Hanging on the mobile phone – smart customer service

2 February 2015

Smartphones instil customers with a taste for accessing information and services in the here and now, with just a few swipes of the fingertip, but too many businesses are slow to adapt their sites for mobile visitors – and, crucially, to make customer service as big a part of mobile and online as it is instore. The proof, explains CEO of Usablenet Nick Taylor, is in the purchasing.

We live in a world in which consumers expect services to be available to them instantaneously. And why shouldn't they be? The mobile technology at our fingertips decrees that consumers can access everything they need, whenever and wherever they need it. It makes sense, then, that companies keep their end of the bargain and optimise their services for mobile. Refusing to address this side of the business will have a drastic impact on companies and make a huge dent in the level of customer service that they provide. If a brand wants to build a strong relationship with its customers, it needs to focus on its mobile offerings. A failure to do so will see customers shift to competitors, and falling revenue.

Mobile, first and foremost

Increasingly, mobile sites are becoming the first point of contact between brands and consumers. They are now the handshake and smile when you walk through the front door and they have to be able to deliver the same level of customer service as a member of in-store staff.

This is not just a hypothesis; figures relating to the use of mobile devices - in the retail sector in particular - prove that mobile sites deserve to be a priority for companies. In September of this year, the retail sector in the UK saw mobile visits outstrip those from desktops for the first time, with sales from tablets and smartphones rising to 36% of online totals. In B2B and B2C markets, consumers are not only researching on mobile, but are now shifting towards completing transactions through smartphones and tablets so the focus on providing a strong and consistent customer experience across all channels now has a direct impact on revenue.

It's clear from these figures that customer service is, and will continue to be, focused on mobile. Developments in mobile technology have raised consumer expectations more so than ever and, especially in the retail world, they are willing to vote with their feet. Recent research has shown that 77% of tablet users claim a poor experience when using a website through their tablet will affect their willingness to buy from that site in future. First impressions do count for a lot, and if brands don't get it right, customers will drift away.

What's more, if their experience is bad, they can respond so much quicker than ever before and share their disappointment with a far wider audience. The tool that is already in the customer's hand allows them to provide instant feedback that is visible to millions through social media, making it even more important to get it right.

However, not every brand is taking note of the growing importance of customer service. According to recent research conducted by Forrester, most major vendors are only delivering services rated 'poor' to merely 'OK', despite more than half of customer experience professionals believing that their company stands out from the crowd. While mobile technology gives the consumer higher expectations, low customer experience has become a baseline for many retailers and, at best, a shared responsibility across departments within the business.

"77% of tablet users claim a poor experience when using a website through their tablet will affect their willingness to buy from that site in future."

This state of affairs brings its own opportunity. In the same way that price and quality act as competitive advantages, we are now seeing customer service increasingly as a differentiator. What's more, there is a direct correlation between strong customer service and mobile-optimised websites. From the top 20 companies listed in the UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI), 14 had mobile-optimised sites.

Competitive advantage

As we see customers drift from the physical store to mobile shopping, simultaneously we are witnessing customer service encompassing more than just human-to-human interactions. Mobile sites need to provide the content and capability that suits the context of the user. They have to be as intuitive as a human being would be in a store, making investment in mobile as critical to delivering brilliant service as employing a capable sales assistant.

So, with the mobile site being central to the customer experience in today's market, how can brands maximise its potential and use it for competitive advantage?

When looking at their customer experience programme, businesses must primarily ask one important question - why do we do things this way? Outdated practices and weaknesses must be identified early on to clear the decks. Once this has been done, businesses must have a clear customer experience strategy in mind that can be laid out across all platforms, ensuring a consistent message throughout the company. After all, the mobile site is now your shop window and it needs to be telling the same story as the rest of your organisation.

In order to deliver a seamless experience across multiple channels, company culture has to change as well. Every digital touchpoint becomes a window to the business and a reflection of what matters most to the company. Importantly, customer centricity should not just be reserved for your mobile offerings, but reflected across every channel of your business. Businesses must deliver the same message and values in every interaction with customers, regardless of the channel. From the shop floor to a tablet experience, the customer journey must be seamless. The retail trend of 'showrooming' is a perfect example of how cross-company culture can manifest itself. With consumers looking to get the measure of physical products in-store, while at the same time browsing and maybe even buying them on their smartphone or tablet, brands have to be consistent. Those that instil customer centricity in their staff, as well as in their mobile design, will reap the benefits and use customer service as a real competitive advantage.

Make the most of mobiles

We've established that mobile is now one of the key factors in customer service but most importantly, brands need to know how to build the most effective mobile site.

Customers want to engage with brands through whichever channel is most appropriate to them at any given time, and the companies on the other end need to be ready for this.

The implications of this approach to brand engagement are numerous. First and foremost, you need to get your strategy nailed down. Before you even start work on building a mobile site, the goals for the project and what you want to get out of your mobile site should be decided. Customer insight must be at the heart of everything that you do and must dictate the design of your mobile site. In the current environment, mobile must be central to the business and reflect the needs of your customers.

In context

One key factor in mobile user experience design is context. As online traffic tips in favour of mobile, brands must recognise that their mobile channels must be tailored to users and take into consideration the context within which users are engaging. Unlike sites designed for use on a desktop computer, users could be up a mountain on their mobile or on the train shopping on their tablet. To ensure that a user can complete their task, regardless of location, device capability or network performance, the experience and the path to achieving their goal should make sense to the user, allowing them to access the resources they need given the tools at their disposal. Additionally, users could be accessing the site through a number of different devices and screens, expecting a seamless experience. If customers can't find their way around the site each time they change device, they will simply look elsewhere. Recognising this pattern of usage is crucial in planning a seamless experience.

"The mobile site is now your shop window and it needs to be telling the same story as the rest of your organisation."

It is also worth considering that current mobile strategies are designed around known screens. Looking forward, trends such as wearables and access to technology such as Google Glass will change the way consumers interact. This might impact how content is delivered and redefine the role of the mobile device in an expanded ecosystem. The internet of things and the growth of wearables are trends that brands need to take into account when developing mobile strategies.

Mobile users are focused on the task in hand and ideally want to complete it in one visit. Consequently, every element of the mobile experience needs to be focused on helping them complete the job. Mobile experiences must be streamlined so that, at every stage of the journey, the user has the relevant options available to complete their task as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Simplicity and performance

With all this noise in technology and everyday life, it is vital that when mobile sites or apps are designed, there is order and purpose in the interface. This is done by understanding the use cases supported by the experience, what content is required to achieve the user's goal, and eliminating anything superfluous to the essential task at hand. Simplification is a powerful design principle that helps make mobile experiences easy and convenient to use.

Businesses across the world are realising the importance of stripping back the unnecessary. Consider recent developments in graphic design by companies like Apple. Its latest update iOS and Yosemite updates championed 'flat design', with superfluous embellishments being removed to improve usability and satisfaction.

When you are designing a mobile site, the screen restraints, mobile processing and operating systems mean you cannot afford to replicate feature-rich designs used for the desktop. The key is a lean and optimised site. At the end of the day, mobile users want to complete their tasks quickly and there needs to be as few obstacles to this as possible.

The key to great customer service

It is clear that consumers now expect companies to be accessible at all times, and at the drop of a hat. These expectations have grown with the rise of mobile technology and, as a consequence, mobile sites are the shop window for any business. A mobile site that delivers the key information that a consumer needs, in a simple, efficient manner, is crucial to delivering the highest level of customer service. If brands want to build a relationship with customers, mobile must be front of house.

Nick Taylor is the CEO of Usablenet. Under his ten years of leadership, the company has grown from supporting a single mobile client to partnering with over 250 major mobile and multichannel clients. Prior to joining Usablenet, Taylor built various sales organisations in the technology sector.