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Why Is Proactive Customer Service So Essential?

Why proactive customer support is so important, and how to get started.

Why Is Proactive Customer Service So Essential?

In a Gartner survey of more than 6,000 customers, only 13% reported receiving any type of proactive customer service. 

Yet that same research showed that “Proactive customer service results in a full point increase in Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), Customer Effort Score (CES) and Value Enhancement Score (VES).”

Given these compelling benefits—of which there are plenty more—the question must be: What gives? 

How could it be that just 13% of 6000 customers reported receiving proactive customer support? 

Clearly, lots of service organizations are failing here. And there are many challenges to providing proactive service that cause this failure. But the three big ones are:

  • Lack of executive, managerial, and/or employee understanding and/or buy-in.
  • Improperly equipped and/or trained customer service reps. 
  • Failure to create a proactive customer service culture.

In the sections below, we’ll help you take these challenges on so you can make proactive customer service work better at your company. But first, let’s make sure we agree on what proactive customer service is.

In this article:

  1. <li-toc>What is proactive customer service<li-toc>
  2. <li-toc>Benefits of proactive customer support<li-toc>
  3. <li-toc>Challenges of proactive service<li-toc>
  4. <li-toc>Lay the groundwork in your next customer meeting<li-toc>

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<h-circle>1<h-circle>What is proactive customer service?

You know proactive customer service when you see it.

If you’ve ever gone in for an oil change (hopefully) you’ve seen proactive customer service. Typically, the auto shop inspects your vehicle as part of their oil change service. This allows them to identify issues you might not know about, preventing more costly damage to your car. That’s proactive customer service.

The academic definition of proactive customer service is: 

An individual’s self-started, long-term oriented, and persistent service behavior that goes beyond explicitly prescribed performance requirements. 

In the auto shop example, it’s the organization that created the policy, but the concept is the same. Ideally, both individual actions and organizational policies align to enact proactive customer service.

Proactive vs. reactive customer service

Reactive customer service looks like agents who do what they’re told (and nothing more). 

Reactive customer service means solving the issue of the moment, not necessarily the underlying problem. Reactive service providers might follow directions well, but when something they haven’t been explicitly trained to handle pops up, they’ll need help. 

This is also a very narrow view of the customer journey. Reactive customer support tends to focus on only the customer service issues directly in front of the support team, rather than pay attention to all of the areas where customers encounter problems and need to resolve issues.

A common indication that a customer service team is very reactive is when customers have to call in several times to solve the same problem. This isn’t a great customer experience and can result in consequences ranging from unhappy customers, to customer churn, to increased call center costs.

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<h-circle>2<h-circle>Benefits of proactive customer support

Taking a proactive approach to your customer experience — across customer calls, customer service tickets, and how you support new customers — can lead to many benefits:

<t-check>Dramatically reduce customer calls.<t-check> By proactively communicating the solutions to common customer services issues, you can reduce overall support requests significantly.

<t-check>More loyal customers.<t-check> Exceptional customer service earns lasting customer loyalty. Proactive customer service offers more opportunities to resolve customer issues than reactive support.

<t-check>Increase customer retention rates.<t-check> Providing proactive support helps you prevent problems that would otherwise go unnoticed, causing customers to churn.

<t-check>More brand advocates.<t-check> In addition to improving customer retention rates, proactive support can also delight customers to the point of creating brand evangelists, bolstering the brand’s reputation, and helping recruit future customers.

<t-check>Better customer data.<t-check> Proactive customer service often results in better customer interactions, leaving customers more open to participating in the ways you gather feedback, such as with a feedback form or survey, so that customer service teams can better understand customer behavior.

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<h-circle>3<h-circle>Challenges of proactive service: when it goes wrong (or doesn’t go at all)

1. Lack of buy-in at the executive, manager, and/or staff level

The challenge: Whether you’re introducing a new proactive service approach to your business support teams, or looking to improve your existing approach, nothing happens without buy-in. 

Fortunately, lack of buy-in is often a result of incomplete understanding which is something you can remedy.  

What to do: 

  1. Communicate the benefits of proactive customer service in a way that resonates with your boss, managers, and/or staff. 
  2. Propose a pilot of a new proactive service initiative. 
  3. Measure and report your progress. 

Let’s say your boss is very focused on customer renewals and you want to convince them to invest in a proactive support training program. In selling the program to your boss, you’d want to focus on how the proactive customer service approach could help reps win more renewals and improve customer loyalty.

Then, since you were tracking retention (and assuming the training helps), you’d be able to quantify the success of your proactive customer service strategy. And once you can show proof of concept, it becomes much easier to win additional financial buy-in. 

If you need to pepper in some data for your initial pitch, here are a couple of powerful stats:  

  • 22% of repeat calls involve downstream issues related to the problem that prompted the original call. Proactive support can reduce the number of repeat callers.
  • 66% of Americans report having a more favorable view of brands that offer or contact them with proactive support notifications.
  • 42% of Americans stopped doing business with a brand due to a poor customer service experience.

2. Improperly trained customer service reps

The challenge: The most in-demand soft skills for 2021 were problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity—all hallmarks of a proactive worker. 

But this demand for proactivity is reflective of a larger trend: products and services are increasingly complex and customers need help from people that can help them navigate complexity. Customer success managers must not only hire and train better, but they also need to retain their best talent. 

And with proactive, problem-solving workers in increasingly high demand, that won’t be easy.

What to do: 

Hire for and manage with trait initiative in mind

In a scientific article called Proactive Customer Service Performance, researchers found a “significant positive relationship between proactive service performance and trait initiative.”

One way to measure trait initiative is through the proactive personality scale, developed by professors Bateman and Crant. This scale includes the following 17 statements, (which respondents answer on the 7-point Likert scale):

  • I am constantly looking for new ways to improve my life.
  • I feel driven to make a difference in my community, and maybe the world.
  • I tend to let others take the initiative to start new projects.
  • Wherever I have been, I have been a powerful force for constructive change.
  • I enjoy facing and overcoming obstacles to my ideas.
  • Nothing is more exciting than seeing my ideas turn into reality.
  • If I see something I don’t like, I fix it.
  • No matter what the odds, if I believe in something I will make it happen.
  • I love being a champion for my ideas, even against others’ opposition.
  • I excel at identifying opportunities.
  • I am always looking for better ways to do things.
  • If I believe in an idea, no obstacle will prevent me from making it happen.
  • I love to challenge the status quo.
  • When I have a problem, I tackle it head-on.
  • I am great at turning problems into opportunities.
  • I can spot a good opportunity long before others can.
  • If I see someone in trouble, I help out in any way I can.

While I wouldn’t suggest throwing out your normal hiring procedures, try incorporating self-assessments of trait initiative into your hiring process. 

And use this assessment on existing employees. It may help you decide on which employees should be assigned to roles in which proactivity is rewarded.

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Train and develop with trait initiative   

Fortunately, trait initiative isn’t something where you either have it or you don’t. Proactivity can be nurtured and developed. But to nurture and develop, you need to know where you’re starting. Another way to measure trait initiative is among existing workers. Bateman and Crant used the following questions for supervisors to assess their staff’s level of proactivity (again using the Likert scale for responses):

My staff member...

  1. Proactively shares information with customers to meet their financial needs.
  2. Anticipates issues or needs customers might have and proactively develops solutions.
  3. Uses own judgment and understanding of risk to determine when to make exceptions or improvise solutions.
  4. Takes ownership by following through with the customer interaction and ensures a smooth transition to other service representatives.
  5. Actively creates partnerships with other service representatives to better serve customers.
  6. Takes initiative to communicate client requirements to other service areas and collaborates in implementing solutions.
  7. Proactively checks with customers to verify that customer expectations have been met or exceeded.

3. Failure to create the appropriate service climate

The challenge: Having smart, proactive employees doesn’t guarantee great customer service. As Professors Richard Frei and Michael McDaniel explain, employees must be provided with the appropriate “service climate”, which requires:

  1. Adequate equipment
  2. Sufficient staffing
  3. Policies and compensation that rewards good customer service skills

What to do:

1. Learn to use technology for high-touch customer service

How you equip and staff your service organization depends on the type of customers you serve, your resources, the nature of your product, and more. Fortunately for you, we’ve developed a flexible strategy for deploying technology to provide proactive customer service. 

To see what it’s all about, read our post on providing the best customer experience given finite resources. 

2. Equip your managers and agents with the right tools

Again, which tools you need depends on the nature of your organization. There are several must-have tools though, which include:

  • Video conferencing tools
  • Meeting note software
  • Scheduling tools
  • Remote and on-site meeting hardware

Other software that is especially useful for providing proactive support are:

  • Error logging software 
  • Analytics and reporting software (that can detect problems)
  • Chatbots and self-service options such as knowledge bases and FAQs
  • Survey tools for real-time feedback
  • Customer service automation tools (i.e. CRMs, email software, etc.)

3. Reward proactive customer service when appropriate

How you implement your reward system will vary depending on your employees' motivations. A good model to follow is Frederick Herzberg’s dual-factor theory. According to this theory, which is widely used, workplace needs fall into two categories:

  1. Hygiene factors that determine the basic level of stability and job security.
  2. Motivation factors that give employees a sense of satisfaction.

As summarized in this MasterClass post… 

Hygiene factors include appropriate pay, benefits, job security, and work conditions. These are your employees’ most basic needs. If you’re not meeting these needs, it’ll be difficult to tap into motivation factors. 

Motivation factors include recognition, autonomy, and meaningful work. These are the factors that make the difference between low motivation and high motivation in the workplace. Herzberg explains that the factors that give employees the motivation to work often have to do with giving them a greater sense of purpose and significance in their current position. 

Think of it like Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs where things like food, shelter, and safety must be provided before higher-level needs, like self-actualization, can be met.

Also, to help structure compensation and rewards, you can use the personal initiative questionnaire provided above. 

Bonus: Need help turning an underperforming employee around? Read how to tell them they’re underperforming and put a plan in place to get them on track.

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<h-circle>4<h-circle>Lay the groundwork in your next customer meeting

Effective, cost-efficient proactive customer service doesn’t happen without organizational alignment. And that can’t be solved in just a customer meeting. 

But that shouldn’t distract you from the fact that customer meetings are a goldmine of the type of customer feedback you need to implement proactive customer service. 

Consumers prefer doing business with companies that take a customer-centric approach and deliver proactive support.

So if you’re looking for a first step to take in your journey to more proactive service and increase customer satisfaction, make that first step in your next customer meeting. Ask about common issues, and pay close attention to where you might be able to resolve those issues with a proactive approach.

Implementing proactive customer service can happen one step at a time. Download our ebook, The Art of the Customer Meeting today. And then grab whichever one of our customer meeting agenda templates that best meets your needs.

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