Customer support has become one of the most important elements to a successful small business, and the relationship between business and customer has become so intertwined through technology and social media.
But it hasn't always been like this. Though the technology we have today makes all of our lives that much easier, it hasn't always been around. And before it was, the relationship between the users and the companies was pretty different.
The Evolution of Customer Service
With today's technology, users expect convenient and quick customer service. We have phones, computers, and apps that connect us with agents.
Unfortunately for our recent ancestors, these tools were not around, and their customer support experience was significantly different for the worse.
Before any technology was developed, people would have to go to the business to lodge customer complaints in person. Even then, the company wasn't exactly primed for customer service.
The business was seen as a transaction; customer support wasn't really valued until the early 1900s, when technology allowed customers to connect with the business.
One of the biggest steps forward in customer service was the invention of the telephone during the Industrial Revolution, in 1876. Alexander Graham-Bell's device would allow people to call a business instead of having to physically go to the store where they made their purchases.
It wasn't in 1876 that customers were able to do this. The telephone was still a luxurious and blossoming technology. It wasn't until 1894 that the switchboard was developed, and common users were able to take advantage of the system.
In 1957 telephones were becoming more and more available, and businesses wanted to use them to their advantage, so the first call center was developed.
Call centers gave businesses the ability to communicate with a large number of clients, filling a room with phone operators who would receive or make calls on behalf of the company. But customers still had to go through switchboards and operators to get to the business.
Fast forward ten years to 1967, when the first 1-800 number was released. This allowed users to bypass the switchboards and call a company directly. It also meant clients didn't have to use collect calls to get to a business, which would cost the user money.
By the late 1980s, telephone technology had taken another leap into interactive voice response systems, or IVR.
IVR was a tool within phone systems that allowed companies to pre-record messages that would analyze and respond to customers. Think of an automated phone bot that asks you to press one, two, or three if you'd like to speak with a certain department.
While still in its infancy, IVR was one of the first digital systems for customer service.
In the later years of the 1980's businesses and call centers started to expand beyond company limitations, and technology hadn't advanced enough to make up for it.
Companies started outsourcing their call centers to countries that would allow for more cost-effective labor; a practice still continued today.
Developing in the background of all of these telephone systems was the personal computer. While models of computers were being developed from the 1940s, they really weren't available to use for the public until the mid-1980's to the mid-1990s.
Many families didn't have one until even a little later, as computers could cost quite a lot (an average of around $5000 in today's money) and were still being developed for helpful usage.
However, by the mid to late 1990s, Microsoft and Apple were both developing accessible computers that ordinary people could take home and use.
This technology, combined with the new channel of the internet and soon-to-be tools, would completely alter the customer service industry.
Another piece of technology brewing behind the scenes was the internet, or at least a version that we wouldn't quite recognize today.
Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980's the internet was a connection of computers through small networks that would allow for data sharing.
But it was in the 90's that the internet as we know it, the worldwide web, was created by Swedish developer Tim Berners-Lee. The first web page is still available to visit, though it probably doesn't seem like much by today's standards.
The invention of the internet as we know it today opened the door for a massive amount of technology and nearly every aspect of customer service that we use in modern times.
Speaking of technology we use today, along with the internet, came email in 1996. Customers could now contact businesses immediately- Without having to be on hold. An email was a new, convenient connection between customer and company.
Throughout the early 2000s, companies began organizing and automating the customer service experience, which led directly to the Customer Relationship Management software development, or CRM.
CRM tools would optimize the interaction between businesses and their audience, taking customer support a step further towards convenience and success.
In 2002 a website called LinkedIn was launched, and a year later, another website named MySpace.
While there were smaller, less successful social media platforms before, these two truly paved the way for social media tools that we know and use today.
By 2006 MySpace was the most visited website on the internet, and companies began to notice. Customer service was no longer a one-way relationship from user to business; businesses could now connect with their audience on a personal level. Now, you'll find live chat support on Facebook, Twitter, and others.
While chatbots technically existed in a pretty simple way back in the 1960s when computers were first being developed, it wasn't until 2009 that we saw what we would consider a true chatbot.
WeChat developed a relatively advanced chatbot that would analyze, acknowledge and respond to user strings, but the technology was fairly limited. Relying on keywords, chatbots of the time would be pretty rigid, and users would have to ask the same question several times in order to hit the accurate keywords.
In 2016 companies began to integrate artificial intelligence into chatbots, developing advanced learning algorithms that pushed the technology into what we know and appreciate today.
Expectations of Today
After years and years of developing new technologies and connecting with customers in several different ways, customers expect high-quality customer service.
Not just in the customer experience but in the speed of the solution as well. Customers have a plethora of mobile apps and other options when it comes to reaching out to your business regarding an issue or providing feedback, and each one should be optimized for support and customer retention.
Multichannel Customer Support
Different users have different preferences when it comes to how they contact your business. Some will still seek out human customer service teams; others will prefer customer interactions with anyone and find their own answers.
It's critical to have multichannel customer support so that no matter what your client prefers, there's a method provided for them to have a positive experience.
A good amount of your users will prefer to speak with human representatives. This could be because they had a bad experience with chatbots or instant messaging when they first came out or because they believe that they'll get their answers solved faster with a human-staffed help desk.
Whatever the reason, having a team of well-trained and positive customer service representatives is critical to a successful business.
Make sure that your agents are regularly trained, as the software that they might be using or even the service that your company provides may update from time to time.
Having a confident team reduces the amount of time each ticket takes and boosts your user experience. Customers that have a positive time with customer support are likely to share that news with their friends and family.
As we mentioned before, chatbots have been around for a while. But when they became a bit more mainstream around 2009, they were less than well-received.
Some users might still have the memory of rigid, not-very helpful chatbots in their mind, but today's technology has advanced so much that it's hard not to see the benefits of the bots.
Artificial intelligence and natural language processing have given chatbots a big step up, allowing them to smoothly interact with users like a human representative would.
And, because chatbots are so advanced and constantly available to help your users no matter what time of day, they help frees up your human representatives' time and focus so that they can tend to the more complex customer issues.
Short Response Times
Users expect a response from your customer support team within at least 12 hours. Preferably less than that. Gone are the days of being on hold for eternity or even having to physically go to the store for assistance.
Fortunately, with the resources available to your support team today, this is entirely possible to keep up with now. Between human agents and chatbots, your business is able to quickly and efficiently respond to users.
Customer support has certainly come a long way over the last century and a half. Customers used to have to go to the store that they needed help from during business hours, and even then, they weren't going to receive the service that we expect today.
Advancements in technology led the way, from the phone to the internet and computers, to expanding customer relationships and even MySpace.