Customer service is a perennial issue that is critical to all small business owners. Although it is included in every company mission statement, no one wants to focus on it. But some key customer service trends for 2011 make this phase of your business even more critical in the coming year.
Here are 11 customer service trends to watch in 2011:
- The time to react to your customer is shrinking. In this 24/7 instant gratification world, the time in which your customer expects you to be able to resolve their problem is getting smaller. Most customers expect to be able to reach you 24/7, and for you to resolve their concern on the very first call (or at least the same day). This is putting increasing stress on companies’ infrastructure and pressuring companies to ensure the profitability of each customer. Look for companies to begin to “fire” customers that don’t meet their profitability metric.
- Customer service has become the new marketing. Small business owners used to be afraid that a dissatisfied customer would tell 7 people. Now, through social media sites, they can tell 7 million people. On the flip side, “raving fans” can be your biggest source of new business as they tell everyone how great your company is. Consumers believe what their peers say about your company more than they believe any of your own paid advertising.
- You can find out exactly where your customers are talking about your company. Every business is being talked about on the Internet, but where? New customized software from companies like Flowtown  allow the business owner to insert a contact’s name or e-mail address and identify the social networks in which that contact participates. Knowing where your prospects and customers congregate online is critical for engaging your customers where they are.
- The “social support” experience grows. Consumers now talk and bond directly with each other over using your products. Companies like Get Satisfaction  and Feedback 2.0  are building online communities that facilitate conversations between companies and customers. Get Satisfaction states that 46,000 companies use its product to provide a social support experience to listen and talk to their loyal customers.
- Faster resolution of customer service issues through blog and social media site comments. Calling a company’s customer service number is no longer the fastest way for a customer to get an issue resolved. Since most brands are tracking what is being said about them on all the social media sites, tweeting your concern or posting it on Facebook will often yield quicker results. This has especially been effective for me with my vendors like Comcast, Vonage, American Airlines and Discover Card.
- Integration of Web customer service and traditional phone support. Customized software now allows integration of what prospects and customers are saying on the Web about your company. More solutions like Parature  for Facebook are available to integrate that information with your website and customer service center. Software now enables Facebook users to search their knowledgebase, submit help tickets and chat with customer service agents. Look for online and offline customer input channels to continue to merge in the coming year.
- More self service: It started with ATMs 40 years ago and now we rarely go to the airport without using a self-service kiosk. This past year, more complicated transactions like renting a car are now being done via kiosks at companies like Hertz. Although it takes a bit longer, it is effective for impatient customers who do not want to wait in lines. Many stores have also implemented self checkout. Can buying a car or house via self serve be far behind?
- Faux personalization becomes an expectation. With many consumer interactions now happening online or through automated kiosks instead of live people, customers have come to expect the type of “personal service” they get at websites like Amazon. Easily being able to track your current, past and recommended future purchases has become an expectation that is not easily matched in a brick and mortar store. Amazon always remembers who you are, but does your local retail store? As a result, where would you rather shop?
- Retail stores are now an experience. Successful retail stores like Apple and Brookstone have become demo centers with a lot of service people around to help. On Black Friday, when other stores were struggling to keep up, I was in and out of an Apple store in 5 minutes with my iPad purchase. In order to compete with online shopping, successful stores are now fun places to come out and shop. Gone are the days when you couldn’t find someone to help you at Toys R Us (and I don’t miss it).
- You need to chat. Helping a customer on your website used to providing an e-mail address or listing the company phone number. Real-time chat is now becoming a requirement in order to help your clients. Can video chat be that far behind for an even more personal touch?
- Online inventory tracking from your customer’s phone. Your customer will no longer come into your store to see if you have a product. Companies like Milo.com  can now tell the customer if a product is on your shelf. The company says it tracks real-time availability of 3 million products in 52,000 stores. Is this the end of “window shopping”?
What customer service trends are you seeing in 2011?