In a Gartner survey of more than 6,000 customers, only 13% reported receiving any type of proactive customer service.
Yet that same research showed that “Proactive customer service results in a full point increase in Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), Customer Effort Score (CES) and Value Enhancement Score (VES).”
Given these compelling benefits—of which there are plenty more—the question must be: What gives?
How could it be that just 13% of 6000 customers reported receiving proactive customer support?
Clearly, lots of service organizations are failing here. And there are many challenges to providing proactive service that cause this failure. But the three big ones are:
In the sections below, we’ll help you take these challenges on so you can make proactive customer service work better at your company. But first, let’s make sure we agree on what proactive customer service is.
In this article:
You know proactive customer service when you see it.
If you’ve ever gone in for an oil change (hopefully) you’ve seen proactive customer service. Typically, the auto shop inspects your vehicle as part of their oil change service. This allows them to identify issues you might not know about, preventing more costly damage to your car. That’s proactive customer service.
The academic definition of proactive customer service is:
An individual’s self-started, long-term oriented, and persistent service behavior that goes beyond explicitly prescribed performance requirements.
In the auto shop example, it’s the organization that created the policy, but the concept is the same. Ideally, both individual actions and organizational policies align to enact proactive customer service.
Reactive customer service looks like agents who do what they’re told (and nothing more).
Reactive customer service means solving the issue of the moment, not necessarily the underlying problem. Reactive service providers might follow directions well, but when something they haven’t been explicitly trained to handle pops up, they’ll need help.
This is also a very narrow view of the customer journey. Reactive customer support tends to focus on only the customer service issues directly in front of the support team, rather than pay attention to all of the areas where customers encounter problems and need to resolve issues.
A common indication that a customer service team is very reactive is when customers have to call in several times to solve the same problem. This isn’t a great customer experience and can result in consequences ranging from unhappy customers, to customer churn, to increased call center costs.
Taking a proactive approach to your customer experience — across customer calls, customer service tickets, and how you support new customers — can lead to many benefits:
<t-check>Dramatically reduce customer calls.<t-check> By proactively communicating the solutions to common customer services issues, you can reduce overall support requests significantly.
<t-check>More loyal customers.<t-check> Exceptional customer service earns lasting customer loyalty. Proactive customer service offers more opportunities to resolve customer issues than reactive support.
<t-check>Increase customer retention rates.<t-check> Providing proactive support helps you prevent problems that would otherwise go unnoticed, causing customers to churn.
<t-check>More brand advocates.<t-check> In addition to improving customer retention rates, proactive support can also delight customers to the point of creating brand evangelists, bolstering the brand’s reputation, and helping recruit future customers.
<t-check>Better customer data.<t-check> Proactive customer service often results in better customer interactions, leaving customers more open to participating in the ways you gather feedback, such as with a feedback form or survey, so that customer service teams can better understand customer behavior.
When it goes wrong (or doesn’t go at all):
The challenge: Whether you’re introducing a new proactive service approach to your business support teams, or looking to improve your existing approach, nothing happens without buy-in.
Fortunately, lack of buy-in is often a result of incomplete understanding which is something you can remedy.
What to do:
Let’s say your boss is very focused on customer renewals and you want to convince them to invest in a proactive support training program. In selling the program to your boss, you’d want to focus on how the proactive customer service approach could help reps win more renewals and improve customer loyalty.
Then, since you were tracking retention (and assuming the training helps), you’d be able to quantify the success of your proactive customer service strategy. And once you can show proof of concept, it becomes much easier to win additional financial buy-in.
If you need to pepper in some data for your initial pitch, here are a couple of powerful stats:
The challenge: The most in-demand soft skills for 2021 were problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity—all hallmarks of a proactive worker.
But this demand for proactivity is reflective of a larger trend: products and services are increasingly complex and customers need help from people that can help them navigate complexity. Customer success managers must not only hire and train better, but they also need to retain their best talent.
And with proactive, problem-solving workers in increasingly high demand, that won’t be easy.
What to do:
In a scientific article called Proactive Customer Service Performance, researchers found a “significant positive relationship between proactive service performance and trait initiative.”
One way to measure trait initiative is through the proactive personality scale, developed by professors Bateman and Crant. This scale includes the following 17 statements, (which respondents answer on the 7-point Likert scale):
While I wouldn’t suggest throwing out your normal hiring procedures, try incorporating self-assessments of trait initiative into your hiring process.
And use this assessment on existing employees. It may help you decide on which employees should be assigned to roles in which proactivity is rewarded.
Fortunately, trait initiative isn’t something where you either have it or you don’t. Proactivity can be nurtured and developed. But to nurture and develop, you need to know where you’re starting. Another way to measure trait initiative is among existing workers. Bateman and Crant used the following questions for supervisors to assess their staff’s level of proactivity (again using the Likert scale for responses):
My staff member...
The challenge: Having smart, proactive employees doesn’t guarantee great customer service. As Professors Richard Frei and Michael McDaniel explain, employees must be provided with the appropriate “service climate”, which requires:
What to do:
How you equip and staff your service organization depends on the type of customers you serve, your resources, the nature of your product, and more. Fortunately for you, we’ve developed a flexible strategy for deploying technology to provide proactive customer service.
To see what it’s all about, read our post on providing the best customer experience given finite resources.
Again, which tools you need depends on the nature of your organization. There are several must-have tools though, which include:
Other software that is especially useful for providing proactive support are:
How you implement your reward system will vary depending on your employees' motivations. A good model to follow is Frederick Herzberg’s dual-factor theory. According to this theory, which is widely used, workplace needs fall into two categories:
As summarized in this MasterClass post…
Hygiene factors include appropriate pay, benefits, job security, and work conditions. These are your employees’ most basic needs. If you’re not meeting these needs, it’ll be difficult to tap into motivation factors.
Motivation factors include recognition, autonomy, and meaningful work. These are the factors that make the difference between low motivation and high motivation in the workplace. Herzberg explains that the factors that give employees the motivation to work often have to do with giving them a greater sense of purpose and significance in their current position.
Think of it like Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs where things like food, shelter, and safety must be provided before higher-level needs, like self-actualization, can be met.
Also, to help structure compensation and rewards, you can use the personal initiative questionnaire provided above.
Bonus: Need help turning an underperforming employee around? Read how to tell them they’re underperforming and put a plan in place to get them on track.
Effective, cost-efficient proactive customer service doesn’t happen without organizational alignment. And that can’t be solved in just a customer meeting.
But that shouldn’t distract you from the fact that customer meetings are a goldmine of the type of customer feedback you need to implement proactive customer service.
Consumers prefer doing business with companies that take a customer-centric approach and deliver proactive support.
So if you’re looking for a first step to take in your journey to more proactive service and increase customer satisfaction, make that first step in your next customer meeting. Ask about common issues, and pay close attention to where you might be able to resolve those issues with a proactive approach.
Implementing proactive customer service can happen one step at a time. Download our ebook, The Art of the Customer Meeting today. And then grab whichever one of our customer meeting agenda templates that best meets your needs.
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