What's the future of Customer Service?

Customer Service is evolving. In the past, as customers, we used to think of it as a department to call, when we had a problem. There were people there, whose job it was to fix it. Good customer service was measured in terms of how well they solved our complaint, how 'nice' they were in going about it, and perhaps the degree to which they went 'out of their way' to help.

But now organisations are developing their customer experience. In this newer era, it's everyone's job to play a part, whether you have a 'front-line service role' or not. In some ways, this makes sense. Hopefully, most customers don't have cause to complain, and therefore may not need to contact a transactional "fix-it" team. In contrast, all customers have an experience from the organisation they come into contact with. So in a competitive world, companies should develop a more proactive aspect of service - the 'natural' way that a firm behaves in delivering its proposition to everyone.

In doing so, whether we're receiving a brochure, using a website, being attended to in person or even offering self-service tools, a firm can happily present all of its touchpoints as a seamless offer: "It's all part of the service".

For companies that see service as embedded in the whole proposition for all customers, it's logical that service should be measured universally too. The job of the outbound satisfaction call or email is to check that the customers' expectations were met to their satisfaction, as soon as possible, in the hope that they will purchase again. How about adding another fashionable metric? The Net Promoter Score (NPS) and its sister healthcare version known as the NHS "friends-and-family-test" calculates just how recommendable an experience or brand is, based on a 1-question customer survey. This is broadly the thinking behind service quality - that a happy customer is someone whose expectations have been correctly set upfront, and then met or exceeded in delivery.

So does this progression point the way to the future of customer service?

I hope not. Because this interpretation of service risks celebrating standardisation above all else. McDonalds restaurants are famous (or infamous?) for a consistent core product range, quality and delivery, wherever you find them in the world. Is this the gold standard? Perhaps, when it comes to the rigour required to deliver it through a franchise model. Customer expectations may have been met, but this same limited creativity is what stops many customers from giving McDonalds a chance in the first place.

Instead, I believe that customer service interpreted as creativity support will mark the future course of service for leading brands. Organisations need first to identify what customers truly care about, and then empower their employees to bring that alive in as relevant a way as possible. Apple realised this when they created the not-so-humbly named Genius Bars to offer 1-to-1 expertise, whether to fix a problem, or simply explore an idea of how to do something. The creativity in this interaction starts when customer and genius come together, with the Apple Store providing the stage.

In a similar way, IKEA's home furnishing advisors have come a long way in recent years. Customers can come into store bringing their ambitions for how they want to decorate a room in their home, and staff will add their ideas and inspiration. Advisors have access to swatches, design tools and IKEA products all around of course, but their own wider experience too.

Another IKEA development has been a growing relationship with the UK buy-to-let market. IKEA have a Dressing Service available where your property can be left in "move-in" condition for tenants - beds are dressed, kitchen accessories put into cupboards, furniture placed according to an agreed floor plan etc.

The goal here is to make IKEA the place to develop your ideas and creativity, as well as extend IKEA's status from product supplier to 'solution partner'. In doing so, an association is built between the task at hand, the IKEA brand and a sense of productivity, expertise and collaboration.

I think this is where Customer Service is moving towards - beyond a discreet problem resolution, beyond even an integral part of the customer experience. Service will come to represent the enabling element of a brand to its customers. Service will inspire people to do more, help them to learn and connect them to ideas and solutions.

Customer service used to be seen as a spectrum, with full-service at one end (supplier does it all) to self-service (customer does it all). But now, and in the very near future, service will be less about who does it, and much more about what value it can create and how it can be accessed.