Customer Service in the Age of the Internet of Things

Harvard Business Review

Today, innovative customer service means being able to contact a company on multiple platforms — not just by phone, but via email, web, Twitter, Facebook, and mobile devices. However according to ABI Research, by 2020 more than 20 billion additional devices will be wirelessly connected to physical things — TVs, washing machines, thermostats, refrigerators, even cars.

Good customer service in this age of the Internet of Things will take one step further and take place right on the device itself — screens to tap to search knowledge bases for answers, chat live with a rep, or schedule a service appointment. Imagine a service rep talking you through changing your tire, or a virtual agent who advises you to adjust specific settings on your refrigerator so that it runs at greatest efficiency.

With this kind of customer service evolution happening over the next few years, big changes will be in store for support departments across major industries. But how can businesses best prepare?

Build more robust knowledge bases, and make them easy to access. Self-service knowledge bases — or your online customer resources for product information, FAQs, and how-to's — will not only reside on web portals. They will be present on all devices, from mobile phones to racing bikes. This means that your product materials (both internal and external) will need to be richer, more sophisticated, and organized by context. Eventually devices will already know the consumer's purchase history, their personal preferences, and will be able to both detect and predict problems. As more products are designed with touchscreen search capabilities, companies will need to place much greater emphasis on first touch resolution through self-service. In fact, based on the results of one of our customer case studies, service teams may see a rate of 70-90% for self-service resolution automated by the actual device which will dramatically relieve the contact center and change the types of inquiries they normally answer.

A good example of a company that's applying this strategy today is TurboTax. When filing taxes with TurboTax's software, the form itself provides contextual help based on what the user is filling out, including answers to frequently-asked questions and an option to live chat. This content changes as you go through the form, and none of your information is lost along the way. Looking ahead, more devices will have a similar built-in help function. For instance if you're two hours in on using your lawnmower and it's starting to overheat, the user screen on its handle or steering wheel would automatically indicate the problem with a searchable list of common resolutions for that model.

Invest in a strong data analytics platform. The fact that millions of devices will soon be Wi-Fi enabled will cause a flood of user data for companies to sift through. Businesses can use this data to understand where issues are happening on their products, how frequently, and best resolutions — but only if they have the means to analyze it. Analytics tools will not only help their customer service efforts, but inform improved design of products, upcoming product launches, as well as performance improvements.

Already IBM (full disclosure: they're one of our customers) has rolled out a new analytics solution that "harnesses big data from instrumented assets and identifies irregularities in the manufacturing process, spots product irregularities, and forecasts a range of asset performance risks before a problem ever arises." This type of predictive analytics solutions will be the norm, and companies will need to incorporate tools that will inform and improve customer service engagement on all of their devices.

Hire and train smarter customer support agents. The contact center is going to evolve from a volume support center to a more highly sophisticated center of talent agents. While many support reps today are tasked as "concierges," reading answers from a script or internal knowledge base, tomorrow's support reps will face more complicated inquiries from customers — because basic questions will be resolved right on the device. If a question is routed to a support rep it is likely to be a complicated one, and they will need to be prepared to do heavy troubleshooting on that product.

The reps should also have much more information at their fingertips because the data is pre-collected on the device and should provide reps with metrics reports with real-time information about the device, the issue and the user. While now, half of the time of a service call is collecting basic information about the user and the product, in the near future all of this information will be available to the support rep. And with self-service moving front and center, consumers will expect real-time response to all of their inquiries if their answer is not readily available. Today, the best customer service companies, such as Zappos, Warby Parker, and Nike, already know how to respond quickly to customers across a variety of platforms.

As you may have noticed in recent years, the Internet of Things has already begun. Major auto manufacturers like Volkswagen and GM are already delivering Wi-Fi enabled cars; and there are already smart refrigerators, light switches, garage door openers, and thermostats. For the consumer, this means more convenience and faster response to getting the answers they want. For customer service (if businesses are paying attention), it will mean the cost savings of a reduced number of contact center calls, insightful customer and product data, and happier, more informed customers.

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