Developing a Habit of Proactive Customer Service

Sarah Chambers Sarah Chambers · 8 min read

Proactive customer service is what raises a customer experience from ordinary, to extraordinary.

Your life doesn’t just “happen.” Whether you know it or not, it is carefully designed by you.
– from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The experience customers receive isn’t a circumstance of chance or luck. Good customer service doesn’t just “happen”. In order to provide our paying customers with a satisfying and helpful experience, we need to design a thoughtful service. This takes time and effort, but it’s worth it in the end.

If we just sit by and wait until our customers come to us, we’re providing a reactive service.

What we need to do to provide a great customer experience, is be proactive.

What is proactive customer service?

Proactive customer service is the process of identifying and resolving issues before customers encounter them. Being proactive means thinking ahead and not waiting for the customer to get in touch before jumping into action.

On a timeline of the customer experience, proactive activity comes anytime before a customer experiences an issue. If they’ve run into problems, you’re already in reactive mode.

Why teams should invest in Proactive Customer Service

When we talk about the difference between customer service and customer success, proactive is often not a word associated with customer service teams. We often think customer service focuses on what happens after the customer calls in.

But customers are asking for more from the companies they choose to do business with. While 80% of CEOs think their customer service is great, only 8% of customers agree (Bain and Co). This perception gap is likely because customer service teams ARE doing great when the customer calls in. But the customer shouldn’t HAVE to call in.

Being proactive is what raises a customer service team from ordinary, to extraordinary. Here’s three reasons why your team should definitely be investing in proactive customer service:

1. Customers love it

As a customer, it sucks to run into an issue. It takes time and effort to figure out what’s wrong, contact the company and seek a resolution. Proactive customer service reduces the amount of effort it takes customers to resolve a problem. In exceptional cases, companies may even be able to resolve an issue without any input from customers!

Customers don’t mind being contacted by companies proactively. In fact, InContact found that “87% of adults surveyed are happy to be contacted proactively by companies regarding customer service issues.” So don’t worry about bothering customers with proactive calls – they are happy to hear from you early!

Customers don’t expect companies to be upfront about issues. When companies surprise their customers by admitting to issues early, and doing their best to offer a resolution, it actually improves customers’ perceptions of the company. In the same InContact study, 75% of respondents who had a pleasant surprise or positive experience with an incoming call reported a positive change in their perception of the company calling them.

2. It reduces incoming customer calls

If you spend time heading off problems before customers run into them, you can save a lot of money in contact center costs. Instead of waiting for customers to realize something’s wrong (like a late delivery), companies can send an automated email apologizing with an updated delivery date and prevent the customer from calling in. A 2015 study by Enkata found that preemptive service can reduce call volumes by up to 20-30% annually.

A utilities company in the United Kingdom realized they were spending a lot of time answering the phones during an outage. Customers experiencing problems wanted to make sure that it wasn’t “just them” and that the company was working to fix it. Instead of waiting for customers to notice the issue and call up, Anglian Water now sends out SMS messages and emails to customers immediately after noticing a developing problem. They’ve sent more than 200,000 SMS messages and emails to their customers annually. As SuperOffice reports, this policy helps Anglian Water dramatically reduce customer calls. In fact, they’ve reported saving between £100,000 and £200,000 in annual call center costs, simply due to contacting customers early and automatically.

Other proactive activities like researching common customer questions and improving user onboarding can also reduce incoming tickets. Anything you can do to help customers before they need to contact support can help make your team more efficient.

3. It keeps control of the situation in your hands

Think back to the last time something went wrong and you had to contact customer service. Maybe it was a delayed flight, or a billing error. It’s likely you experienced the problem, got confused, maybe talked to a friend or family about it, worked yourself up into a rage and then finally got on the phone with customer service. This means you’re already upset before you’ve even started talking to an agent – they have to work twice as hard to calm you down and repair the situation.

But when companies offer proactive service, the story changes. Instead of discovering the problem themselves, customers have an early warning something might be wrong. They understand the company is working to fix it, which builds trust.
By offering proactive service, the company maintains control of the situation. They can craft the messaging, and reduce confusion. It’s easy to keep a problem contained and offer immediate solutions when you own the messaging. Customers might jump to the worst conclusions themselves. Instead of leaving space for that to happen, proactive support guides the customer to a path of resolution.

Fighting the doubt to expose a problem

There’s always someone in leadership who thinks it’s a bad idea to publicly expose a problem. They’re hopeful that some customers won’t notice the issue. They focus on the fact that by emailing every customer about an outage, you’re ensuring everyone knows there is a problem. Uber’s security breaches are a good example of this attitude in action. Instead of disclosing the hack, they kept it under wraps. They likely didn’t want customers to think badly of them.

But bad news now is better than bad news later. Your customers would much rather find out about issues early, instead of waiting to find out themselves later on. If Uber had disclosed the hack immediately, customers could have taken the steps to protect themselves – like updating their passwords. It’s always better to put information in the hands of customers early.

Moving from Reactive to Proactive

Proactive customer service was forecast as a common trend for 2017 by Forrester and others. But we’re definitely not there yet. As you start planning for 2018 and the future, becoming more proactive should be on your list. Here’s how:

1. Get leadership onboard

Shifting to proactive support can require a big change in thinking. This can often mean being transparent about problems that arise. It might mean investing in tools that don’t directly bring in more revenue. It will be easier to launch a proactive customer service program if you have leadership on board.

2. Understand your customer’s journey

In order to understand where things can go wrong, you need to understand the path customers take. How do they purchase from you? What notifications do they receive? When do problems normally arise?

By mapping out the customer’s journey (and the associated customer contact points) you can start planning proactive service opportunities. For example, if 50% of your customer contacts occur between ordering and delivery, you will want to examine ways you can make that process smoother. Do you set clear expectations for your customers? Is there an easy way for them to track their order? What happens if there’s a delay?

Understanding your customer’s journey doesn’t need to be difficult. Take a couple hours out of your day and stand at a whiteboard, or use post it notes to highlight the main waypoints. Then, go through the process as a customer would, and see what doesn’t make sense.

3. Empower your agents

Agents who spend 8 hours a day with their heads buried in the queue have minimal opportunities to be proactive. Sure they can engage in next issue avoidance techniques, but their overall impact is stifled.

Empowered customer service agents feel comfortable asking questions, and making changes on a bigger scale. They notice trends and understand that taking the time to solve the root cause helps more customers down the road.

  • Build in time away from the queue to focus on proactive projects
  • Create processes that surface agent insights and drive improvements
  • Recognize agents who go above and beyond in identifying issues

4. Implement tools that head off problems before they begin

Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

If customers constantly have the same problems, it can be easy to get into the habit of simply cutting and pasting the same snippet of a reply. But the better thing to do is to fix the problem so other customers don’t run into the same issue.

AT&T noticed that customers were more likely to call after their first bill frustrated because they didn’t understand the charges (“bill shock”). Their customer service team was spending a lot of time breaking down first bills for these confused, angry customers.

Now, they avoid “bill shock” by sending a personalized video that breaks down the first bill for customers. They’ve seen a resulting increase in NPS scores and a “material decrease” in customer contacts. Win win!

5. Measure results

As customer support professionals, we need to know what we’re doing is having a positive impact on the business and our customers. There’s two ways I suggest measuring the impact of proactive customer service: reduced cost of support, and increased customer loyalty.

Reduced customer support: You can do this as broadly or as granually as you like. Generally, as you implement proactive solutions, you’ll see the number of customer contacts go down. By measuring the difference between expected tickets and actual tickets for a time period, you can see how many tickets you’ve avoided. Multiply this by your cost per contact (how much it costs your company to resolve a ticket, including labor) and you’ll see how much money you’re saving by proactively helping customers.

Cost reduction = # of tickets avoided x Cost Per Contact

We also need to calculate the cost of implementing proactive customer service. If you’ve brought in new automated messaging services, spent time building better event logs or dedicated customer service time to onboarding calls, calculate your total investment.

Increase customer loyalty: Is proactive support making customers happier? Loyalty can be measured in many ways. NPS surveys are a great leading indicator of customer loyalty and their willingness to purchase and recommend you in the future. You can also track churn rates,

Make it a habit

When we’re busy responding to customers, it can be tough to look up from the daily grind to wonder how we got here in the first place. Being proactive is much more difficult than being reactive. Instead of customers telling you what they need, it’s up to you to take the initiative.

That’s why being proactive needs to be a habit. Ask yourself with every ticket what you can do to resolve this issue permanently. It might not be feasible to chase down every root cause, but you can make a list of the ones that cause the most problems.

By always thinking one step ahead, you’ll consistently improve the customer experience, eliminating one problem at a time.

How did you like this blog?


Sarah Chambers Sarah Chambers

Sarah Chambers is a Customer Support Consultant and Content Creator from Vancouver, Canada. When she’s not arguing about customer service, she’s usually outdoors rock climbing or snowboarding. Follow her on Twitter @sarahleeyoga to keep up with her adventures.

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