The evolution of customer experience.
When Leon Leonwood Beanfirst — better known as L.L. Bean — started selling mail-order boots to hunters in 1912, his wasn’t the only game in town. There were dozens of companies in nearby Brunswick, Maine and neighboring Freeport that were selling sporting goods.
L.L. Bean’s challenges didn’t stop with outdoor retailers, his business was also part of the first wave of mail-order companies to be born in the United States. People weren’t used to this. These mail-order companies had to prove themselves and build trust in their business model.
Despite these challenges , L.L. Bean was wildly successful. Why? What set L.L. Bean apart from the competition? In large part the success was due to an obsessive focus on customer service.
A customer is the most important person ever in this office — in person or by mail. — L.L. Bean
L.L. Bean put customer issues and the customer relationship at the center of his operation.
Making customer experience a conversation.
L.L. Bean’s flagship store was then, and is still to this day, kept open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Originally, no matter what time of day, anyone could ring Bean personally to come and help them.
The company regularly sent its mailing list updates on things like the best type of outdoor equipment:
It is no longer necessary for you to experiment with dozens of flies to determine the few that will catch fish. We have done that experimenting for you.
With the emergence of telephones, L.L. Bean developed a series of hotlines (still active today) for customer questions about hunting, fly-fishing, and various seasonal sports. These were staffed by experts, and had nothing to do with selling merchandise.
L.L. Bean moved customer experience away from one-off transactions and towards an ongoing conversation. Whats more, they aligned their marketing efforts to the job they were doing for customers, specifically facilitating outdoor adventure through both products and support/service.
This support strategy became L.L. Bean's comeptitive advantage. The result? New customers and greater customer loyalty.
Competition leads to better customer experience.
When companies audition for customers, they have an incentive to deliver a great customer experience. As an outdoor retailer, L.L. Bean was fighting to survive in an industry with ample competition and low costs of switching.
Retail is a prime example of an industry where customer experience is advanced through competition. At the other end of the competitive spectrum are effective monopolies, and not surprisingly, monopolistic businesses are known for having poor customer experience.
14 of the 15 most disliked companies in America circa 2012, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, all operate in industries where competition is low and the cost of switching is high. See:
Telecommunications (Charter Communications, Comcast, Time Warner Cable)
Airlines (United, American)
Health insurance (Aetna)
Utilities (Long Island Power Authority)
When you call up your internet service provider, bank, or power company and have a bad experience you might complain about it — even loudly — but you’re not likely to do much more. You’re locked in.
Rising customer expectations in the SaaS industry.
The SaaS industry was similarly maligned for years. Back when on-prem and licensing fees were the standard, and the cloud was mostly an idea, vendor lock-in was the norm. Moving data from company to company was hard, your hardware and software were interlinked, and the customer support you got was frequently bad.
Today, whether you’re in a B2C or B2B business, a SaaS or e-commerce, switching your provider is far less painful. There’s lots of competition around and more emerges everyday. The ease of communication on the web combined with the visibility of even minor mistakes on website reviews or through social media make it critical that companies strive to improve customer experience — the best products will win.
As companies fight to stand out, they are forced to differentiate themselves through product, service, and experience. More and more companies seek partners rather than vendors and it’s in this environment that the concept of proactive support has started to take hold.
Why we need proactive support.
When problems are reported to your customer service team and support tickets are filed, traditional, reactive support steps in. They help plug product leaks, pass on egregious issues to engineers, and salvage the customer relationship. Customer service representatives possibly even update the knowledge base for the sake of posterity.
All of the above reactive customer service is necessary, but it's not enough.
Proactive support is a strategy for leaning into the future of your product. The underlying premise of proactive support is that a customer’s default reaction to having bad product experiences is to say or do nothing.
Nothing is reported. The unhappy customer does not contact support. Technical issues go unrecorded. No feedback is captured. The product stays broken.
Proactive support recognizes that there’s a gap between customer pain and asking for help or reporting a problem — it is the exception when customers do the hard, low-return work of raising their problem to the attention of customer support, help desks, management, etc.
This gap is a problem: you can only manage what you measure, and if customers are running into problems without anyone noticing, those problems won’t get fixed.
The proactive approach works to bridge this gap with a solution now and then close the loop by working with product to solve for that issue in the future.
Proactive support in action.
A proactive support initiative is built on fixing things before people ever tell you they’re broken — or before even they’ve realized there’s a problem. When executed well, proactive support can create delightful, loyalty-building, long-term customer relationships.
Sometimes proactive support comes with customer outreach. For instance, you reach out to a user because you detect them rage clicking a stuck button on your site, and solve the problem they’re experiencing before they even have a chance to report it to you.
Or imagine you see this usage pattern. A customer tries to checkout with an item and their credit card is erroneously rejected. You smartly detect something went wrong and, rather than seeing if they complain or fix it on their own, you email them first to let them know a fix is on the way.
These are the two basic vectors of proactive support:
Beat them to the punch. Fix a problem before the customer reaches out: “Amazing — I was just about to email you. Yea, I was having trouble with x, but the information you sent me helped and now I’m all set. Thanks!”
Fix a problem before the customer realizes they have it: “Argh! I didn’t even know I had that problem and it would have taken me forever to notice. Thank you for fixing that for me.”
It might seem a little strange to imagine a situation in which a company fixes your problem in real-time, right before your eyes without you reporting it, but that’s the future that technology is promising today.
Imagine a future where you no longer have to contact customer support. Your problems are solved before your eyes. Wouldn't that be something?
Proactive support and the future of CX.
When things were simple, businesses sold products “as is” — “Caveat Emptor” or “let the buyer beware.”
As competition grew, so did customer expectations. Businesses had to do more and customer experience shifted away from the one-and-done transaction to being more of a conversation.
Today, as technology raises customer expectations ever higher, we see the next step in the evolution of customer experience — towards proactive customer service. Customer expectations have shifted to wanting more from companies. A 2013 study by inContact found that 87% of "87% of U.S. adults want to be contacted proactively by an organization or company."
Clearly, organizations are thinking hard about what proactive support means for their business results and looking for tools to power the strategy.
Just what tools are being using for proactive support teams and exactly how are businesses organizing around the objective? We discuss more in the next part in this series—How Proactive Support is Done Today.