Posted February 7, 2017
Industry research is apt to say we’re on the cusp of a future full of “smart” devices — that is, billions of everyday items embedded with wireless internet connectivity.
While different research firms have made very different projections, we’re looking at an average of about 30 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices by 2020.
While it may sound futuristic, in reality, that future is already here. Today, wifi-enabled fridges with touch screens let you manage your groceries, electric cars receive automatic software updates while you’re sleeping and industrial machinery is being redesigned with embedded sensors that can communicate with maintenance teams on the other side of the world.
But the implementation and adoption of IoT-related technology has not been a seamless experience. A recent report from Forrester on boosting customer service with IoT shared several key problems experienced by the connected customer. First, inane workarounds affect many products and services. The first iteration of a keyless entry system, for example, required more time and effort than using a traditional key to unlock the door. Then, there have been infuriating connection outages that threaten reliability and drive initial adopters back to their internet-free devices. And finally, there are the elaborate maintenance requirements caused by an interconnected ecosystem of devices which customers and contact centers have not yet grown accustomed to.
To combat these and other issues, companies are changing the way they build and train their customer service teams in an effort to anticipate customer needs before they reach out for help.
The growth of predictive support
Embedding sensors into product mechanics is changing the workflow of customer service delivery. “The Internet of Things is causing this shift in customer experience operators working from a reactive mode to a proactive mode,” says Michael Martin, a senior executive and IoT lead at IBM.
This is particularly true at the industrial level— a space occupied by machines often worth millions of dollars — where IoT has changed the delivery of customer service in its entirety.
Typically, maintenance in the industrial sector has meant calling in a problem and having the company send out a technician to troubleshoot and repair the issue on the ground. Connected products, however, enables the remote monitoring of certain parts, allowing the manufacturer to know if and when something is not performing as it should. For example, Michelin has embedded sensors into the tires it sells to trucking and transport companies to track tire tread and air pressure. The sensors can identify an issue or area of concern well before an actual problem arises.
This shift from reactive to predictive customer service has changed the role of the service agent. “It’s not about people cranking wrenches and fixing a physical product anymore,” says Eric Snow, senior vice-president of PTC, a global provider of IoT and augmented-reality technology. “Now customer success is about finding people who are much more skilled at helping a customer do their own self-service and make their own fixes.”
The evolution in service has also meant a change in service level agreements, explains Snow. Instead of charging per call, companies are now offering packaged service plans for customers — similar to how the music industry jumped from album downloads to monthly digital-streaming subscriptions like Spotify.
Big data means better customer service
The abundance of information produced from connected devices is seemingly infinite, resulting in the expanded role of the customer service agent.
IBM’s Martin sees those in a customer service role as “super experts” based on the amount of data at their disposal and points to one of his clients, a large government-owned utility, as an example. “If the customer is going on vacation, they might have sensors that can detect leakage, letting the operator be predictive or proactive in getting ahead of the problem,” he says.
As a result, the utility now educates its operators to think beyond the standard customer service manual in an effort to provide a more holistic customer experience. “They’re teaching [agents] to interpret the data available to them from the sensors,” says Martin. That kind of data could tip off a customer service representative to an old appliance using an excess level of energy, for example. In addition to flagging this to the customer, the agent might also be able to suggest an eligible government disposal program.
New skills required
A more holistic delivery of service is not the only change in a world with connected devices. In some scenarios, IoT has changed the role, expectations and skillsets of customer service agents entirely.
Ken Herron, a renowned IoT expert and the chief marketing officer of IoT messaging company Unified Inbox, points to the massive, sprawling malls of Dubai as an example. “They employ large amounts of staff to help customers locate their cars in the enormous parking lots they’ve built,” Herron says. His company makes technology that allows mall-goers to text their license plate numbers to a camera in the parking lot. That smart camera will then look up their plate number, identify where they parked their car and even produce a map they can review on their smartphones with the quickest route back to their car.
With this system in place, the need for a large number of parking lot attendants evaporates. Those who remain won’t need to show people to their cars; rather, they’ll be in a position where they can up-sell premium parking spots to shoppers, and help them navigate the app.
In the end, as more connected devices come on to the market, the shift in customer service will become more apparent. Customers’ relationships with brands are already changing from a purchase-support model, to a proactive and personalized experience. Hiring and developing personable and technology-forward support staff will become more crucial as more everyday items are plugged into the internet.