Three ways to improve customer service response time

As businesses face stagnant or declining sales, customer service and customer response times have never been more of a focus for investors and CEOs. 

According to recent research from the Institute of Customer Service, customer care volumes are higher and more complex than ever, with complaints in particular reaching the highest level on record and costing British businesses more than £9bn a month in lost staff time.[1]  

As goods and services look and feel increasingly the same, when company budgets are tight, and consumers have less disposable income, building and maintaining great customer relationships becomes more critical than ever. 

Consumers will always do business with brands that understand their wants and can cater to them (think Amazon and Apple). And according to the latest research from business messaging specialist Esendex, consumers will also do business when they can communicate on their preferred platform, with one in three of us in the UK preferring to contact customer service via SMS or WhatsApp, particularly when it comes to busy peak trading periods like Black Friday and Christmas.  

As organisations look for new ways to improve customer service and response times while managing their own staff and administrative costs - how and where do they begin?

  1. Give more control to customers

As more customer service conversations move online, the distinction between digital and live interactions is blurring. One of the most effective ways of managing customer volumes is to provide a multi-channel, mobile-friendly approach. This gives customers numerous ways to interact, which works to decentralise customer service tickets and prevent individual channels from becoming overwhelmed.

Every customer issue is unique; one person may need a customer service expert to support them, while others will happily self-serve if they’re provided with the right knowledge-based information or web page FAQ. Identifying and triaging which customer issue is which, and routing them to the right place, speeds up response time and saves administrative effort. Customers also get the opportunity to choose the channel they find most convenient; if they’d rather not phone an agent, they can use text, a chatbot or live chat for assistance instead.

Customer engagement results seem to support this shift. Heating solutions provider Vaillant increased its customer engagement level from 2% to 40% when it moved away from traditional channels including post and agent-based calls to SMS, with its average open rate of 95%. By using rich text/SMS, Vaillant was able to brand its message and include images and additional information including ‘call to action’ links. Messages were also personalised despite being sent in bulk. By dispensing with cold calls that are often placed at inconvenient times, and by abandoning the traditionally low response rate from postage, Vaillant’s mobile-friendly approach allowed customers to trigger a direct response, navigate to their website, or initiate a call with a live agent – all from within the same mobile message.

  1. Measure response times

Time is a powerful factor when it comes to measuring customer service quality. Answering a query within 30 minutes might be acceptable, while receiving that same response five days later may well prove worthless. As communication platforms abound, and customers reach out whenever and however they choose, response time matters. Current research from Esendex highlights that we are not happy to wait for more than 1-3 hours for a customer service response and that we may very well give up on a brand completely if we have heard nothing from them within 24 hours!

Research consistently shows a positive correlation between faster response times and customer satisfaction. According to US-based Forrester Research, 77% of customers say that ‘valuing their time’ is the most important thing a company can do to provide them with good online customer service.

And case studies seem to support this need for a quick and pain-free experience. One of the UK’s most successful travel companies needed to improve how it communicated mandatory travel information including changes to its T&Cs, as would-be travellers were taking between 8 and 10 minutes to review and complete it. Given that the airline’s customer service team manages 250,000 telephone bookings per annum this had a huge impact on customer wait times. By designing a new mobile journey via a customer portal,  time to complete reduced to 1-2 minutes which equated to a saving of 4,166 days or 16 FTE and converted to a cost saving of £259K.

  1. Blend AI & customer care

We all make mistakes, so when it comes to managing customer complaints - or to dealing with more sensitive issues such as personal debt - being attuned to your customer makes a world of difference. 

And relying too much on technology alone can deliver a less than seamless customer experience. Customer engagement technology is only ever as good as its design – or as the team that supports it! Some conversational AI in particular works well in a response, rule based mode managing common enquiries quickly and efficiently. However, this same technology can be hugely frustrating when a query is more nuanced and less clearcut. Ideally, call centre staff need the autonomy to escalate and resolve more complex issues at a manager’s discretion. A one-size fits all approach, or a rigid call centre script, can lead to a disconnect between what companies think they are providing, in terms of great customer care – and what we feel and hear. This has a knock-on effect financially too as businesses with higher satisfaction ratings out-perform their rivals (those who were at least one point above average recorded average sales growth of 6.9% compared to 1.5% for those with a lower-than-average ranking).

And when it’s far less about profit, and you’re in a business where you need to be sensitive to your customers, balancing automation and technology with care becomes even more important. Here are two examples:

Fair for You is a not-for-profit service providing families who can’t access mainstream credit with the capacity to purchase essential whitegoods and other household items, through affordable payment plans. By using a multi-channel customer service approach with text/SMS as its primary method of communication, Fair for You received five times more applications for credit than previously. Despite this increased demand, two-way messaging has allowed them to service more customers, more efficiently - meaning service levels and response times have improved.

Debt Managers is an FCA authorised business providing outsourced credit and portfolio management services to the UK credit industry. By designing a bespoke, data protected, self-serve portal, customers have been able to manage their own debt and repayment schedule in a way that causes less stress. From a customer response perspective, Debt Managers has freed up FTE resources to provide specialist support, which has led to a 100% increase in vulnerability reporting. Financially the portal is delivering a 20% uplift, has supported the face value  of £4.7m in arrangements since deployment and has generated over £1.4m in collections.)

As these cases highlight, customer support excellence is within reach of any organisation that focuses on it, commits to it and invests in it. Customer retention and customer care should be at the heart of any business strategy, and is becoming even more important given the trading challenges of 2022 and beyond.