The Transformational Journey of Customer Service

 In Digital Transformation

You think you’ve had customers who complain forever. Ha! That clay tablet pictured up there is the first ever documented customer complaint. Nanni, an ancient Babylonian customer in 1750 B.C. sent this written complaint about a shipment of inferior grade copper he received from his supplier, Ea-nasir.

Unfortunately, history hasn’t saved for us the trouble tickets, but we can relate to the pains and agony of Nanni that reflected in the protest inscribed on this tablet. We can also surmise the word-of-mouth (aka the original social networking!) that must have spread leading to a few lost sales opportunities for Ea-nasir.

So much has evolved in customer engagement, support and services since the times of Nanni and Ea-nasir, over the last two-thousand+ years! From those early clay tabs, to the 19th century, when customers, for any remedy, repair or replacement, only had the option of traveling (mostly on a horse) to the place where the goods were purchased, to the invention of the phone where people could more easily communicate with a merchant. But it wasn’t until the 1960s & 70s when support teams got their own phone number (a 1-800) and interactive voice response facility – so that customers could simply call to register their complaint. King_Swapnil

Which brings us to 21st century (and scarily we’re well into the 21st century) where ¾ th of the customers are using more than three channels to interact for support and service. And with the immediacy of a response, and the options to easily change brands, it’s no wonder that today’s customer does feel like a king. So, while in ‘History of the World’ Mel Brooks famously said, “It’s good to be king “, we shouldn’t forget another famous playwright who wrote “Heavy is the head that wears the crown!”

Feeling like a king and getting treated as such can be worlds apart. A 2011 survey by American Express has some alarming trends highlighted.Table_Swapnil

These are not mere numbers, but real experiences that when not handled neatly disappoint the customers enough that they may abandon the provider. A few real examples that most of us will relate to.

  • The Volkswagen Diesel Dupe scandal was of such proportions that car users, public transit users and pedestrians had all heard about it and were shocked & disgusted at the motivation and means behind its cause. Ironically, the company name itself means people’s car, but when it came to choose between profits and the essence of customer service, someone did falter and took a wrong turn, aka went into a no-entry zone!! Volkswagen group is largest in Europe and 2nd largest worldwide just behind Toyota. However, since the scandal emerged in 2015 and penalties handed out in 2016, Volkswagen has failed to match the overall market gain and even experienced fall in sales in some geographies. The brand has taken a hit having lost over half of its stock value in 2015 and is still looming at its decade old worth. This loss is in addition to monetary penalties and recall & fix efforts they must deliver for over 9 million cars worldwide. Volkswagen itself had prominent structural and cultural shift – from being an aristocratically run business seeking to be a more open, cooperative and democratic organization.
  • The Netflix pricing blunder when the leading entertainment company introduced a notoriously innovative pricing of double charging customers for same digital content procured over on-demand and physical media. Eventually, they realized the errors in their ways and have since tripled their subscribers from 30 million to over 90 million subscribers today, with a stock price a record high. This all in the face of tough competition from Amazon, DirecTV, Dish, etc.
  • The patient centered care approach adopted by Cleveland Clinic, where they identified what factors were important when it comes to patient satisfaction and accordingly focused on personalized engagement, collaboration among caregivers and striving for happy provider staff. As physician led hospitals like Cleveland Clinic in Ohio or Mayo Clinic in Minnesota have experienced and demonstrated, and what Harvard Business Review has reported, the care insights, credibility and focus are directed towards better collaboration among hospital peers, staff and even external stakeholders.

The above example remind me of an interesting article by Justin Gressell in which he draws a parallel between healthcare and the entertainment industry, and how patient-centered care can draw from Disney’s following focus on guest experience.


In each of the above examples, note that it was the company leadership that was instrumental in causing or identifying the need for change. However, to introduce and drive the transformation, it often requires the whole organization to rapidly relate and adapt to the change and most importantly inculcate it through the company culture.

These examples also provide us a glimpse into the possibilities of customer experience – positive or negative – based on the attitude and application of customer engagement. They do not, however, tell us the whole story. The million-dollar question is how well is the customer engagement team empowered to be proactive, precise and productive in their dealing with the customer.


The evolution and improvement in the customer service industry has been centered around what I call EEEExpress Way. How can businesses use digital transformation to elevate the service level, in fact leap frogging levels? What role does information, its discovery & access play in enabling it? What’s the value of information “nuggets” if it cannot be sliced, diced, parsed and mined to derive knowledge “gold” and deliver the 4Es of EEEExpress Way.


A recent Forbes report has indicated following top customer service trends for 2017 –


It is not surprising that knowledge and insight about the customer is critical in delivering each of these facilities. Our study and experience at Persistent Systemsindicates that within medium and large sized businesses, there are at least ½ a dozen disparate information sources that have relevant context and insights that can assist in understanding the customer better, asking only the right questions, learning essential knowledge and taking appropriate decisions for delivering valuable customer service experience and perception.

All these ideas boil down to customer service teams designing suitable digital experiences, deploying corresponding knowledge, collaboration & learning tools and measuring & fine-tuning the yield, high customer satisfaction is very likely to follow.


Based on this experience, it is clear that cognitive search powered by unified data, text analytics, relevancy and machine learning makes is a critical tool to help elevate the customer engagement process, and empower customer service representatives to discover relevant knowledge, expertise and other contextual 360 degree information related to their customer, concerned product and reported service issues.

Forrester Research predicted in its 2015 trends report on customer service that companies will seek to adopt the following important practices, which align with our recommended approach.


On one hand, for anyone stuck on an 1-800 call or receiving an unsatisfactory resolution from a merchant, it might not feel like much has changed since early Babylon! But with digital, we’re seeing a fundamental and in fact transformational approach in how businesses engage and service their customers. From healthcare to retail, from banking to pizza delivery(!), the world is changing for the better for the customer, and it’s the smart organizations that understand this is better for them too!


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