The 5 Types of Service Variability and How to Handle Them

There are two broad types of variability in customer service: The variability in service quality, which is under your control; and variability in the way a customer comes up to you, which you’re exposed to rather than master of.

Like a volcano that is mostly peaceful, your service department might suddenly be overwhelmed by an eruption in service requests. You cannot control when this happens; but you can have a disaster plan in place – the right processes to manage variability.

These are the 5 types of customer variability and the tips for managing them.

1
Arrival variability

Customers contacting a company rarely spread uniformly over time. There are peaks and valleys and often it’s hard to predict when you’ll enter which. That’s a big issue since companies burn money whenever they’re overstaffed and risk upsetting customers with queues or unavailability when understaffed.

The fix:

Self-service. In online customer service, self-service refers to offering information that’s available to customers immediately and at any time. If well-maintained, this can cut down service traffic significantly. A Software Advice research shows that self-service also positively affects the overall customer service performance.

In below graph by Software Advice you see that (dynamic) FAQs and knowledge databases are the most standard service assets of an ecommerce website. IVR systems, with which customers “speak in reply to the prompt,” online discussion forums, interactive diagnostics and virtual assistants follow. Route customers with common issues to self-service options and it will give you some air to breath during peak times.

graph showing the commonness of self-service implementations on websites
Interactive self-service options are gaining ground in eCommerce.

Automated service. Some of the tasks normally handled by agents can be outsourced to machine processes. This reduces dependency on customer arrival times, which could be during service hours or at 3am.

Realistically, we won’t see completely automated virtual assistants with human-like communication skills for some good time, and perhaps we wouldn’t want them anyway. Still, automated service doesn’t have to mean relinquishing the personal touch. Brian Gladu wrote a great guide on when to automate in service.

Live chat and messaging support.To spread out phone support, you have to add service reps. With live chat, one service rep can handle multiple visitors. Messenger support’s similar but it adds the benefit that people are more accepting to wait for a reply if they know it’s going to arrive on their habitual messaging app.

2
Request variability

If customers come to you with the same issue again and again, you’ll soon know the answer by heart. But if each request is different, you'll need to invest time and research for each of them. More complex products and generally a larger range of products increase the request variability. Support for a software company arguably faces more different and more unique inquiries than a bookstore.

The fix:

Reduce the number of options. A typical reaction is to contain the number of choices offered. This simplifies service and helps you focus on what you’re truly good at. The restaurant that offers 150 different dishes and invites guests to make special requests will have a hard time ensuring brilliance on every plate that leaves the kitchen. Likewise, nobody trusts the diner that serves “the best Italian, Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Azerbaijani food.”

Train and empower employees. High quality service at a low cost can only be achieved through high efficiency. To become more efficient, prepare your service reps through training. That’s particularly important for the toughest customer service scenarios, which defy easy answers.

You’ll speed up your service by simulating certain cases in advance. To react more flexibly to those requests that still catch you off-guard, grant your agents some freedom to make own decisions within a framework of rules. Such empowerment frees them from time-consuming check backs with superiors.

Provice the best channels. There’s a best suited service channel for every issue. For example, some requests demand a more personal contact (phone), some a quick response (chat), and some claim space to explain technical specifics (email/phone).

For nearly a decade, integrating an abundance of seamlessly connected channels was sold as the answer to higher request variability. By now we know it’s not. And that simplification could be the actual fix. Research suggests that customers don’t actually want or need the omnichannel experience. Instead, they want guidance towards and transparency in the optimal channel. So, focus on fewer channels and handle them expertly.

User communities. Handling a multitude of different requests via self-service options poses two obstacles: Firstly, some of the requests will be new and you can’t predefine an answer to a question you don’t know yet. Secondly, if you know both the questions and the answers, you need to enable your users to find theirs within a huge pool.

One solution for the first obstacle lies in user forums. An active community like that of Virgin Media holds and passes on the knowledge of many. Also, past discussions and answers remain accessible through forum search engines. In this sense, forums are like user-curated FAQs.

Ryanair offers an actual user-powered FAQ section that grows naturally with customer questions. To quickly guide users to their answer in a more sizable knowledge database like our Help Scout page, put keyword searches in place.

3
Capability variability

Each customer brings an individual set of knowledge, skills and motivations into the equation. This means that even if request variability is low – even if 90% of your customers contact you with the same issue – they might do sow in their own, unpredictable ways.

Sometimes it results in comical situations, like when a customer wants food that’s “too hot to eat” replaced with a cooler version. More often though, it requires a professional reaction. Remember that labels like “easy,” “complex,” or “possible” are only approximations. After all, that’s subjective.

The fix:

Educate customers. The assumption of any school system is that students will be confronted with roughly the same challenges in the life to come. Assume the same for your customers in the usage of your product. Provide them with the knowledge you know they’ll need – before they’re missing it and occupy your service.

The first step is a great onboarding process. Here you can both get the important first impression right and also flatten common rookie issues. As a sideline, customers learn early on that you provide content to help them. This pays off when they’ll look for answers in your resources first instead of picking up the phone.

Prepare tutorials, workshops, and webinars for continuous customer education. Unbounce’s Academy is a demonstration of near perfection. Inform your customers about your educational content in support conversations.

Leading SaaS companies are delivering that same hands-on experience to every single new customer — hundreds & even thousands of times over, without the need for 1 on 1 resources.

Miranda Lievers, thinkific

A nice side benefit of customer education is that it drives sales. Jess Ostroff highlighted 5 brands that successfully use it to increase engagement.

Communicate efficiently. In customer service, technical jargon is pointless. When talking to inexperienced or less receptive customers, it’s downright destructive. They won’t know what you mean and additionally feel reduced by having to ask again. Consider the ELI5 (“Explain it like I’m 5”) technique as a blueprint for unfussy, clear communication.

Structured information is easier to process. Therefore, make use of goal-driven conversation models like the “What? - So What? - Now what?”, the “Problem - Solution- Benefit,” and the FAB technique.

Pre-contact survey. Let customers estimate their own level of expertise before they receive support. This enables your agents to choose a suitable approach in communication and a selection of resources right away. Make sure that your labels are non-judgmental. Use experience levels like “beginner,” “regular user,” or “expert” rather than personal traits.

4
Effort variability

In cheap eateries, some customers stack their trays when they’ve gobbled the burgers, others leave behind a mess. Both kinds come for low prices and a quick bite, not for great service and atmosphere. In their opinion they don’t owe you niceties. Consequently, the effort they’re willing to put in varies. This leads to a varying workload for service employees because a table filled with junk is unacceptable even in a cheapish joint.

Set realistic expectations. For most customers, time investment equals effort. The Psychology of Waiting Lines describes that people are more willing to wait if they know how long and why they have to wait. Just compare the agony of a spinning hourglass during a program’s installation with the delight of a progressing completion bar.

Setting realistic expectations generally creates acceptance for the effort necessary – effort variability is decreased. For that reason, the Universal Studios in Hollywood offer continuously updated waiting times for each of their attractions. You can also express an expected number of steps a customer needs to take until she’s all set up or which parts of the process she will have to handle and which befit you.

Induce social pressure. Let your customers feel like they invest the perceived ‘extra’ effort for others, not for you. A fast food restaurant could put up signs saying “Enjoy a clean table while eating? Stack your tray in one of our trolleys.” This form of self-service is a win-win for everyone. It means lower time cost for all customers – they pass by the trolley on their way out – and lower service costs for the diner whose employees can focus on flipping more patties.

5
Subjective preference variability

There are attributes that reliably indicate good service, like speed, accuracy, transparency, accessibility, friendliness, or efficiency. Still, good service lies in the eye of the individual customer. Not only may she care more for one attribute than another, she will also experience and judge each in a unique way. For instance, time perception is very subjective. Out of two customers that received the same service, one may call you quick and the other laggy.

Distinguish buyer personas. Analyze your customer data to identify overlaps in your various customer types’ preferences. If you recognize a certain type early on, you can deliver a tailored service that caters their needs and expectations. This prevents misunderstandings and drives efficiency.

According to this post by YEC, a buyer persona is mainly defined by demographic information and customer values. For in depth-analysis, HubSpot’s Pamela Vaughan suggests interviewing customers.

Be flexible in your communication. In judging your service, customers will first look at the way you communicate. Don’t make your customers adjust to your tone and language. Keep your addressation neutral until the customer leads the way, usually this happens rather early in the conversation. For example, a “Hi there Sven” suggests preference for an informal style, a “Hello Mr. Riehle” the opposite.

Messenger channels.Above I’ve mentioned that people prefer a few high-quality channels over an abundance of low-key channels. Research has shown that messenger apps are the channel most cherished across all consumer types.

Instant messengers have established firm ties to people’s private communication and their makers, most recently WhatsApp, are warming up to a commercial use of their software. Read our post on the great potential of messenger apps in customer service.

Offer various service levels. Personally I don’t care for jumping the line during flight boarding, others are willing to pay for spending an extra ten minutes on the plane.

Let your customers decide what privileges they’d like to have. It allows you to accommodate different preferences while getting fair compensation for your additional service effort. Simultaneously, customers don’t have to spend money on unwanted extras.

In our own example, Userlike offers direct phone support, ticket response time guarantees and other privileges to Enterprise customers.