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Remember, back in the day, when you dialed a phone number to book airfare?  Or, how about listening to a voice recording to hear the local movie times? Dialing #411 to ask an Operator for your neighbors phone number!  It’s hard to believe that we did all these things less than 20 years ago.   The evolution of technology has given us more options than ever when dealing with Customer Support. I’m probably not alone when I say that I despise picking up the phone and speaking with a live staff-member.... it's so time-consuming and complicated.  Using phone support can be unpleasant for the simple fact that some businesses don’t want to support it.  Visit most company web sites and chances are you’ll find an email address or “Online chat” button before you’ll find a 1-800 number.  Virtual support is cheaper & easier for businesses to maintain.  With email, Internet and most recently, the generation of mobile apps, why wouldn't they drive consumers to these new channels?

So, how has this progression transpired...

Prior to 1995, phone support was our only option.  We’d call, get placed on hold and then speak with someone who would take our order or log our complaint in their workstation.  A few weeks later, we’d receive the item we purchased or a letter of acknowledgement via standard mail and that would end the cycle.

Email support was introduced in the mid-90’s.  Although not available to everyone, this new option of dealing with businesses did allow for more flexibility.  Now, we can have the same phone conversation over electronic mail, creating a virtual trail and shortening the process.  The biggest drawback, however, is the time constraint.  This method, like the phone, is still a person-to-person interaction that’s conducted during normal business hours.

Finally, the world wide web becomes an option in the early 2000’s.  Consumers are growing more knowledgeable of businesses and their products which leads to a demand for better information.  Web sites are expected to be accurate, intuitive and provide instant gratification- here comes the age of eCommerce!

In the late 2000’s we start to see more and more online shopping sites, a thriving world of social media and the start of mobile apps.  In less than 20 years we’ve gone from 100% phone support to an array of options.  So, with all of these choices…which is the most widely desired by consumers?

I for one, was shocked to find that voice is still the primary channel at 61% according to eConsultancy, but other options are on the rise.

Now that we've discussed the evolution of customer service, has the implementation of virtual support had a positive or negative impact on business?

For Consumers like me, I’d say the migration to online support has been helpful.  With most businesses adopting a “Follow-the-Sun” Global workflow, there’s no reason to force people into a 9-5 support window.  I can also get things done quicker by multi-tasking during the workday- a virtual chat session with the cable company and an email inquiry with a vacation rental agency is easily handled online.

For businesses, I'd say the influx of new support channels has both pro's and con's.  On the positive side, businesses can trim costs by using virtual channels which extends the support window (making it more suitable to consumers' busy lifestyles) and ultimately reduces overhead.

On the flip side, however, businesses now need to pay closer attention to the feedback loop.  By adopting twitter, facebook, online forums and other virtual mediums, businesses have become susceptible to negative feedback. The old saying, "any publicity, is good publicity", is definitely not true in the world of online business.  Forrester Research Blog found that, "73% of people trust recommendations from friends and family".  Have you ever signed up for something or made a purchase and the suggestion to share the experience with your Facebook community becomes an option at check-out?  Imagine the impact this could have on a business if the feedback was damaging to their reputation. Today's unhappy customer has the potential to reach millions of people with their complaints. Businesses must monitor their social media outlets and online presence around the clock to stay ahead of the potentially destructive comments.

We've seen a lot of changes in the past 20 years.  I wonder what customer service will look like 20 years from now...

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