Customer service innovation: the contact center evolution

Technology has had an enormous impact on the world that has changed the relationships between consumers and businesses. New technology continues to bring customers closer to businesses and make companies more accessible than ever before. 

Advancements in technology have also expanded the opportunities for remote work, and thanks to the recent pandemic, we’ve seen rapid growth in remote work in the last few years. The need for innovative customer service has never been greater. 

With more businesses running online and more workers doing their jobs from the comfort of their own homes, how has the role of customer service changed? Or rather, how should it change as we move forward? 

We’ll explore that in this article and share some tips for how you can ensure your business and, more specifically your customer service team, are adapting to the modern way of serving customers.

Understanding creativity and innovation

According to Oxford’s definition, creativity is the use of skill and imagination to produce something new or to produce art. However, creativity can be defined differently across the business world. There are plenty of businesses employing “creative” practices even though they might not be painting the next Mona Lisa.

For example, in the BPO industry, you can define creativity as the ability to find creative solutions to unique customer needs and problems. To do this, you must focus on understanding the problem and then swarming around those challenges with multiple people providing input. Then, you can bring a creative solution to life.

Business innovation can be defined as the development of new ways of working or managing processes. Innovation is often possible when a process or system is deeply engrained into the business under the assumption that it is the best way to accomplish a desired outcome. Innovation starts when we ask, “What if there is a better way?”. 

While similar and very much related, creativity and innovation are different. Creativity is the generation of ideas. Innovation is the ability to consistently and successfully deploy and redeploy those ideas.

They power each other—you can’t be innovative unless you are willing to be creative and use tools/resources to think in new ways. Similarly, creativity relies on a belief that new ways of doing things are desirable and should be supported.

Can BPO companies be creative?

Creativity in customer service manifests in many different ways. At the core, it shows up via an emphasis on reducing friction for customers and providing them ease in resolving their issues. 

To do this, businesses must empower agents with tools and processes that prioritize delivering a great solution for customers. This requires creativity by stepping away from a basic process checklist to ask “what does the customer really need here, what do they want, and how can I leverage everything in front of me to provide that?” 

Creativity can be manifested in other scenarios like listening to customers and truly getting to know their pain points, and then thoughtfully acting on those insights. Customer service can be repetitive, and as a result of that repetition, agents might stop listening and become “robotic”, therefore missing the subtle nuances and tones that can offer unique solutions to problems.

When we use these opportunities to understand what the customer is truly experiencing, we can come up with creative ideas at every interaction.

There is a common misconception that BPO companies aren’t solving problems in creative ways and this goes back to the emphasis on cost and efficiency. The thought is that any goal built around reducing costs or optimizing processes can’t be inherently creative—and that’s simply not true.

Innovation is required to reach goals, and creativity is required to develop new solutions for hitting those goals. Historically, many BPO companies have incentivized agents and leaders around very narrow-minded time-saving goals, with the outcome being to cut costs. 

However, viewing customer service as a cost center instead of a growth engine can be detrimental to modern-day businesses. By flipping this idea around, and asking whether investment, rather than cost-cutting, might produce better outcomes, BPO companies can innovate—but the truth is, many BPOs simply aren’t incentivized this way.

The evolution of BPO companies

BPOs have been evolving for a long time. They became prominent in the manufacturing industry early on and have expanded to be a valuable asset to many more industries. They started off specializing in low-cost and offshore teams, but today, there is a bigger emphasis on sustainable work cultures where the employees truly feel valued. 

Today, BPOs are pulling back the curtain to shine a brighter light on frontline workers. Companies seeking BPOs for outsourced solutions want to know how the employees are treated at these types of companies. They want to know about employee happiness, health care, benefits, and how teams are supported and developed over time. Companies today want more than cost savings—they want to be part of the story around building a great team.

BPOs still exist to provide high-value, low-cost solutions, but the way they go about solving this has changed. Improvement in technologies has shifted how people and tech work together.

This evolution has surfaced the need for more investment in training and developing support teams so that companies can realize the full potential and value of the relationship with a BPO.

Strategies for increasing creativity in the workplace

Building an innovative customer service team requires a shift away from the traditional way of thinking about customer service. Here are some ways you can encourage more creative problem-solving within your customer service team.

Engage with agents

The most critical thing for team leads and managers to do is engage with agents frequently. Use this time to understand what is going well and what isn’t going well. Ask your team for suggestions on how to improve certain things. 

Once you understand there is a problem or a better solution, then you can work with your team to implement and test these ideas collaboratively. Doing this is a sure way to ensure you’re focused on building an innovative customer service team.

Evaluate systems and customer needs

Ask agents what tools and capabilities they need to deliver solutions for customers. They will know best as far as what things customers are asking for that can’t be delivered with the current processes, training, tools, etc. 

As a manager, you need to be able to prioritize these things and work to solve them over time, empowering agents to have what they need to build as many solutions for customers as possible. 

Present agents with simple but specific problems to solve

Give your team simple scenarios to work with. For example, say you have a partner whose main mission in customer support is to “make magic moments happen”. That’s a broad but powerful endeavor. 

However, as long as agents have the necessary tools and training when they know there’s a simple but powerful mission to target, they can start to develop creative ways to accomplish that mission and deliver “wow” moments to customers.

Challenges in delivering creative solutions

Change is always hard. People get used to doing things a certain way, and over time it just feels normal to do it that way, and it feels “hard” to change. Simply put, it feels comfortable and safe doing the things we know because the outcomes are largely very predictable. 

Trying a new idea has a high probability of failure; therefore, people often feel anxious that trying something new will impact them negatively. That’s why it’s important to foster a culture that is OK with failure. 

Creativity and innovation can only flourish when a group of people feel empowered to take measured risks and fail. Failing allows us to learn what didn't work and use that information to influence the next iteration.

Fear of failing is one of the most common challenges business teams face. To overcome this fear, people must be ready to tolerate the risk of not succeeding.

Creative customer service ideas

As we shared above, there are many ways to manifest creativity in customer support. If you’re struggling to understand where to start, here are some ideas to help.

Re-think everything

Marshall Goldsmith said it best: “What got you here won’t get you there.”. Step back and take a look at the big picture, then zoom in on certain processes or specific problem areas. Ask yourself how you might be able to improve a situation. 

There is optimization, and there is innovation. Optimizing is the process of making something normal better. Innovation helps companies differentiate by solving a problem in an industry-unique way. It’s finding a new solution to an existing problem. 

Blockbuster is a great example of what happens when a company fails to innovate. They were successful for many years, going to Blockbuster to rent movies was the norm for many people. But as technology became more prevalent, new solutions for accessing movies became available. 

Netflix began its subscription snail-mail-based rental model. Then they eventually capitalized on streaming. Blockbuster’s business model remained the same, and it went from 9,000 stores at its peak, to now just having a single store today. Don’t be the next Blockbuster, innovate.

Empower creativity on the frontlines

Most people show up wanting to do a good job every day. When we feel respected, valued, and supported, we will likely be more motivated to do our best work. Contact centers can invest in and empower workplace coordinators, wellness coordinators, communications, and people operations teams to take care of teams, engage them in development opportunities, and emphasize personal well-being. 

While this seems so basic and can often be seen in practice at many companies, it is still not the way the majority of contact centers see things. Instead, they are focused on cost-cutting and efficient systems. If agents are to be creative in solving problems for customers, then they need to be supported in creative ways first.

Questioning, and asking “What if…”

Encourage a culture of learning and improvement. Managers and agents should feel comfortable asking why things are done a certain way. Not only does this help people learn, but it encourages creative problem-solving and promotes a culture of innovation and excellence.

A good opportunity to get unbiased feedback is to encourage new hires to ask questions about how things work. Over time, you’ll identify trends through these insights that can be turned into new innovative ideas. 

Listen to these insights and share them with your leadership team. Have conversations about these things. Hold retrospectives after big projects to learn how you could have approached a challenge differently.

Coach leaders around a growth mindset instead of an efficiency mindset

Shift the focus away from cost-cutting and efficiencies to focusing on growth. A growth mindset can be practiced in a variety of ways. It starts with accepting new challenges as an opportunity to grow and to become better. 

Customer service is a constant challenge, and we have the option to rush quickly through it without much quality care, or we can delight customers and consistently add value. 

Treating customer service teams as an expense is indirectly looking at your customers as an expense, and this is only going to hurt your customers and in turn, hurt your business. 

Flipping this way of thinking so that you see customer service teams as people who can have a positive impact on your bottom line is where businesses open up a whole new opportunity for innovation. 

Implementing customer service innovation

The BPO industry has been focusing on specific processes and outcomes for many decades. The problem is most of these efforts have been narrow-minded and limited to measuring how efficient individuals and teams are. 

This ultimately targets cost efficiencies, which means non-production expenditures (health care, benefits, wellness, etc.) don’t fit the model and are therefore deprioritized. However, by challenging that assumption and asking if better outcomes might result from a “people-first” strategy, now that can result in powerful innovation. 

Challenges

  • Low adoption rate: Change is difficult for people. Coming up with creative ideas and innovative solutions also means you’ll encounter people who are resistant to change.
  • Difficulty in keeping up the pace: The business world is moving quickly. Companies are innovating faster than ever, and sometimes it can be hard to come up with innovative ideas at the same pace. It’s easy to fall into the mindset of always feeling behind.
  • Focusing too much on the bottom line: Some BPOs might still be struggling to shift their focus away from the bottom line. Increasing ROI is something every company wants to do, but sometimes by being too ROI-focused, you can miss opportunities to try new things that ultimately might impact the ROI greater in the long term.

Benefits and outcomes

Approaching customer service from an innovative growth mindset results in happier team members and widespread growth across the company. 

Agents will feel empowered and enabled to do their best work when they are part of a creative and collaborative culture.  And happier agents will result in more satisfied customers which can translate into more revenue. 

Leveraging technology to innovate will help make your company more accessible. Self-help resources and additional customer service channels give customers more resources to get the help they need when they need it. This increased engagement will help build stronger relationships with customers.

So, as you continue to lean into innovative customer service and build a high-value support team, you’ll see growth across the team but ultimately, in the bottom line.

Conclusion

Thinking outside of the box allows you to grow. Solving customer problems in creative and innovative ways will make you stand out from the crowd of competitors. 

While it might mean incurring some additional costs in the short term, the potential for long-term growth through innovative customer service practices is something every business should be considering. This can be especially challenging for BPOs who are historically very driven by cost savings.

PartnerHero has built innovative customer service solutions for many different businesses across a variety of industries. If your business needs creative solutions for customer service challenges, we would love to help.

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