What Human Customer Service Can Do Better Than a Bot

Spencer SmithCustomer Service is often a thankless job. Besides taking the brunt of the customer’s wrath when an avoidable issue isn’t solved further up the funnel, reps are often still fielding simple questions, so they feel threatened by a rise in automation and not-so-subtle hints that robots could take their jobs.

Spencer Smith lived and breathed ecommerce operations, logistics, and customer service in various leadership roles at Uniqlo, American Apparel, BeachMint and McMaster-Carr before joining Narvar as Director of Strategy and Operations. We chatted with him about how human customer service is still critically relevant – if you do it right by elevating the purpose of the CS function, and leverage the “voice of the customer” data from these calls to identify and solve customer experience issues.


You’ve identified a subtle but important shift in the way retailers should think about customer service. What is it?

Retailers’ number one customer service concern has always been minimizing their incoming calls. I get that, since every call is directly tied to a company’s bottom line. But really good customer service isn’t just about cutting call volume. Retailers should focus on avoiding the situation that led a customer to place a call.

Amazon was the first retailer to stop obviously listing its “contact us” phone number. It understood if someone had to make a call, the company had already failed in some way. This change in thinking may seem subtle, but in fact, it’s a monumental shift.

Good customer service is about listening to and acting on what customers are already telling you.

What’s the best strategy for retailers to determine which problems they need to fix?

Retailers should look at information their customers provide in the natural course of their interactions, whether from online reviews, returns, purchasing history or from call centers. But too often that data isn’t captured or integrated to provide actionable insights. Plus, customer service is often outsourced, and it tends to be overlooked as a core business success strategy. It’s easy for retailers to ignore a lot of really valuable information their customers are already sharing, especially about the post-purchase experience.

Why is it important for retailers to distinguish the post-purchase journey from the rest of the consumer experience?

The ecommerce industry has plenty of ways to monitor where and why consumers “fall off” along the conversion funnel, like a problem with a shopping cart. But understanding post-purchase pain points is critical. For instance, customer service reps often answer questions about WISMO (Where Is My Order). Maybe there’s been a shipping delay. Perhaps the delivery address is wrong. Or maybe no one’s home to sign for the package. WISMO, in particular, is a complex issue.

The good news is, when retailers pinpoint specific last-mile problems, they can improve customer satisfaction and strengthen their brand’s value proposition. It’s a key chance to offer more than just functional services like fast delivery and alternate drop-off locations. The “final mile” experience should be emotionally satisfying, too.

What’s the greatest challenge in providing an emotionally rewarding consumer experience?

The challenge for retailers is to close the gap between their online and in-store shopping experience. I want the last stage of my purchasing journey to feel like I’ve just received a carefully selected gift from my own grandmother, with beautiful giftwrap and a handwritten note. Instead, when I buy something online, everything goes downhill the moment I click “buy.” I get a plain shipping confirmation and then nothing, until a boring brown box arrives with my expensive shirt stuffed in a cheap polybag. There’s a weird packing list with a SKU number instead of the name of the product. The allure of buying an expensive, brand name shirt is simply erased.

Customer service tends to be overlooked as a core business success strategy. It’s easy for retailers to ignore a lot of really valuable information their customers are already sharing.

Looking ahead, what’s the key opportunity for retailers ready to offer a personalized, meaningful post-purchase experience?  

When we have a great, personalized consumer experience – for instance, when the barista at the local coffee shop knows our order before we say it – we value it. Once one or two retailers start offering a really great end-to-end ecommerce experience, I think there will be a big rush across the industry to catch up.

We’re moving toward a time when there will be more packages on the road than people. The easiest way for retailers to keep all those customers happy is to think about each stage of the post-purchase journey and ask:

  • Are my brand communications meaningful and relevant?
  • Do they proactively support customers, especially if something has gone awry?
  • Is the post-purchase experience in line with my brand’s greater value proposition?
  • Does it reflect my customer’s values and priorities, both logistically and emotionally?

Spencer, any final thoughts?

Good customer service is about listening to and acting on what customers are already telling you. When a company mines its existing data, the benefits can be huge. Consumers have a better shopping experience, which leads to more purchasing, plus positive online and word-of-mouth reviews. Customer loyalty goes up, and customer service calls go down. Everyone wins.