The Future of Customer Service: From Personal, to Self, to Crowd Service
The corporate world is at full stretch. On the one hand companies must meet ever-growing expectations with regard to customer experience, while on the other hand there’s a need for economic efficiency. The ultimate challenge for the customer service of the future consists in offering improved customer service at a lower cost.
In the years to come, every company will question its customer processes. Any sensible company will strive to create the ideal combination between efficiency and the perfect customer experience. Players who are only active online, such as Amazon.com and Booking.com, boast a highly efficient customer process. Even though their customers rarely come into contact with actual people they still provide a very satisfactory customer experience. Traditional companies have a history of a personal service burdened with a heavy cost structure.
To avoid overstretching, traditional companies must invest in digitization and in forging a personal (emotional) connection with the customer. Technology is opening up new possibilities in this regard but customers also like personal contact. This combination is shaping the future of customer service: a shift to self-service while still keeping things personal. Also, the service package is expanded by involving the customers themselves in the process. The customer-helps-customer philosophy (crowd service) enables companies to be more efficient and improve their service without losing sight of the human aspect. Fifty-five percent of consumers like the idea of other consumers helping them and 58% are prepared to help others . The customer is ready for crowd service.
This paper was written based on my own research (in collaboration with SSI and translation partner No problem!), desk research and discussions with companies. This paper takes a closer look at new trends and evolutions in the field of customer service.
The Future of Customer Service: From Personal, to Self, to Crowd Service
AT A LOWER
Evolution in customer service:
more satisfied customers at a lower cost
The corporate world is at full stretch. On the one hand companies
must meet ever-growing expectations with regard to customer
experience, while on the other hand there’s a need for economic
efficiency. The ultimate challenge for the customer service of the
future consists in offering improved customer service at a lower
In the years to come, every company will question its customer
processes. Any sensible company will strive to create the ideal
combination between efficiency and the perfect customer
experience. Players who are only active online, such as Amazon.
com and Booking.com, boast a highly efficient customer process.
Even though their customers rarely come into contact with actual
people they still provide a very satisfactory customer experience.
Traditional companies have a history of a personal service
burdened with a heavy cost structure.
To avoid overstretching, traditional companies must invest in
digitization and in forging a personal (emotional) connection with
the customer. Technology is opening up new possibilities in this
regard but customers also like personal contact. This combination
is shaping the future of customer service: a shift to self-service
while still keeping things personal. Also, the service package is
expanded by involving the customers themselves in the process.
The customer-helps-customer philosophy (crowd service) enables
companies to be more efficient and improve their service without
losing sight of the human aspect. Fifty-five percent of consumers
like the idea of other consumers helping them and 58% are
prepared to help others.1 The customer is ready for crowd service.
This paper was written based on my own research (in collaboration
with SSI and translation partner No problem!), desk research and
discussions with companies. This paper takes a closer look at new
trends and evolutions in the field of customer service.
Trends that will influence
the future of customer service
Our society is evolving at breakneck speed and the mass consumer market is being flooded with new technologies. This changes consumer behavior and creates
fresh opportunities for companies. At the moment, there are four trends with a major impact on customer service. These four trends emphasize the urgency for
companies to place their own customer service under the microscope.
• MOBILE Since Q2 2013, American adults have been spending more time on
their mobile phones than watching TV.2 Since mid-2013, more than 1.5 billion
smartphones are in use worldwide.3 The future is mobile. Consumers can contact
companies with their questions anywhere in the world, round the clock. The next few
years will see a continued expansion of mobile applications such as Google Glass,
Apple iWatch, etc. Consumers will no longer automatically run to their telephones or
computers in case of problems or questions. Instead, their initial reflex will be to grab
their mobile. Also, they will expect the problem to be solved instantly. The future of
customer service is mobile.
• UNREALISTIC CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS customers find every aspect of
customer service important.4 They want speed, amiability, a solution in a single
interaction, the integration of different service channels... For the average company,
meeting customer expectations has become an all but impossible proposition.
Besides, the traditional approach is too expensive to be able to meet expectations.
The only way of doing so is through self-service. Self-service is fast, always available
and solves the problem in a single interaction. Seventy percent of customers
expect a self-service solution. In the late nineties, customers hated completing
bank transfers via the computer; not offering this option today is a competitive
disadvantage. The future of customer service is self-service.
• THE CROWD ECONOMY consumers do business with each other more and
more often. According to The Economist, the crowd economy or sharing economy as
it is also known, currently represents a $ 26 billion industry.5 MIT expects significant
market growth: in the near future, this economy may be worth as much as 110
billion dollars.6 A study by Jeremiah Owyang 7 shows that consumers would rather
do business with companies from the crowd economy than with the traditional
players in the market. For instance, customer satisfaction with AirBnB is much higher
than with classic hotel chains like Hilton. This trend is a great customer service
opportunity. People like working together and consumers like to help each other. The
future of customer service is a future of working with the customer.
• CUT-THROAT COMPETITION the economic crisis and digitization have made for
much fiercer competition. The average stay in the Fortune 500 has dwindled from 65
years (1920-1950) to just fifteen (2000-2013). In our fast-evolving world, the names of
the top players change more rapidly than before. As a matter of fact, many companies
find themselves competing with a “free” rival. For instance, every newspaper is
damaged by free online content. There are two models for dealing with this situation: in
the first model, customer centricity is fully automated, thereby minimizing the amount
of human contact. In turn, this alleviates the pressure on margins but the chances of
building an emotional rapport with the customer are small. The second model promotes
the combination of digitization with a human touch. A pure online player like Coolblue is
able to give its company a human face by having employees feature in YouTube videos.
Their offline shops also add another human dimension. People enjoy human contact,
even in an increasingly digitized society. The second model also increases the likelihood
of an emotional bond, which inspires greater customer loyalty. The future of customer
service is digitization but with a human touch.
Customer service shifts its focus
The focus in customer service will evolve in the years to come. For every company out there, it is important to take the lead in this evolution. Its goal: more satisfied
customers at a lower cost. A study by McKinsey has revealed a key difference in efficiency between personal service, self-service and crowd service. If the cost of
personal service is 100% then the cost of self-service amounts to 12% and crowd service to 9%,8 so there’s a huge discrepancy there.
ADVANTAGES OF SELF-SERVICE AND CROWD SERVICE
FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS IN THE FIELD OF PERSONAL, SELF AND CROWD SERVICE
Apart from efficiency, self-service and crowd service have additional advantages
to offer. Additional advantages of self-service:
• The relationship between the different service types will undergo some changes in
the years to come. Consumers expect more self-service and are receptive to crowd
service. Moreover, both approaches are more efficient than personal service. This
means that a shift from personal service to self and crowd service will result in better
service at a lower cost.
• In the first few years, self-service will gain importance before crowd service does.
Many companies have already invested in self-service (e.g. the financial world, travel
sector...). For now, investments in crowd service are more modest.
• In a second phase, though, crowd service will catch up. The crowd economy will keep
growing and this will make the transition to crowd service easier than it is right now.
• Of course, personal service won’t disappear altogether but its importance will
diminish over time. Personal service will continue to act as a kind of safety net.
The need for a personalized solution will continue to exist in those cases where self
or crowd service fail to provide the answer. Companies like booking.com, a pure
online player, are already focusing on self-service (consumer takes care of bookings
and modifications) and crowd service (questions about hotels are answered by
other consumers). Nevertheless the company still has a large call center to assist
customers personally if self and crowd service are not enough.
• Available 24/7 and year-round: the customer has access to customer service on a
• Self-service solutions for mobile devices are easy to design.
• As self-service is digital, it is easier for companies to keep records of the interactions
than with offline contact.
Additional advantages of crowd service:
• Crowd service makes it possible to offer a broader range of services. When
consumers ask questions about the product category, it is often too expensive for
organizations to answer those questions themselves. When the input on non-core
questions comes from other consumers, the cost is very limited.
• Consumers taking part in a crowd service program feel like they are part of the
company. They often become brand ambassadors and this creates an indirect
• Crowd service is a type of personal service. Customers communicate with others
(other customers). In other words, this is personal interaction, which builds more of
an emotional bond.
This table gives an indication as to how the focus in
customer service may shift in the coming years.
Two key words: integration and mobile
Customer expectations are sky high. The challenge lies in offering an improved customer experience in a cost-efficient way. The evolution
from personal to self and crowd service is the way to go. Two ingredients are crucial to the success of this evolution:
Even though the focus in customer service is shifting from personal to digital service,
the personal channel still exists. Customer service is becoming more of a multichannel
affair than before. Data centralization is a priority in the elaboration of the channel
strategy. Consumers expect companies to centralize and keep track of all their
interactions. Customers don’t like to repeat themselves. Organizing the new service
channels in the manner of silos is far from ideal.
THE CONVERSION TO MOBILE
Mobile customer service is essential in a mobile world. By 2016, more than half of all
customer service questions will be submitted via a mobile device.9 Organizations would
do well to mold their self-service solutions entirely on mobile.
Preparing for the customer service of tomorrow starts today
Less than one in two companies realize the urgency of devising a customer service policy for the future.10
Given the rate of change, the time to elaborate a plan of approach is now.
ANALYSIS OF THE CURRENT APPROACH
First you need to get in front of the mirror and evaluate your current customer service approach. Evaluate how much effort is being put into
personal, self and crowd service. Next, determine to what extent data integration and mobile are part of the current approach.
STRATEGY AND OBJECTIVE FOR EACH OF THE THREE PILLARS
Next, decide what is possible for the three types of service and determine how they should evolve over the next few years. Every business puts
different demands on service and every company has its own corporate culture. Set your goals and develop your vision in a way that suits the
organization’s unique character.
ROADMAP AND BUSINESS CASE
Fine-tuning your vision is followed by drawing up a concrete implementation plan. A vision is worthless without proper implementation. Since
most companies are at full stretch (need for improved efficiency combined with an investment in customer centricity), business cases for each
of the projects are an absolute necessity. Defining the customer service of the future rests on two pillars: an enhanced customer experience
with a smaller budget.
START SMALL: BULLETS BEFORE GRENADES
This type of strategy easily grows out of proportion so try to take small individual steps .Start small and only go full throttle once the
experiment has proved its usefulness. Provide sufficient room to experiment with new service concepts. Starting small also makes it easier
to abandon an approach that doesn’t work.
Customer relations are changing. The digitization of
society is creating new opportunities for companies
to optimize their relationship with their customers.
Nevertheless, the rate of change continues to
accelerate. Today, if an organization fails to question its
own approach or doesn’t know where it’s going with
its customer service, then it is bound to come under
threat in the relatively short term. THE FUTURE OF
CUSTOMER SERVICE STARTS TODAY! Brainstorming
about the changing role of personal, self and crowd
service is a priority to any organization.
THREE STRONG SELF-SERVICE CASES
More and more companies are investing in self-service. The pure online players have done an excellent job of elaborating and
fine-tuning the concept. They came up with the idea out of necessity: when they started out, these companies were simply
too small to install a personalized customer service. An efficient self-service channel was their only option to develop a good
customer relationship. Banks were also among the early adopters of the idea. Online banking was one of the main activities of the
early internet surfers. Banks introduced this application purely from an efficiency point of view. Today, customers expect them to
provide this service.
Companies from various sectors experiment with or make a living from self-service. The three examples below couldn’t be further
apart: an offline retailer, a pure online player and a financial giant. Still, all three have integrated self-service into their customer
Anytime Fitness is the world’s fastest-growing fitness chain. In a
saturated market, this company still manages to make a difference.
They’re open round the clock. An electronic security system provides
24hr access. The company obviously has personal trainers on
staff but there is also a self-service solution. Customers can take
video lessons 24 hours a day. The personal trainers have recorded
instruction videos of a broad range of training sessions. Apart from
the self-service option (in an offline retail channel), Anytime Fitness
also has a site with nutritional and training advice for the individual
customer. This enables customers to continue their health plans at
home thanks to their fitness club. This self-service application is free
for members but is also available for non-members in return for a
Booking.com is a daughter of Priceline.
com, which has ranked among the world’s
fastest-growing companies for a number
of years now. The company masters the
art of offering an excellent self-service
with a personal safety net to fall back on
if necessary. The entire purchase process
is automated and this also goes for the changing of bookings. In
case of unexpected changes, Booking.com staff will sometimes
call customers. In many cases these are proactive outbound calls
to inform customers of changes made to a booking. Incidentally,
the self-service process works perfectly on mobile devices. Mobile
bookings went from 1 billion in 2012 to 3 billion in 2013.11 Data
integration is obviously available. The different channels are
interconnected so the complete customer history stays available.
RABOBANK: NEW MORTGAGE SYSTEM
Rabobank Nederland invests in self-service.
As a financial player Rabobank already has
lots of experience in this subject area, but in
the coming years they want to take it one step
further with their new digital mortgage system.
Customers who wish to take out a mortgage
can now compile their own customer file. Five
years ago, no bank could envision customers
ever using online banking for anything other than basic transactions.
Today, a large percentage of customers are apparently receptive to
this self-service approach. Without going into detail, Rabobank was
surprised at how many of its customers prefer this approach. The
digital service comes with a personal backup system: they can ask
an employee of a local branch for assistance.
THREE STRONG CROWD-SERVICE CASES
Crowdsourcing and consumer collaboration are marketing buzzwords but the whole system is still in its infancy. Most co-creation
experiments are really PR campaigns rather than examples of actual consumer involvement. At the university of customer
collaboration, the corporate world is just a freshman.
Outsourcing (part of) your customer service to customers is obviously a drastic evolution. By taking this step, you’re really
implying that customers have at least the same amount of product knowledge as the manufacturer.
The IT world was the first to make tentative strides in crowd service with organically constructed forums where ICT enthusiasts
lend each other a helping hand. Today, the technological sector is still the most fertile ground for crowd service.
GIFFGAFF CUSTOMER SUPPORT
Giffgaff is a ‘SIM card only’
telecom player in the UK. The
customer service is entirely in
the hands of their community
members. All members are
customers. The more active
their support for other customers, the bigger the rewards. There
is no safety net and Giffgaff has no call center. In other words, the
entire customer service consists of crowd service. In 2010, no
fewer than 130,000 queries were posted on their forum and these
questions elicited more than 1 million replies. 95% of all questions
were answered within the hour. The average response time is three
Telecom player Verizon uses a customerhelps-customer forum in support of their
other service channels. The ratio on their
forum is 1-9-90.12 One percent of their
users are so-called super users. They
spend between 20 to 30 hours a week on the forum helping others.
These super users are not rewarded financially; instead they are
rewarded with a digital status. They earn recognition instead of
money. Nine percent of users frequently answer questions by other
users. They don’t spend that much time on the forum but they do
answer the questions they have personal experience with. Ninety
percent of the community members are readers. They are just trying
to find the answer to their queries. Crowd service only works when
the super users are actively involved in a community. The presence
of that one percent attracts the 90% of readers, which sparks the
efficiency surge that companies are counting on.
Barclay Card is a credit card built around a strong user community.
On the one hand, Barclay’s online community helps the company
brainstorm about the future of the product while on the other it acts
as a crowd service platform. Customers discuss various financial
topics and help each other with small operational questions about
the credit card. The results are astounding. Customer retention is
up 25%. The number of questions and complaints via traditional
customer service channels dropped by 50%.13 Barclay Card puts the
total return at 10 million dollars.
About the author: Steven Van Belleghem
Steven is one of Europe’s thought leaders in the field of social media, conversations and digital marketing. His entire
career, Steven has studied the influence of digital and social media on consumers and organizations. With this knowledge
he inspires and facilitates companies to adapt their current way of working towards the new world we live in.
His latest book, The Conversation Company, offers a clear philosophy and roadmap on how to become a true customer
centric organization that uses the possibilities of digital media to its full extent. His previous book, The Conversation
Manager is seen as a reference guide to adapt your communication strategy from a 1-way to a 2-way conversational
approach. In 2010, the book won the Marketing Innovation in Literature award.
Steven can be hired to give motivational keynote speeches (both in-company and conference presentations), strategic
workshops, management coaching and to provide strategic advice about social media and conversation management.
Next to his advisory work and being an author, Steven is a part time marketing professor at the Vlerick Business School,
where he teaches interactive marketing in the Masters in Marketing program. In addition he is also very invested in
executive teaching (mainly about social media).
Before starting B-Conversational, Steven was a managing partner at InSites Consulting, one of the most innovative
market research companies in the world. No other agency has won more industry awards (by Esomar). During his 11
years at InSites, he was instrumental in growing the company from a 10 people start-up to an international leading
company with 120 employees and branches in 5 countries.
Please don’t hesitate to contact
the author of this paper, Steven Van Belleghem.
Prof Steven Van Belleghem | www.stevenvanbelleghem.com