The promise of digital transformation was automation, simplification and reduced demand failure. Implicitly, and often explicitly, there has been a related prize for organisations providing products and services – that of less need for expensive, people resourced, customer service. The seminal and highly regarded book, The Best Service is No Service, by Bill Price and David Jaffe in 2008, certainly chimed with many organisations (and customers) hopes at the time.
Yet 11 years on, why is it that Google Trends records worldwide growth in searches for ‘customer service’? It is four times as popular as in 2008. Shouldn’t the need for customer service be declining with the investment in digitisation? Of course, the growth in the use of the ‘customer service’ search term doesn’t mean that service delivery hasn’t improved in the hands of digital transformation experts or through the strategies laid out by Price and Jaffe.
Google Trends captures the proportion of all searches for the specific search term (‘customer service’ and related searches, e.g. ‘Sky customer service’), rather than the absolute volume of searches. On that point, Google AdWords shows that ‘customer service’ searches run into the millions each month in the UK alone. Media and telecoms customer service searches are at the top of the list. The volume of searches for ‘customer service’ overall is high (compared to many other terms, although certainly not all). Compared with 2008, it is true that the demographics of people using Google search are different from 2019 and that people may just be more likely to use Google when looking for customer service. However, the need for customer service remains strong from consumers.
We don’t know exactly what explains the increase in searches for ‘customer service’, but here are some possible reasons:
More switching? Online aggregators like Moneysupermarket.com and Confused.com have taught the public to look for a better deal, which has led to more switching in many markets. The process of switching often involves the need to contact customer service.
Consumers learning to use new products? Over the past 15 years, many new products, services and technologies have been launched. For example, the iPhone was launched in 2007. Inevitably, new products and services will create more customer service queries, whether to iron out ‘teething troubles’ or to help consumers learn how to use the full range of features of the new products and services (think of the classes offered by Apple stores to help their late adopter, less digitally proficient, customers).
Consumption is up? Are people buying more products and services around the world? Certainly, analysts have talked about the ‘throwaway’ culture and consumer spending habits in a debt-geared society. More and more of us have taken overseas holidays, used convenience food stores, eaten out and consumed media through subscription services. And the global population has grown too.
Consumers more demanding? Consumer complaints culture has grown. Rather than accepting disappointment with a purchased product or service, customers today may be demanding customer service interactions more often to resolve issues.
Support needed for self-service and digitisation? The rise in self-service, online shopping and digital services has made many processes simpler and easy to repeat – e.g. checking bank account balances or one-click purchasing. But our research shows that digital and self-service processes need support and can sometimes raise more questions in consumers’ minds than they answer. And one of the knock-on effects of fewer shopping trips is that customers have less opportunity to resolve issues face to face so need to make contact through customer service departments.
So, we don’t know the exact reasons behind the growth in Google searches for ‘customer service’ since 2008, but we do know it is significant. One thing that is clear is that consumers need customer service now as much as ever. At Davies Hickman Partners we work with clients to design customer experience strategies and systems that recognise and resolve these four basic customer service needs:
1. Product or service defects e.g. the smartphone won’t connect to a network, the restaurant food isn’t hot
2. Customer knowledge or abilities e.g. the consumer can’t operate the Smart TV or autonomous car parking system
3. Sales/marketing/delivery issues e.g. the product is poorly described by advertising, delivery is delayed
4. Product design failure e.g. the car suffers a recall, a battery catches fire.
Stuff happens in life and we should be weary of those over-promising full automation, with too little human customer support. Even the world-beating exemplar of the digital world, Amazon, is reported to have tens of thousands of support agents globally.