Customer Care Throughout the Ages
The importance of making your customers feel positive about you (and, specifically, about giving you their money) has been applicable since the earliest days of trading goods, and has evolved with time into the experience we provide for consumers in modern-day commerce.
Customer care is so crucial to homebuilders that organisations such as the New Homes Quality Board and the Homebuilders Federation have made it their mission to elevate standards and recognise industry achievements. This dedication to customer care from the sector is also why we, as a supplier of customer-centric solutions, have continued to thrive for over 25 years.
The foundations of good customer service are expected at the local fish and chip shop - a warm greeting, a smile, 'would you like salt and vinegar on that?', etc. So, when the commodity in question is likely to be the biggest investment in a person's life, the stakes are raised somewhat.
Customer service becomes customer care - an ongoing duty to the consumer to provide the best possible value at each stage of the transaction - and beyond - to justify the expense, and to remain at the forefront of any future homebuying decisions.
But in order to not only deliver exemplary customer care, but also forecast what tomorrow's customers will expect, it's important to appreciate the essence of what it's all about, and to acknowledge how it has evolved over time.
B.C. (Beginnings of Customer Care)
It would be easy to imagine that in the days of market trading, customer care was simply a subconscious act that involved behaving well with people you wanted to trade with, in order to secure them for a further deal. If you treat the goat keeper well, for example, you will likely secure his next pail of milk in return for your barrow of potatoes; rather than the goat man trading his milk for your neighbour’s produce.
This innate understanding of customer care is probable, to some extent, as we inherit our sense of empathy and compassion in early childhood. Empathy allows us to evaluate how those emotions can be used to the benefit or detriment of our own wants. And trading goods would have provided a great want. Atton Institute goes as far as to state, ‘Where trade begun, customer service started there or laid the foundations of what we have today.’
But the concept of treating your trading partners well was not as subconscious an act as we might think. In fact, the formal concept of customer care actually has a very long history. ‘One of the greatest milestones that will forever remain in the history books was the 1750 B.C Complaint. It was the first customer care complaint to be recorded in the British Museum records. It was written by an ancient Babylonian customer named Nanni and sent to Ea-Nasir following delays and delivery of poor quality copper ore.’
The understanding of the consumer, Nanni, making this complaint, is that they are entitled to a quality product in a reasonable timeframe, for their money. Something that still holds true today. This idea of the Babylonian’s ‘consumer rights’ is evidence of the idea of customer care long before the term was ever used, but many believe the history of customer care to date even further back. Hoory explains, ‘It was as early as 3000 BC when the first long-distance trade occurred. With the rise of trade, the concept of a customer and the practice of serving one emerged.’
Customer care has been a part of trading for an incredibly long time. As we can see, its core principles have remained consistent, which is why it is so ingrained in the consumer’s expectations. Timely receipt of quality goods is the bare minimum.
For housebuilders, however, timely delivery can often be out of their control. This means that their customer care in all other areas must be of an exceptionally high standard, in order to compensate for issues arising that the homebuilder themselves cannot help with, such as the late delivery of building materials or extreme weather conditions.
The Introduction of Customer Care Careers
Although we have been aware of treating our customers well for thousands of years, this behaviour didn’t become the responsibility of a dedicated person or team until much more recent times.
According to Hoory, in the 1790s, ‘The First Industrial Revolution started an economic transformation across Europe and America. New factories were created, and manufacturing accelerated at a fast pace. The first-ever customer service teams were created to meet the demands of consumers. The main and fastest means of customer service was face-to-face communication.’
With the rise of manufacturing and subsequent increased consumerism, came the need for customer care representatives in organisations and a new career path was opened to many.
A stark contrast from the 1790s version of customer care compared to today, is the face-to-face aspect. Nowadays, when one imagines a career in customer care, it will most often bring to mind call centres, chat boxes, email and responding to consumers through social media channels.
Of course, face-to-face customer care still exists in every transaction that takes place between a business and its consumer in person. However, this is now only one way to facilitate customer care practices today.
The employment website, Indeed, describes Customer Service roles: ‘A key part of these roles involves ensuring that the customer feels valued after interacting with you. This includes how you've assisted them, the rapport you built and how you resolved their queries or concerns. In these roles, you can expect to interact with many different people from a range of backgrounds, which requires you to use a range of communication styles and approaches.’
So, as opposed to the first customer service team back in 1790, representatives now must be fluent in various methods of communication and use those methods to demonstrate the same level of care as is expected in a face-to-face interaction directly with the client.
This is especially true in the property industry, where first impressions are likely to be made through face-to-face interactions in the show home, before exchanges become increasingly digital along the journey.
The evolution from the 1790s customer care to today’s expected service has been gradual, however, and can be narrowed down to four progressive steps.
The Steps We’ve Taken Towards Modern Customer Care
Step 1 – Face-to-face
As we know, face-to-face customer care was the best, and often only, option available to the first teams dedicated to its provision. This form of customer care is still a vital aspect of transactions made in person and will surely never be excluded from business of this type.
And although written communication was an option, according to Go Cloud, it was not the most efficient means of carrying out customer care: ‘In the first stage of customer service history, all interactions between merchants and consumers were in person due to the absence of technology. Letters were another way for customers to voice their concerns, but they took longer to arrive and get addressed.’
Step 2 – The Telephone
The invention of the telephone is most often accredited to Alexander Graham Bell, who secured exclusive rights for the technology and started the Bell Telephone Company in 1877 (although there remains some dispute about his claim to being the true pioneer of the telephone).
By 1894 and the introduction of the telephone switchboard, the ease of connecting callers meant that businesses could utilise the technology and allowed for a major increase in the amount of service and support offered to their consumers. Albeit limited to consumers with telephones, who were not plentiful in the phone’s early years.
In the 1960s phones were common in the home and this meant that businesses needed more hands-on-deck, to deal with the increased numbers of calls they received. Here began the call centre. Now companies were hiring agents to answer telephone queries and deal with customer complaints over the phone.
And in 1989, companies started exporting this aspect of their business operations to third party call centres, creating whole businesses bound to nothing but the provision of effective customer care, though perhaps at the cost of some of the personal touch, as consumers grew accustomed to – and arguably irked by – scripted interactions that often felt insincere.
Step 3 – The Internet
Just like the introduction of the telephone, the emergence of the internet changed the face of customer care forever.
The revolutionization of customer care through the world wide web was multifaceted and soon dominated customer care communications in most businesses.
In the 1990s, companies were widely adopting the internet as a means to advertise their products, stay connected to their current clients and reach new audiences. The 1990s was also when the e-commerce industry began and online marketplaces like Amazon changed how consumers sourced and bought products.
New communication channels such as email and live chat meant that interactions were now quicker and easier, from around this time.
And around the 2000s, advancements in technology and customer support software opened up a whole new realm of customer care abilities with CRM systems. Now customer care teams were able to track and monitor their customers’ data, and use this to provide a better service.
Furthermore, the internet influenced the rise in self-service – from buying goods to troubleshooting issues, consumers had all the tools at their disposal to receive instant resolutions. While this took some of the pressure off customer care teams, it also created a Catch-22 scenario for businesses. Now they were under pressure to simultaneously support their customers' expectations for on-demand service, while keeping as close to transactions as possible and maintaining a traditional presence should direct help be required.
For businesses dealing with wide-ranging demographics, ensuring their support of tech-savvy young consumers didn't come at the cost of reassuring longstanding customers that their service wouldn't be changing, presented a delicate balancing act.
The internet has had a dramatic influence on homebuying. For example, the digitalisation of estate agencies allowed for window-shopping of new homes, a luxury previously unimagined by buyers and home sellers alike. Also, the creation of digital tools, such as Spaciable, that allow homebuilders to streamline their processes and guide their customers through the homebuying journey, have changed the way homes are marketed, sold and their buyers cared for, forever.
Step 4 – Social Media
The 2000s saw social media really rise in popularity, with MySpace hitting over a million monthly users in around 2004. LinkedIn became officially available to the public in 2003, Twitter in 2006, and by around the mid-2000s both Twitter and Facebook were being used by businesses to engage and interact with their customers.
These channels created a pressing need for companies to ensure they had a strong online presence and pay close attention to their online reputation.
Social media has sped up communication between brands and their customers, especially with the introduction of tools such as Facebook’s Messenger. And, as argued by Forbes, ‘Customer problems do not only happen five days a week eight hours a day. We live in the global economy where companies must serve customers during many time zones. At the same time customers expect fast responses at night and on weekends.’
One key benefit of social media in business, therefore, is that it can provide this 24/7 availability that’s now expected from consumers. Seemingly less beneficial to business, however, is that social media has also allowed consumers to voice their opinions about brands and their products, whether positive or not, to a much wider audience than was previously available to them.
It has never been more important, you could argue, to keep up your standards of customer care and maintain positive relationships with your consumers. Plus, a happy, well cared-for customer is much more forgiving in the case of issues or delays, especially if they have been provided with open and honest communication about these problems from the outset.
And yet, again, things are changing…
The Next Step – AI and Gen Z
If we want to explore what customer care will look like in the coming years, looking at the buying habits and consumer expectations of Gen Z is a good place to start.
Gen Z is the next generation of consumers. This group includes anyone born between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, and now makes up 40% of the global consumer base. And for the property market this demographic are good news for business, as a recent study carried out by the property concierge platform, Moveable, found that 40% of Brits aged 18-34 were looking to buy a house refurbish in the next year.
Gen Z was the first generation to grow up with the ‘always on’ technology and the culture that has come with it. They have always had access to instant information, where customisation and personalisation are the norm. Cue states, ‘For Gen-Z, personalized customer service is not just a nice-to-have feature, but a fundamental expectation.’
They want their customer care to be so personal that 69% of them would like to buy products directly from their social media channels, a place where the advertised products are chosen specifically for them through analysed data of their online activity.
Here could be the biggest advancement of future AI systems in customer care. At present, AI chatbots can answer basic queries and offer some support through a company’s live chat. McKinsey & Company argue that already, ‘AI-enabled customer service can increase customer engagement, resulting in increased cross-sell and upsell opportunities while reducing cost-to-serve.’
But what if that AI was tailored to each individual user; pre-empting their requirements and foreseeing their problems? It might surprise you to know, this is already happening, as outlined by Forbes.
Utilise this technology and you could enhance your customer experience significantly, says Forbes:
‘Systems driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics have the power to transform the customer experience (CX). We see this across all industry verticals and business processes, from retail to healthcare and from banking to media.
AI-driven predictive models drive customer loyalty and increase revenue for any brand.’
So, with artificial intelligence looking set to forefront the evolution of customer care in the coming years, it might be time to think about how you’re investing in the technology and whether you’re utilising systems to your best advantage.
We have already seen PropTech utilised to support homebuyers in deciding the most suitable place for them to live, based on their preferences, and AI will clearly have a big role to play in the ongoing care offered to homebuyers to support their buying journey.
Customer care - both expectations and tools for delivery - has evolved considerably in recent years. It's more important than ever that housebuilders ensure their customer care adds value to the homes they build. Get in touch with Classic Folios to learn customer care practices that can enhance your reputation, increase referrals and minimise admin costs.