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Posted at 01:32 PM ET, 04/19/2013

Can Silicon Valley re-invent customer service?


A woman displays "Siri", voice-activated assistant technology, on an Apple iPhone 4S in Taipei on July 30, 2012. (MANDY CHENG - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Think about all the online customer service innovations of the past few years, and the first example that probably comes to mind is the dedicated customer service Twitter account manned by a real, live person. Almost without exception, companies have attempted to replace expensive customer service representatives with cheap bots, or even worse — to require the consumer to do the job that customer service workers once did. In many cases, companies no longer even advertise a 1-800 number to contact them — once you’ve signed up as a user, they really don’t want to talk to you ever again. It’s become increasingly clear that if there’s a sweet spot out there for Silicon Valley innovators, it’s using technology to restore “service” to “customer service.”

As Harold Myerson pointed out in an opinion piece in The Washington Post on April 16, it’s an inescapable fact that companies are downsizing and getting leaner, and one of the first things to go is customer service. This leads to a head-scratching economic paradox — the more the “service economy” grows, the more “service” is removed from the economy. It’s just an economic reality that machines are cheaper than humans, no matter how little you pay them or how few of them you employ. As a result, at many companies, customer service has become a premium offering rather than a core offering — something that you use to nudge users to the next tier of the “freemium” pricing model or something that you tout in your advertisements as a special perk for your premium customers.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, and it may not even require legions of artificially intelligent worker-robots for better customer service to become a reality.

Most importantly, our mobile devices have become an extraordinarily powerful tool to bridge the customer service gap. And it goes beyond just using tablets to check in customers quickly for events. For example, new geofencing technology makes it possible to recognize when a user enters or leaves a specific geolocation and could be used to ensure that any customer entering a retail location is treated just like a long-time, valuable customer. New mobile assistants such as Siri could be used in customer service solutions to make it possible for companies to anticipate or respond to customer requests in real-time. What it takes is realizing that customer service is no longer a stand-alone function — it is something that needs to be threaded throughout the customer experience, not just when something goes wrong.

Even laggard companies such as Wal-Mart — cited by Meyerson as among the worst culprits spurring the trend toward declining customer service — have experimented with ways to use all of the Big Data created by customers during the shopping experience to create more personalized and less soulless experiences. At the same time, market leaders such as Amazon are using this big data to create unique types of “surprise and delight” moments for customers that used to only be available to VIP customers. What they’ve realized is that it’s not just the size of your wallet that matters — it's also the size of your social network that plays a role in how they should treat you. In other words, rolling up to a store with 50,000 Twitter followers on your smart phone may soon get you the same service as rolling up in a Bentley.

And what about the role of emerging technologies such as Google Glass in a future customer service revolution? Imagine a customer service representative being able to view your problem from the perspective of your Google Glasses, coaching you through the next steps in a process as if he or she were standing over your shoulder, rather than based thousands of miles away in a low-budget customer support center. The customer service representative — whether human or robot — would be able to see your problem from your perspective.

When it comes to customer service, our expectations have been lowered so much that any meaningful human interaction of any kind is treated as a revelation. It’s time to change all of that. Silicon Valley’s technology companies can transform how we think about customer service by restoring the human element that’s been missing too long — even if there are no longer any plans to bring back the humans.

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By  |  01:32 PM ET, 04/19/2013

 
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