thing I’m down with right now, and I love technology, but not for the sake of it.

Talking of pressing 2, as soon as you call Starling you’re greeted with the option to press 2 to receive a call back (brilliant, why don’t more companies offer this? Sure, could be a logistical nightmare, but it’s right for you the customer). I can also start a conversation in an email (that’s linked to my account), and carry on the conversation in the app. As I mentioned partnerships, recently Barclays (and others) have partnered with Flux to show receipts in their banking apps (for retailers that are on-board like H&M) — useful when you can’t find the receipt for that dress you got to wear for your birthday, but lockdown meant a trip to your living room in your loungewear.

This is an advert for digital receipts feature Barclays have just launched in partnership with Flux

I can’t say I’ve had a poor experience with any of my traditional banks (NatWest, Barclaycard, or Santander) when it’s come to needing to get something done either myself or by speaking to someone. So bravo to banking, sure there are tons more to do, but it’s exciting to see them working hard to keep up with our ever more demanding expectations.

Curfews and customer support don’t go well together

One thing that’s common in all of the companies I rate is the relentless focus on customers as I mentioned at the beginning. New services are executed with the customer in mind (maybe they did some testing), enabling me to get help and do stuff myself, and where I can’t achieve that or it’s difficult, I can get in touch with them, no barriers. A message at 10pm at night is better for me, rather than being stuck on hold at midday to the point where it eats into a walk with a friend, watching JoJo and Gran-Gran, or deciding what to wear to the lounge.

Some companies have enabled customers to get in touch by sending a message, but haven’t quite understood that the channel they’re launching to is used in a certain way when customers use it every day to talk to friends and family. For example, Susan — are we still connected? Yes Susan, yes we are. I’m on WhatsApp. I’m here all the time, I’m always connected, I chose to message because I couldn’t sit with live chat open for hours.

Regardless of companies being two, five, or fifty-five years old, those that win are the ones that make it simple and on my terms, when I need it, easily, from the channel I choose.

After all, it’s a choice. If my situation at that moment in time results in me choosing a website or app to get something done and it’s bloody amazing, chances are, I’ll do the same thing next time, or if it’s speaking to someone over the phone, email or a message, I might do that again next time.

Keeping up appearances

So for established companies that grew up let’s say over a decade ago, they invested in customer service teams in the form of taking calls, then live chat, then in more recent years messaging (in-app and or text) and some even callbacks, yet they didn’t at the time, have a long term vision for how they’d adapt for the future customer as behaviors change and technology advances. So now they’re looking to not only reduce costs by taking out the contact from customers but to increase the use of their digital services. They need to focus on launching new things in a way that reflects today’s customers, not how they’ve always done things. If they keep doing what they’ve always done, they won’t influence customer behaviors and they won’t win, their competitors will. In today’s world, we’re not just competing with direct competitors, we’re competing with the experiences our customers have with other product/service providers.

And for start-ups, and those that have grown up a little, they entered the market as digital businesses, but knew there was a need for human interaction and therefore invested in, support teams that can do all of it, working on joined-up systems, making the customer experience feel seem less. So you could say they entered at an easier time? Apart from the fact that experience is everything, and if they mess up one thing, it’ll spread like wildfire and their community approach to growth could be ambushed. For example, in 2018, Monzo took a huge hit as they failed to provide the help to their customers that needed it, in a timely fashion.

Our forecasting team wasn’t big or experienced enough to deal with the complexity of the challenge, which meant we weren’t able to accurately predict how many people we needed to hire

We recently hired someone with more than 20 years’ experience to lead our forecasting and scheduling efforts. And next, we’re looking for another workforce planning manager.

Monzo didn’t invest their time or money in expertise for workforce management, so they over-indexed on a beautiful digital product, and building a bank, but not the customer support. So if you work for a big, traditional company, don’t set yourself aside when it comes to working for companies like Monzo — they need you.

What I like about Monzo, is that they are extremely open. In this case, they opened up about how they’d failed and learned early on that customer support is tough and they were working on it. Not only did they focus on hiring the right people their customer service teams/demand, but they also rethought how they hire at speed and scale as a result. Applying what was a negative experience for customers into an opportunity to learn, act, and do the right thing.

And in the same world, Starling. I adore their whole thing – the digital product and the relentless focus on the customer, so much so, that the CEO will directly reply to customers on Twitter. Anne has recently written about her journey from banking exec to building what’s going to be the first challenger bank to make a profit, ‘Banking on it’. It’s an awesome book, you should read it if you want to learn from someone that’s reinvented a traditional business, to put customer support at the forefront.

This is a welcome card from Starling which comes with your bank card — it reassures you that they are around whenever you are

So where’s the sweet spot?

Covid or not, some companies are constantly iterating on their products/services around their customers’ behaviors, preferences, and advancements in technology. I’ve always been super interested in what good looks and feels like when it comes to customer support — that’s good for customers and good for companies. Because we all know that sometimes, what’s good for customers can be seen as not good for the company. And what’s good for companies isn’t always good for customers, and naturally can a detrimental impact on experience — which in this day and age matters more than ever before.

I did some research (our alumni WhatsApp — always a winner), here are some examples that came through:

  1. Google icons — said a Designer
  2. LinkedIn stories — said, everyone
  3. Instagram as a shopping mall — said, everyone

Your customers have things they want to be getting on with, and sometimes you’re getting in the way of what’s important to them. Figure out more about them and make their lives easier when they’re ‘hiring’ your product or service.

  • Disney making it easier than ever to get Buzz Lightyear to the rescue 🦸‍♂️
  • Next popping up parcels near you – grab that cheese board and bottle of red from Morrison’s and your loungewear from Next 🛍
  • Starling around when you are, wherever you are 👋
  • DPD arriving in the hour they said, bringing that birthday present you need for the party at 3, and allowing you to run round to the shop to get milk for your tea 📦

There’s a theme here – make your customers live’ easier and they choose you every time because convenience and experience go a long way. To do that, teams must work cross-functionally, with a shared mission, goals/KPIs that align, and the operational side must be as excellent as the shiny product/service/feature – it needs to be joined up. How you go to market matters.

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