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Connecting With Customers: The Value of Human Interaction

Paul English, a Massachusetts-based software engineer turned customer service “guru,” has become famous nearly overnight for his “dial zero for a human” automated phone system revolt. Judging from the widespread phenomenon and national attention, this is a customer service movement long overdue. Human interaction is critical to the success of service businesses and technology companies. Products are complex and constantly changing, leaving users frustrated — although nothing that a friendly, competent customer account manager cannot clarify or resolve.

Companies are often challenged by their “bean counters” to justify the cost effectiveness of staffing a live customer service department — the automated phone system appears to save money up front, but with time, pioneering companies that invest in live customer interaction realize a flourishing return on the investment that continues to pay off. According to Emmett Murphy and Mark Murphy’s Leading on the Edge of Chaos, acquiring new customers can cost five times more than satisfying and retaining current customers. Forcing customers to work with automated systems and removing the human interaction aspect will only weaken a company’s customer loyalty.

Consider the following tips to increase and improve the human interaction between your company and customers:

    1. Live online chat. The growing popularity of the Web has affected the way consumers and businesses both research and purchase products and services. Over 50 percent of business executives report conducting online research 30-90 days prior to making a particular business purchase, according to In addition, data from shows that 74 percent of consumers “regularly or occasionally” conduct research online before purchasing offline.

    A popular channel, which addresses this growing trend of online product research, is live online customer interaction or “chatting,” a tool analogous to the sales process at a retail store. This online channel provides the first opportunity to greet Web site visitors and interact with them live over an instant message-like tool, offering salespeople the ability to answer questions or direct visitors to “areas” of interest on the site — all at the click of a button. This first interaction with a prospect is critical — it is often the first “touch” with the customer and if an organization is aiming to be a great service company, this is the time to make a lasting first impression.

    My company, Rackspace Managed Hosting, employs a team of “sales greeters” who welcome visitors to the site through LiveChat software. The LiveChat tool allows the greeters to answer questions and point visitors to specific information on the Web site. If visitors are not interested in chatting, the Rackspace greeter quietly exits the site, allowing the visitor to browse on their own.

    2. Live customer service agents. Once past the sales process and a prospect becomes a customer, it is important to step up the level of customer service and make them feel valued as a customer. Rather than putting customers through the grueling task of decoding automated phone systems just to reach a live person, assign customer service representatives to each new customer. Even if this idea seems somewhat excessive for your company’s immediate budget, consider the impact on long-term revenue and customer loyalty. A two percent increase in customer retention has the same effect on profits as cutting costs by 10 percent, says Emmett Murphy and Mark Murphy’s Leading on the Edge of Chaos.

    Each time an employee speaks with a customer, a relationship is forming — and if the customer service agent is well trained in delivering quality service, this positive interaction is strengthening the customer relationship which can result in a long-term business partnership. Service representatives who do not make that live connection with their customers risk a higher rate of customer turnover and lower customer retention. Speaking from personal experience, the happiest customers I’ve worked with are those that know their customer service representative by name.

    Live customer service agents provide a company the ability to receive and assess direct feedback from their customers with each live interaction. If service delivery is below par or if a customer disapproves of a new product or service process, the customer’s direct input helps to locate areas in need of improvement, thus sharpening the overall business process.

    3. No news is not good news. Improve the customer service experience by soliciting feedback from your customers on a regular basis. Conduct e-mail or live phone surveys where they can provide their honest feedback on their experience as your customer. Surveys should be conducted fairly regularly, but not too often as to overwhelm the customer. Consider conducting frequent, short surveys that take the customer only seconds to complete with basic questions such as, “Rate your most recent interaction with your customer service representative.” These short surveys could take place after every customer interaction, for instance. Longer, more extensive service surveys should be conducted over longer periods of time, such as on a quarterly basis.

    Customer account reviews are another route to proactively connect with the customer on a regular basis. This provides an opportunity to discuss new needs or requests from the customer and to review the account to make sure products and services are meeting business requirements.

    4. Face-to-face interaction. For most online companies, customers are spread across the country and globe, therefore face-to-face interaction is rare. However, companies should take every opportunity to meet in person with their customer and further solidify the customer-vendor relationship.

    Consider visiting a new customer as soon as they come on board to learn in greater detail about the customer, their business needs and more. Visits can also be scheduled during contract renewals or upgrades to explain the next stage of the customer’s account. Customer conferences are another opportunity to interact with your customers and provide added value by hosting seminars on topics of interest to the customers.

Every chance to interact with a customer is gold. Whether it is through online chatting, live customer service representatives, soliciting feedback or in-person interaction, take every opportunity to develop rapport and provide a trustworthy face to go along with your company’s products and services.

David Bryce is vice president of customer care at Rackspace Managed Hosting, a managed hosting provider for customers of all sizes.

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