The Importance of Context in Customer Service

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I was recently cleaning out my inbox and saw a notification from Nextdoor.com. In it, one of my neighbors asked if we were in danger of wildfires reaching us. At the time of my reading, the fires were approximately 20 miles away from our neighborhood and almost entirely contained.

Just as I was preparing to let my neighbors know that they had nothing to worry about, I noticed that the original post was more than a week old. And at the time of that posting, the fire was 0% contained and growing. In fact, we could see the glow of flames at night when we looked to the east. In that context, the concern about the fire spreading to our neighborhood made complete sense.

Context and customer service

This got me thinking about context in a customer service setting. I define context as: 

The process of researching a customer’s issue and the sum total of the previous actions and interactions regarding their account in order to provide the most accurate, thorough, and educated response to their issue.

For an all-too-common example, there are few things worse than contacting customer service and being forced to start from the beginning — rehashing a previous conversation. Hassle, run around, and waste of time are just some of the words that come to mind in these situations. And this only ratchets up the time to resolve issues, increases the number of interactions required to resolve issues, and certainly increases the amount of effort required from the customer.

In our contact center, context is a major point of emphasis. Here are some of the ways we gain context on a regular basis:

  • Reading through account notices and logs before responding to customers, looking for information pertinent to their current issue.
  • Reviewing previous interactions with customer service to understand information previously communicated to the customer.
  • Looking for other, unresolved contacts from the customer. For example, perhaps the customer sent more than one ticket about an issue and they need to be merged together. Or perhaps they sent an email and posted on social media. Either way, it’s best for them to receive one response from customer support.
  • Checking the status of an issue. Perhaps the customer placed an order and is waiting on either the status of their order or a shipment.

By thoroughly researching the customer’s issue before responding, we provide the most, up-to-date, and accurate information possible.

The challenge with context

We evaluate context as part of our quality assurance process and this, more than any other behavior requires that we put on our detective hat and determine if the agent researched in every possible place prior to responding to a customer. This is one of the most time-consuming aspects of quality assurance.

Now, if this is time-consuming for a supervisor, consider how challenging this is for the agent interacting with the customer. Looking at the bullet point list above, it’s possible that asking agents to gain context before responding to a customer requires that they look in at least 5 different places. And if you offer support on many different channels, agents may have to check phone records, past emails, chat transcripts, and the myriad of social media and review sites. At a minimum, this is incredibly time-consuming, increasing handle times and the likelihood that something will be missed.

The end goal

When it comes to context, perfection is a tall order. But continuous improvement is attainable. Here are some areas to focus on to get better at gathering context:

  • Pull a history of all customer interactions, regardless of channel, into a central CRM or ticketing system.
  • Log all actions taken on the customer’s account in that same system.
  • Train agents when to give context to their colleagues, leaving clear, concise notes whenever they interact with a customer — especially in special circumstances. This makes it easier for the next person who interacts with that customer.
  • Periodically watch agents do their work and look for ways to reduce the number of places and windows required to gain context.
  • Reinforce these important behaviors through quality assurance.

With the goal of simplifying the context-gathering process for your agents, you will make it more likely that customers receive the most accurate, up-to-date information on every interaction with customer support. 

To conclude, having worked in a variety of settings, context looks a bit different depending on the support channels offered and the type of business. What unique actions are required of your agents to gain context and have you done anything to improve and streamline this process? Share in a comment below.

Jeremy Watkin is Director of Customer Experience and Support at NumberBarn. He has more than 19 years of experience as a customer service and contact center professional leading high performing teams in the contact center. Jeremy has been recognized numerous times as a thought leader for his writing and speaking on a variety of topics including quality management, outsourcing, customer experience, contact center technology, product marketing, social media, and more. When not working you can typically find him spending quality time with his wife Alicia and their three boys, running with his dog, or dreaming of native trout rising for a size 16 elk hair caddis. Be sure to connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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