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Customer Service: Customer-Centric Distributed Work

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anthony Buller
December 19, 2022

In a prior column I provided eight best practices for serving customers in the distributed environment. Those focused on the nature of distributed work (e.g., you must improve information and telecommunications as you become more distributed). In this column I focus on the next six best practices, which I term customer-centric.

Call it what you prefer (telework, remote work, etc.), many of us are working in a distributed environment. For our purposes here, distributed means we are not within arm’s length of the customer—we are geographically separated. For the federal government, as an example and according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in 2020 50 percent of federal employees were telework eligible and 90 percent did telework. States have telework (see California as an example) and local governments do too.

Despite not being across the table from our customers, or perhaps because of it, we need to get better at serving customers from afar. But if you are looking for one source to describe how to improve customer service and experience in the distributed environment—good luck. I could never find one. There are lots of books about remote teams and telework practices. There are policies and procedures. There are also a lot of books about customer service and experience too. But nothing seems to marry these things up in one place. These columns don’t either because the best practices are spread across the prior column and this one!

The six customer-centric best practices for distributed work include:  

  • Increase the perceived proximity between the customer and the service provider. The concept of perceived proximity is fundamental to distributed customer experience. It has many elements including: (1) perception of geographic closeness, (2) personal connection, (3) recognition of the importance of the human element, (4) timeliness of service, (5) common purpose, (6) high confidence or certainty of the correctness of the service provider, (7) attribution of positive motivations, (8) understandability, (9) extension of the benefit of the doubt and (10) an emotional connection. To boil all these down, you might think of “relating.” When a customer thinks that the service provider relates to them, you are winning this best practice.  
  • Equip the customer to appreciate and contribute to value creation. The concept of value creation respects that customers often create their own value through customization of the product or the process. Getting customers to provide feedback to the service being provided gives the customer more investment and more value. In the distributed environment this simply requires more intentionality.
  • Coordinate service channels to create seamless, integrated touchpoints between the customer and the organization. The idea of service channels is easily understood in the retail environment where you might buy from a store or online and the brand should invest in making both channels feel similar and integrated. For public service, channels might be the means through which the customer can approach you for assistance. This relates to touchpoints because these are every point where a customer touches the organization. The goal is to make these seamless, which means they feel the same, and integrated, which means that effort has been taken to create synergy from one touchpoint to another.
  • Pursue Relationship Program Receptiveness (RPR) efforts to engage customers. Engaging customers with meaningful communications and engagement opportunities before, during and after a customer experience contact leads to that customer being more likely to engage in relationship-building activities. Customer experience skyrockets when customers participate in a mutual relationship with their service providers.
  • Promote socio-emotional skills of service providers to create positive moments of customer service within the distributed environment. I mentioned “relating” to others above, and this is itself related to that concept. But here we are specifically considering whether employees take that little extra effort to positively engage with the customer. For example, it’s a cliché but true that you can hear the smile on the other end of a phone call.
  • Map the distributed customers’ journey and evaluate each touchpoint for customer experience. I put this last, but more as a critical bookend, not because it’s the least important. In fact, the best customer service organizations can effectively map (in visual form) how a customer is touched before, during and after an engagement. This relates to the touchpoints mentioned above. The map allows the service provider to target touchpoints and channels and make improvements to each one, remembering that the goal is coordination and integration.

This column explained the six best practices for customer-centric distributed work. See the prior column for eight more about the nature of distributed customer service. If you can put all of these together, you’re probably doing quite well in serving customers in the distributed environment.

Author: Anthony Buller has deployed to more than 40 presidentially declared major disasters and emergencies in his 17 years of federal service. He leads a team of emergency management professionals covering the western US for a federal agency. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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