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Proactive vs. Reactive Customer Service

  |  November 8, 2013   |  Comments

Smart consumers now expect companies to be proactive to their needs and smart companies are stepping up to the plate and surpassing customer expectations.

There are two types of customer service mentalities out there: proactive and reactive. Which type of customer service operation does your company promote? Today we'll see the difference between these two types of service ideologies.

One of our clients has a CDN, or content delivery network, that they use to store photos, videos, javascript and other files, and a separate managed hosting service that takes care of their hosting issues (like their PHP pages and database). Recently, part of the CDN's service went down (the "origin" that was the source for the CDN's content) and the client had to try and (quickly) switch origins to the backup copies of the data stored at the managed hosting service.

If that was all a bit too technical, the point is there was a problem that required help from both companies at the same time. This example provides a great side-by-side comparison between two companies with vastly different philosophies on customer service.

For starters, whenever there is a problem with the website proper, the web hosting company usually sends an alert out to our client (and us, as we are the technical contact). They tell us what is wrong, what's being done about it and when it will be fixed. If it's super urgent we'll get a phone call instead of an email. This CDN problem, however, was undiscovered until our client themselves found there was a problem loading new content into the CDN's "origin" server. There was no proactive message that a server was down.

We contacted the CDN company on their behalf. We went into the customer dashboard and clicked it to the live customer support chat. We told them what was wrong. They told us we'd need to open a customer support ticket. Note that we certainly had that option before we chose live chat, but because of the urgency of the situation we went with the live chat option. A proactive customer service ideology would have them create the ticket for us while we were talking to them. That's how other companies we deal with operate.

We were told that the server was down and there was no ETA for when it would be fixed. Understand that when this part of a CDN's service goes down it means that a lot of the site is potentially broken. Without getting too technical, if a piece of content (photo, movie, javascript file, etc.) is not available in the CDN's cache (which allows for fast content delivery over a large geography), the CDN grabs the file from the "origin" and repopulates the CDN. Without the origin accessible, the CDN just returns a "file not found" when a file is not in its cache. This effectively can shut a site down. And here the service provider simply said, "We have no ETA on when it will be fixed."

Jumping over to the web hosting company, we had to try and set up a new origin on their servers, as that is where all the content is backed up. Within moments of submitting a ticket, we got a response back: "I am sorry to hear your CDN's origin server went down. Give us a minute to research this and get back to you." Within minutes of that, they sent us a clear action plan of what they were going to do and how long they thought it was going to take.

The webhosting company ran into a few snags, including not being able to find some authentication information they needed for one of the servers. But every 10 to 20 minutes or so they would proactively send us a note saying, "We are still working on this and here is where we are in the process."

Let's jump back for a moment. The solution we were trying was to move the "origin" from the CDN's servers to the web-hosting servers. If this issue happened with the proactive webhost, they would have come up with three to four solutions to the problem and asked us which we wanted to do. The CDN company came up with no solutions. They simply said, "Your server is offline and there is no ETA for when it will be fixed." We had to suggest to them that we could change the origin server to point somewhere else. If left to their customer service, no solutions would have been discussed.

It is now hours later. We have spoken to the web hosting company five to six times (or at least we have been updated by them that many times). The CDN company, on the other hand, has not said a word to us. I keep having to ask them for any updates. Otherwise we'd never hear from them.

After jumping into a live support chat and berating their customer service people for not being helpful at all, and pressing them on what is being done, we were told that the server crashed and the tech people are in the middle of rebuilding the file indexes. At least that was something that told us: a) they know what the problem is; b) they know how to fix it; and c) the rebuilding process is what is taking a long time. Without this knowledge, we didn't know if they even knew what the problem was. Would they have to order a new server? Did they know how to fix it? A little bit of communication helped quell our fears that this problem was much bigger than it was.

As I write this, the problem is still unresolved, and we are implementing the workaround with the help of the web host (until it is fixed, we've shut off the CDN and are serving all content from the web host's servers directly). The different style of customer service is profound in the way it shapes our opinions of these two companies. On one hand, the reactive CDN provider will respond to messages but not really do anything to help solve the problems, come up with solutions or guide us through and make sure we know what's going on. On the other hand, the web hosting provider is making sure we know they are there with us step-by-step and they are offering solutions, trying to find answers and keeping in constant contact with us.

More than ever, customer service and user experience are driving factors behind consumer loyalty. Smart consumers now expect companies to be proactive to their needs, not just reactive, and smart companies are stepping up to the plate and surpassing customer expectations. Credit card companies have long been on the forefront of this. On my last cruise, I was in a different state every day, making my way down the East coast. At the third or fourth port, I received a phone call, an email and a text message, all asking me if my card had been stolen. I could either call the company back, reply to the email or reply to the text message ("1" for "I made those purchases" and "2" for "My card was stolen"). With that level of proactive customer service, and with that level of multi-channel user experience, smart companies are leap-frogging those that are stuck in a reactive, old-world model.

A good proactive customer service approach encompasses at least the following basic steps:

  • Put processes in place that will alert you of potential problems before the client knows about them.
  • Automate customer contact when the alerts happen and start a manual review to see how severe the problem is.
  • Contact customers manually as soon as you identify the problem and keep in constant contact with them, even if you have nothing more to say than, "We are still working on it."
  • If you can't determine how long it will take to resolve the issue, at least tell the user why that's the case and what you are doing to try and figure out how long it will take. Keeping users in the dark is the best way to lose them.
  • Put your channels to work. Take a page from credit card companies and use channels that are convenient for the user. This might include any combination of email, phone, text messages or mobile/web app.

Meanwhile, our client will be staying with the web hosting company for the foreseeable future. They are, however, looking for a new CDN provider.

Until next time...
Jack

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at Shop.org and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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