The first contact from a customer is critical to the lifetime of the customer-vendor relationship. A recent survey of U.S. consumers found that 59 percent said that they would never buy from a vendor if the first call to the company’s customer service line wasn’t handled correctly. 

The old saying, “first impressions are often your only impression, so make it count,” is quite apropos. Research by Malcolm Gladwell finds that professional and personal impressions happen in a matter of seconds. Individuals connect with people and companies based on their initial perception and getting beyond that experience is nearly impossible once the connection is made. That same research shows that first impressions even overrule facts in a person’s lasting impression of a business.

Customer Service in the Digital Age

Prior to the arrival of the digital age, first customer contact was quite predictable. It was either in-store or via phone. But the dynamics completely change in the digital age. First contact occurs over multiple channels, on any number of devices, and at any time. The first contact customers have with a brick-and-mortar retailer may occur in store, but it also might happen on social media, the website, third-party websites such as review sites, live web chat, phone, email, text, or chatbot. The customer may be on their laptop, tablet, or smartphone. A recent Forrester survey of U.S. adult consumers reveals that they are using multiple channels (viz., have used the following customer service channels at least once in the past year):

• FAQs on the website, 64%

• Voice self-service, 43%

• Online forum or community, 39%

• Online virtual agent on a website, 37%

• Virtual agent on a smartphone, 35%

• Customer service agent over the phone, 67%

• Email response, 60%

• Instant messaging or online chat, 46%

• Contact via Twitter, 32%

The complexity doesn’t stop there. Customers also expect their vendors to provide a seamless experience between channels, enabling them to transfer from one to another (e.g., live web chat to phone, social media to live web chat, chatbot to phone) without losing any context. Those who think we’ve crossed this fork in the road are mistaken. Companies across all industry segments and of varying sizes continue to struggle. Their technologies and business processes reside in silos, making it difficult for them to make the digital leap to multi-, cross-channel customer engagement. 

First Customer Contact for Small Businesses

Small businesses may think that this is only a problem for companies that are much larger. They are mistaken. Customers don’t differentiate between providers based on size. They have the same expectations around customer engagement regardless of company size. So, what does this mean for small businesses?

1. Outsource strategically.

The good news for small businesses when it comes to customer service models is that there are outsourcing options. For example, Davinci Live Receptionists offers small businesses the ability to provide customers with enterprise-class call center experiences without paying enterprise-class rates. 

2. Integrated experiences.

Customers want to move from one engagement channel to the next and have their information follow them. Needing to repeat their name, account number, secret password, and details surrounding their engagement is extremely frustrating and has a detrimental impact on their willingness to conduct additional business or to advocate on behalf of the business. Businesses need to ensure their engagement channels don’t reside in channels and lack workflows that integrate each of them, particularly when customers move between channels.

3. Offer multiple engagement options.

Customers want multiple engagement options—on any channel, on any device, and at any time. The upside for small businesses is there are inexpensive outsourcing options such as Davinci Live Web Chat for organizations that want to add digital engagement channels. 

4. Proactive engagement.

Organizations need to ensure that they are proactively engaging with customers—whether on social media, their websites, or on live web chat. Pinpointing when a customer has an issue on social media and reaching out to them before they contact you via phone or email or understanding when a customer needs assistance when they are on your website and engaging with them with live web chat.

5. Self-service.

Customers increasingly want to answer their questions and solve their problems with self-service—from online knowledgebases and FAQs to intelligent chatbots. Businesses need to make sure these are easily found on their websites and align with what customers want.