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How customer expectations are rising – and what to do about it

It’s no secret that when it comes to support, customer expectations are higher than ever before – but how are support leaders and teams adapting to these increased demands?

Our recent report showed that while 73% of support leaders say customer expectations are increasing, only 42% of them believe that they’re actually meeting those expectations. That’s a significant gap between expectations and reality – and one that it’s all too easy for your support team to fall into.

This customer expectation gap – that is, the gulf between the personalized, efficient experience customers want and what your team can reasonably deliver – creates a problem for businesses. According to a Microsoft Global State of Customer Service report, 90% of respondents said that customer service is an important factor in their choice of, and loyalty to, a brand. And if their support expectations aren’t met? Nearly two-thirds (58%) would sever their relationship with a business due to poor customer service.

With customer experience rapidly becoming a key differentiator, resulting in increased consumer loyalty, more revenue, and greater cost savings, it’s more important than ever to stand out or lose out. So how do you begin to close that gap and deliver world-class customer support at scale? We talked to support leaders from HubSpot, Stripe, and Productboard to learn more about how they’re bridging the gap – and exceeding customer expectations.

Understand how customer expectations are changing

This last year has changed the consumer landscape permanently. In particular, the pandemic has brought about an unprecedented shift in our reliance on technology that has had a knock-on effect on how customers relate to, and interact with, companies and brands.

For example, more customers than ever have had to pivot to online shopping; for many, this has come with an added level of stress due to factors like shortages in supply chains and delivery delays. This is combined with an increase in the uptake of digital channels (more on that later): according to a recent McKinsey & Company survey, executives are three times more likely to say that at least 80% of their consumer interactions are digital in nature, compared to before the pandemic.

“I think we all expect a level of emotional empathy in our interactions due to the environment we’re all in”

So how do you respond to both the increased volume and the heightened emotions? With empathy. “I think we all expect a level of emotional empathy in our interactions due to the environment we’re all in,” said Jean-Bernard Baptiste, Senior Manager of Customer Support at HubSpot.

These shifts have naturally had consequences for customer expectations of support, but they’re not the only factor. While the pandemic has demanded certain adaptations, in many cases, it’s simply accelerating trends that customer support leaders were experiencing anyway.

 

“Customer expectations are both higher and different than last year,” said Aneta Ziegenfuss, Director of Customer Support at Productboard. “This is due to the company growing and attracting more clients, but also due to the world depending more on technology, which creates additional pressure on businesses like Productboard.”

And as companies start to better understand the importance of customer satisfaction for retaining customers and building loyalty, a great customer support experience goes from a “nice-to-have” to an essential differentiator. “I think customer expectations are higher, because more and more companies are realizing that it’s the key to their continued growth and success,” Jean-Bernard said. “Therefore customers are getting better experiences with businesses and that’s becoming a standard, which is great. Customers should be the main focus of any business.”

Listen closely to customer feedback

If you truly want to deliver on customer expectations, you need to listen closely to what your customers are telling you. To do that effectively, you need to take a holistic view of the entire customer experience, and gather feedback at multiple touchpoints along the way.

“We look at data such as NPS and direct customer feedback,” said Jean-Bernard. “Then, our internal teams work closely together to help understand where there are any gaps and put action plans into place to move forward.”

“Try to have the customer experience yourself,” she said. “Pretend you’re a customer. Ask yourself: ‘Am I happy with the experience I just had? Does it meet my expectations and needs? What could be improved and how? What am I missing?’” - Aneta Ziegenfuss, Director of Customer Support at Productboard

To really understand the customer journey and any pain points, Aneta recommends proactively anticipating issues by putting yourself in the customer’s shoes. “Try to have the customer experience yourself,” she said. “Pretend you’re a customer. Ask yourself: ‘Am I happy with the experience I just had? Does it meet my expectations and needs? What could be improved and how? What am I missing?’”

But while empathetically pre-empting customer problems is important, there’s no substitute for going directly to the customers themselves. “We always seek opportunities to connect with users directly to dig deep into where we can do better,” said Theresa Hagel, Head of Priority Operations at Stripe. “This includes proactive outreach to understand what our largest and our smallest users need most from us throughout their lifecycle, as well as maintaining touchpoints throughout Stripe with all of the employees who have user-facing roles, like account management, onboarding services, and so on.”

“We’re constantly reviewing CSAT scores and comments, in addition to our internal quality tools to learn, iterate and improve”

And when you do get feedback, make sure to respond appropriately in a personal, timely manner that lets your customers know you’re listening. “We follow up personally with users who are dissatisfied or indicate that they wish to speak to us directly,” Theresa said. It’s also important to ensure you’re collecting feedback in the right way, without overwhelming your users (or dissuading them from giving feedback again in the future). “We have rules in place so we don’t over-survey users who contact us a lot,” Theresa said, “But we’re constantly reviewing CSAT scores and comments, in addition to our internal quality tools to learn, iterate and improve.”

Cater to customers’ preference for chat

“Customers expect to be able to communicate with businesses through multiple channels,” said Jean-Bernard. And while it’s important to provide them with a consistent, unified experience regardless of where or how they reach out to you, there’s one channel you really need to be optimizing for: chat.

These days, customers are expecting a conversational, messenger-first experience. They want fast, efficient answers, but they also want to be able to multitask (which rules out phone support), without sacrificing on speed (one of the key areas where email support lags behind). Not to mention that customers are used to communicating via chat in other areas of their day-to-day lives, from using Slack with colleagues to sending memes to friends on WhatsApp.

“Today, we see our customers heavily moving towards using our chat channel for support”

“Today, we see our customers heavily moving towards using our chat channel for support,” Jean-Bernard said. “We continue to work to staff our chat in order to help meet our customers needs.”

Increasing your chat support offering doesn’t have to mean increasing headcount, however; it’s also about finding smart ways to make your chat tool work harder (and smarter) for your team.

Using chatbots is one way to do this, enabling you to meet the expectation of a rapid, efficient support experience without needing more team resources. With chatbots, you can resolve simple queries and offer up self-serve help content based on customer needs, all in a friendly, accessible, and intuitive way.

 

Not only that, but our recent report shows that support teams that use chatbots are 27% more likely to say they’re prepared to meet accelerating customer expectations, compared with teams that don’t – so it’s a tried and tested way to start bridging the gap.

Automatically route conversations to the right teammates

Customers shouldn’t have to jump through hoops just to get the answers they need. Asking them to constantly restate basic information or give previously provided context over and over is a waste of everyone’s time – and it creates an incredibly frustrating experience for your customers.

To avoid this, you need to make sure you’re gathering the right data upfront, then using it cleverly to optimize your team’s workflow. This is another great place where you can streamline your process with automation; instead of needing a team member to ask these simple and often repetitive qualifying questions, you can use a chatbot to ask the right questions, get the right details, and then automatically use that context to route the conversation to the right person.

“We’re building a proprietary system to intelligently route cases, taking into account both user and case properties to find the best available agent to match with the case”

For Theresa, being able to automatically assign conversations to the right people is an important factor in improving customer satisfaction. “We’re building a proprietary system to intelligently route cases, taking into account both user and case properties to find the best available agent to match with the case,” she said. “This will improve our user experience by solving cases faster and reducing the need for cases to hop between agents.”

Turn to personalized automation

At this point, personalization is becoming an industry standard. One survey found that 80% of customers want personalization from retailers, while another report found that 72% of business buyers expect vendors to personalize their engagement to their needs.

“We have some strategies in the works to continue to help add more value to our customers by leveraging chatbots and automation, but our #1 goal is to ensure it doesn’t take away from our customers’ experience.” - Jean-Bernard Baptiste, Senior Manager of Customer Support at HubSpot

At first glance, automation might seem like the polar opposite of personalized, conversational support. In fact, when used correctly, it allows you to amplify the personal experience, by enabling you to create targeted messages, gather more context, and free up your support team to focus on the most meaningful and impactful questions.

“We have some strategies in the works to continue to help add more value to our customers by leveraging chatbots and automation, but our #1 goal is to ensure it doesn’t take away from our customers’ experience,” said Jean-Bernard.

So while you’re scratching the itch for personalization, the key is to always remain focused on how it’s helping the customer and improving their journey in a way that also furthers, rather than acts as a substitute for, a meaningful customer relationship.

Focus on what you can do (not what you can’t)

No matter the question, customers are relying on you to give them a reliable, trustworthy answer. But when you’re trying to exceed customer expectations, it can be tempting to tell them what they want to hear, instead of giving them what could be perceived as a “negative” answer.

In actuality, an honest no is better than a vague or flippant yes. Misinformation and confusion will not only result in a poor customer experience, but can ultimately degrade your customers’ trust in your business. Even when you can’t meet their expectations of your product or service, you can still meet their expectations of your brand and customer support, by delivering clear, upfront answers that explain the reasoning and offer potential solutions.

“Always focus on what you can do for the user instead of what you can’t do – for example, you might not be able to change a policy, but you can explain it (and then give feedback to the product team).” - Theresa Hagel, Head of Priority Operations at Stripe

As Theresa said, “Always focus on what you can do for the user instead of what you can’t do – for example, you might not be able to change a policy, but you can explain it (and then give feedback to the product team).”

This feedback loop is essential, because, as we saw above, it offers more ways for you to understand what it is your customers are expecting, and what you can do long-term to meet those expectations. And since support teams are always in conversation with actual users, they’re uniquely positioned to give some of the most valuable feedback that will help you to smash customer expectations in the future. “Great user experience is the outcome of continuous, data-driven and relentless improvement of all processes,” Theresa said. “The opportunity to do better is always in the details.”

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