Preparing for the future of client services

As a client service professional for more than 30 years, I have had a front row seat to a dramatic transformation over the past few decades. A digital revolution that emerged with a force in the 1990s, plus a recent global pandemic that changed the face of work, have only accelerated the evolution of a field that was once exclusively face-to-face or just a simple phone call away.

Methods of communication and service delivery may be changing in ways that can be hard to believe for industry veterans and, in some cases, the pendulum may swing too far away toward automation.

Nonetheless, the need for a person-to-person “lifeline” of service will always remain a constant. 

Embracing greater digitization while ensuring continued commitment to customer needs at the human level can sometimes feel like competing priorities.

But three things help businesses achieve balance.

The first is to ensure technology adoption augments rather than replaces person-to-person interaction. The second is to embrace uncertainty as an inherent part of the client service experience rather than as a problem to be solved. And the third is putting culture at the center, highlighting the values unique to your organization as differentiators.

To begin, automation has had a hugely positive impact on the delivery of world-class service. So many things that were once done manually are now able to be done with higher volume, fewer errors, and better customer satisfaction. 

But true service cannot be automated, with technology unable to replicate human feeling and connection. Instead, more ideal goals include using AI to improve scheduling or problem intervention; digitizing redundant or time-consuming administrative tasks that free up service professionals’ time to attend to customer needs; or using digital solutions to enable client self-service for simple troubleshooting issues.

IT tools are a transformative investment, but they need to be used for complex problems within the organization and not in the place of frontline team members.

Second, flexibility is critical in client services, with or without an active disruption or crisis. A typical day in normal times already involved fulfilling special requests, researching, and facilitating client transitions. Layering a situation like COVID-19 on top of it can be overwhelming, from helping companies navigate pandemic relief to added pressures on HR, payroll, and tax departments. 

But service professionals should keep in mind that uncertainty is the norm, and during it, they are their clients’ stability. This is a lesson I gained from volunteering in water rescue and recovery, where, often, the diver is in unfamiliar territory with little to no visibility and no sense of location. The team member the diver is tethered to is the guide, providing that direction needed to complete the mission safely and successfully. In the end, this guiding role is what client service professionals are to their clients.

Third, culture should be embraced as a powerful differentiator, providing a clear value proposition for clients and customers to engage with the company. This involves values, skills, and actions. Respect, particularly for the diversity of perspectives, is invaluable.

One of the best takeaways from my involvement with Leadership Memphis was gaining an understanding of how to identify different personalities and the most effective ways to communicate accordingly for the best experience in any scenario.

Culture is especially grounding in the context of technological growth. Interacting in person is gradually being replaced by text messages and email discussions. As such, it will become harder to find professionals with strong client service qualities — even the skill of holding a traditional relationship-building conversation. 

These attributes need to be cultivated today. Having a team member who struggles with voice-to-voice exchanges jump on a call or join a meeting — and then take the lead with you behind them — is one example. It provides a straightforward, immersive experience that keeps these interactions at the center of company culture, while also strengthening this skill for later in that team member’s career.

Responding to challenges and changes in client services involves examining the processes in an organization, assessing resilience, and preparing people to adapt to the next stage. These efforts are what allow us to make the most efficient use of the resources at our disposal and to be there for clients when it matters most.

This column originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal and was written by Lynette Rochell, the Vice President of Client Relations for Adams Keegan.