Customer service for seniors: Why tech companies are taking an old-school approach

Discover how fast-growing technology companies are adapting their high-tech services to meet the unique customer support needs of an aging population.

Key Takeaways

  • The aging population has created an expansive marketplace for senior services, especially those that are tech-based.
  • Although today's seniors are more tech-savvy than ever before, phone-based customer service is still in high demand.
  • Fast-growing tech companies that are servicing an aging population need to strike the right balance between high-tech and high-touch customer support.

Posted August 30, 2017

An elderly couple sits at home. They can no longer drive, and it’s getting harder and harder to read their cell phone screen. The woman calls out to Google on her tablet— “Google, open the Honor app.” She taps a large, on-screen button and instantly orders grocery delivery and a brief home visit from a friendly caregiver – all on the same app. A few minutes later, their daughter receives an auto-generated message, letting her know that her elderly parents are well taken care of.

Honor is just one example of the many fast-growing tech companies targeting seniors as their primary audience. There is a large and growing market for services that cater to an older crowd. In America alone, there are over 46 million adults over the age of 65, according to Census data, and about 10,000 people turn 65 every day, according to the Pew Research Center.

While the rate of adoption for new technology is growing across all age groups, older cohorts still want to be able to pick up a phone and talk to a person on the other end of the line, making phone-based customer support key for businesses in the senior market.

What seniors want from customer service

While fast-growing tech companies and beyond are looking for ways to cut down on customer service calls, businesses can’t ignore that seniors still vastly prefer voice interactions. More than 63 percent of individuals born before 1960 consider phone support to be their top channel for customer service. That number grows to more than 90 percent for those born before 1944, according to a Dimensions Data benchmarking study.

Other than simply providing voice-based customer support as an option for senior customers, it’s also critical to demonstrate a high degree of respect, to limit the use of jargon and opt for written communication whenever possible. “My parents are in their 70s, and to this day that age demographic still enjoys the tangible. They want to read something in print,” says Sean Ochester, vice-president of digital marketing and technology at Sage Age Strategies, which specializes in marketing for senior living communities. Many over the age of 65 suffer from hearing loss, making a follow-up email that summarizes the phone-based customer service interaction a courteous gesture.

While serving elderly customers may necessitate a different approach, providing customer support to seniors doesn’t require a complete overhaul of the contact center. “The concept of [good] service is going to be the same no matter if you’re dealing with Millennials, seniors, or any other inbound caller,” says Scott Sachs, a Pennsylvania-based call center consultant and CEO of SJS Solutions. “The customer wants an answer to their question, they want to be treated nicely, and they want [calls] to be low-effort.”

Part of seniors’ reliance on phone customer service is related to their wariness of online support. A Baby Boomer himself, Sachs says older users value their online privacy more than digital natives, and are more reluctant to share their information over the web than their younger counterparts.

That means firms can’t rely on social support or self-service FAQs to reach an older clientele. This experience has been true for the aforementioned Honor, the app that facilitates care giving and companionship services for seniors, as well as help running errands. “There’s no ‘scaled channel’ to folks in this space,” says Honor CEO Seth Sternberg. “Its not like you go on Facebook and Google and advertise exclusively there. You have to figure out the right places to find people who need you. It’s a disparate set of channels.”

High-tech, high-touch customer care for seniors

There is no shortage of fast-growing tech companies creating products for an aging population. But while the initial focus of these companies is often on the product, it’s critical not to lose sight of the end customer.

For example, ElliQ is a machine that Intuition Robotics CEO Dor Skuler describes as intuitive, supportive and attuned to seniors’ needs. The goal isn’t just to check emails or to read the news, but to support and interact with seniors in their day-to-day lives. For instance, it can call out when a user has been sedentary for too long, asking if it’s time to go for a walk.

While the ElliQ team may have gone all in when it comes to using Google APIs to program its search and command options, Skuler says they haven’t left behind traditional customer support. Although the tabletop robot is still only in the test phase, the company plans on fully staffing a customer service contact center and giving agents training in working with seniors. “We need to have empathy for the right reasons, with a lot of patience, and think through the whole thing with customers, to reflect those values [the company wants to exemplify],” Skuler says.

Elsewhere, Honor hires caregivers as full-time employees, using computers to juggle schedules and offering an app both to customers and to caregivers to make transactions run smoothly. “From a customer service perspective, we’re servicing three people: The recipient of care which is usually an older adult, whoever’s helping them — usually an adult child or friend — and the care professional,” says Honor CEO Sternberg.

Even with the cutting-edge technology Honor uses, Sternberg, who previously sold a company to Google, says clients can still pick up the phone and call Honor to schedule appointments and ask questions. And when they do, they expect to have courteous, competent and high-quality service providers on the other end of the line.

Tech-savvy seniors still want old-school help

Seniors may have preferences for good old-fashioned phone-based customer service, but that isn’t to say they’re totally ignorant of technology. According to the Pew Research Center, “the share of adults ages 65 and up who own smartphones has risen 24 percentage points (from 18 percent to 42 percent) since 2013” with 32 percent indicating that they have tablet computers.

As the younger Baby Boomer generation begins to enter retirement and their senior years, the demand for useful tech and customer service will continue to grow. The firms that succeed will be those that adapt technology to meet the aging population in their space — acknowledging their unique customer service needs in the process.

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