How to Get Started Delivering Proactive Customer Service

Companies think they know what proactive customer service is, but they often only consider the digital examples. Building a solution in a conference room, they fail to bring humanity to the experience, creating uninspiring — or even annoying — proactive customer service elements:

  • An email that's sent repeatedly after a customer abandons a shopping cart.

  • The ever-present, always scrolling, blocking key info "Do you have questions about this vehicle" overlay when you spend more than two seconds on an auto dealership website.

Snark aside, there are some wonderful digital examples of delivering proactive customer service, but is that what being proactive really means?

Start searching for strategies, and you’ll often find that digital solutions come to the forefront. And while they’re a key element of proactive customer service, they’re only a subset.

So how can you go beyond the basic examples of proactive customer service and, instead, create something that delights your customers?

Focusing on eight themes, your company can create and deliver great proactive customer service. With examples from Disney and Capital One, this article guides you on a path to delivering the proactive customer service your customers want.

Prefer to watch a video instead? Check out this webinar on providing proactive customer service, featuring Help Scout's Mathew Patterson along with Erin Lowell and Jacob Lewis of You Need a Budget.

What is proactive customer service?

Proactive customer service is delivering what customers need before they know they need it. It's going (at least!) one step further than what the customer would expect, providing help, advice, or education to assist customers before they make a request or complain.

Here's an example most people have experienced: You try to use your credit card at the grocery store, and it gets declined. Why? Because your credit card company spotted some fraudulent activity and proactively froze your account.

That’s pretty good service. Before you even noticed that your card was compromised, the card company helped you out. It would have been much worse if you had found the issue yourself and had to prove that there had been fraudulent activity to get your money back.

That's good, but here's one step further: Rather than waiting for the customer to initiate a transaction and have their card declined (and possibly causing an embarrassing situation), many companies alert the customer via text, app alerts, or calls that an issue exists with their card. The customer can then resolve the through a response inside the app or with a text — or initiate a call if the situation requires a more complex resolution.

That's proactive customer service: going one step further to help the customer before they knew they even needed help.

But proactive customer service is not limited to digital solutions. The best examples actually bring humanity into the experience because that’s what our customers are — humans.

Proactive vs. reactive customer service

The difference between proactive and reactive customer service is all in the timing. With reactive support, customer service traditionally waits to receive a request from a customer who needs something. The agent then replies to the customer with the necessary information, and the request is closed.

Proactive support removes the need for a customer to contact customer service in the first place. In many cases, the customer may not even notice that there was an issue. If they do, resolution becomes much smoother for both the customer and the agent.

The benefits of proactive customer service

Proactive customer service has many benefits:

  • Increased efficiency. Fewer inbound customers with issues needing resolutions results in a more efficient operation. Freeing up this bandwidth allows your company to focus on the more challenging issues customers face — and also allows for more overall time to focus on preventing issues from occurring.

  • Increased customer loyalty. Proactive customer service shows that you care and pay attention to the details: These are two qualities that customers love to see in a business. Beyond the good brand image, solving your customer’s needs before they have to act makes their interaction with your company easier, keeping them around for longer.

  • Increased revenue. Adopting a needs-based approach to upselling can boost revenue by more than 30%. The support-driven growth mindset encourages agents to be proactive about understanding your customers’ needs and offering solutions at the right time.

Finally, proactive customer service creates excitement for your customers and your employees.

Capital One famously has the concept of Surprise & Delight. During a customer interaction, employees make note of special or notable moments in a customer’s life. Using that as inspiration, employees send a small gift or note acknowledging that moment, such as a college pennant for a family who mentioned their child was heading off to a university.

I’ll share a story below that famously ended up going viral and appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show where the agent and customer got to meet each other in person for the first time. This generated incredible excitement both for the customer and the employee — but also for the overall brand.

Help Scout's live chat tool, Beacon, offers a feature called modes that surfaces relevant content from your knowledge base before putting customers in touch with your support team. This lets you prioritize self-service to reduce support volumes while still making human help available.

8 ways to deliver proactive customer service

Sold on the benefits of delivering proactive customer service? The eight tips below will help you create your own proactive support strategy — and provide you with the tools to think three steps ahead.

1. Keep humanity at the forefront

Too often, digital examples become the most well-known, but proactive customer service starts with empathy. To truly know a customer — especially at a given moment — requires knowing and understanding what they’re experiencing. Get in their head and walk in their shoes.

Reminding a customer one time about a digital shopping basket item left behind might be perceived as helpful, but continuing to “remind” them with further communications moves from proactive to pestering.

This holiday season, my wife and I started to purchase an item through an online merchant's site, but we ultimately found a better option elsewhere. I received no fewer than six (!) emails within a week offering a “friendly reminder” of the item I left behind. What’s worse was there was no way to delete the item to stop the barrage.

We likely wouldn’t act this way in our human relationships, so designing our customer experiences should be no different.

Make your proactive customer service experience decisions by placing humanity front and center. Don’t just look at operational metrics or other KPIs to make decisions. Ask your customers. Get to know them.

2. Focus on restoring relationships

Fixing customer issues is reactive. Restoring relationships is proactive.

Disney famously focuses on restoring relationships instead of just fixing issues. I experienced that with my family on a trip to Disney World. A particular ride failed while we were in line on the last night that we would be there, resulting in disappointed kids and an exhausted father.

With several daylight hours the next day before we would leave for the airport, I stopped into Guest Services just to share our experience (I’m a customer experience consultant. It’s a compulsion for me to share feedback!).

With care and concern, the Cast Member listened to our story and offered a solution that would 100% fix the issue. Great! I was satisfied and started to move away.

Not so fast! The cast member came around the desk and got down eye to eye with my young daughter and asked her all about her Disney trip so far, learning about what she really enjoyed. Using that information, he then surprised us both with a wonderful gift for my daughter that she treasured for years!

We left the experience not just with a fixed issue but also with a warm feeling towards our relationship with the Disney brand — and a story that we continue to tell years later.

True proactive customer service at Disney goes one step further beyond fixing issues to focus on restoring relationships.

3. Stop taking sides

While the Disney story shows how proactive customer service is one step further, that doesn’t mean reactive is a lesser option. Things will go awry, and the customer will need help. Reactive and proactive customer service aren’t in opposition to each other. Ensuring both are individually optimized allows them to work in concert with each other.

Take the goalie in soccer (football for my global friends) or hockey. Prevention of a goal (the ideal experience for their team) combines the proactive (body positioning, spacing on the field/pitch/rink, communicating with the team) and the reactive (blocking and stopping the shot as it comes in). The proactive steps create the environment where the reactive can succeed.

Customer service is no different: A successful service experience requires both reactive and proactive customer service elements.

In my Disney story, had the proactive existed alone (providing my daughter a special gift), we still would have been left without the issue resolved (allowing my kids to experience the ride before we left). That required reactive customer service.

Had the cast member solely fixed our issue, our relationship to the company — to the overall Disney brand — would not be enhanced to the degree that it was. There would be no story to tell, no great experience to share with others, no word of mouth promoter advertising.

Reactive and proactive customer service work together to create the ideal customer experience.

4. Know your customer

What healthy relationship exists where there’s no effort to get to know the other person? A company’s relationship to a customer is the same.

Customers aren’t just known. Sure, we think through journey mapping and personas that we know a customer, but when we do this, we discover customerS but not A customer. Both are vital to know, but often companies fail to know A customer and only focus on customerS.

Do you just survey and score, or do you listen and act? Through truly listening to your customer, you’ll get a better sense of the individual.

Read the actual comments from your customers. Read their social media posts about your company.

Do you leverage your escalated complaints to restore relationships and understand who they are as individual customers? Do you tell customer stories — individual customer stories — in your team, department, leadership, and company meetings?

If not, do you truly know your customer?

5. Establish programs that allow your team to be proactive

Let’s return to the Capital One Surprise & Delight program. An example that went viral came about as an agent learned of a customer’s heartbreak as her fiance broke off their engagement.

Going beyond applying some extra points to the customer’s account, the agent also sent flowers to the customer encouraging her to use the points to “Go on vacation. Take so many pictures of yourself all happy and post them all over that Instagram!”

Posting the flowers on Instagram, the customer eagerly and emotionally talked about how this brought happiness to her at a time where it was hard to find.

The individual customer experienced proactive customer service, but the overall program impacts a wide community of customers. The agent was able to deliver an individual experience because Capital One established a formal program inside the company to bring this to a diverse set of customers and experiences.

The agent could begin the Surprise & Delight process and know that the idea would be successfully delivered to the customer. By understanding the customer community and the broad opportunity available, Capital One could enhance the lives of individual customers.

6. Train your team to be proactive

Do you already trust your team to be proactive, identify trends, and think multiple steps ahead? If not, you’ll need to invest in training a team of proactive agents. Consider training your team with “next issue avoidance” thinking.

Gregory Ciotti suggests asking agents to reach beyond the customer’s immediate questions to help them reach an ultimate goal:

View a conversation through an outcome-focused lens — what are customers really trying to do? What are their next steps after this resolution? Can you help them before they ask? Can you remove roadblocks before they reach them?

If you don’t understand where your customers become frustrated, you won’t be able to prevent their frustration. Uncovering those moments of opportunity is a key step in delivering proactive customer service.

7. Build operational discipline

Success starts from deciding to complete the actions described above. Success sustains from creating a disciplined, operational approach to the actions described above.

Too often, phrases like process, operational excellence, or operations are taboo in the customer experience world. The reality is that it takes both an outside-in view of the customer and the inside-out view of company process and operations to create proactive customer service for every customer, every time.

Without a customer view, the service provided won’t be what the customer seeks or desires. Without the operational discipline, proactive customer service delivery requires a unique moment or employee interest — but isn’t sustainable or scalable.

Make sure when you design your proactive customer service experience that you consider operational reality. The best way to do this is to talk to those who deliver or experience that reality: your front-line support and your customers.

The best experiences are co-designed with your front-line and customers as they probably know more than you do. Get out of the conference room and into the places where your front-line and customers reside.

8. Lean into user education

Educating users upfront will always be more impactful than solving their problems later on. Investing in creating helpful content is key to offering proactive support.

Customers have also come to expect self-service as an option. Microsoft’s Global State of Multichannel Customer Service Report found that more than 90% of consumers expect a business to offer self-service or a frequently asked questions page.

User education content can also take the form of webinars, emails, or other types of content. You Need a Budget (YNAB) offers free workshops as a big part of their user education program.

These webinars help new users get the most out of their YNAB subscription and help reduce the load on YNAB’s support team. They specifically designed these webinars to answer the most frequently asked questions from new users.

One step further

Go one step further to unlock excitement, efficiency, and value for your company.

Bring humanity to your customer service, and you’ll be on the path to proactive customer service. Keep a focus on restoring relationships, understanding that reactive and proactive customer service enhance each other.

Ensure you know your customers to drive an understanding of the individual customer and your community of customers. Build your proactive customer service strategy with an eye to the operational reality it creates.

Do this and you’ll create the ideal customer experience your customers desire.

Sarah Chambers, a customer service consultant and the founder of Supported Content, also contributed to this article.

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