MOST people, and many businesses, still hold a conventional and somewhat outdated perception of what customer service and support entails.

They see it as someone with a headset in a call centre fixing inbound problems as they arise, a back-end function that serves as an afterthought to the business of developing products and services.

This may have been the case 10 years ago, but in recent years, customer service and support professionals have come out of the dark corner in the back of the office and demonstrated the strategic business value they can bring to the table.

In fact, there has been a paradigm shift — customer service and support has moved beyond a reactive “break-fix” mentality to a proactive approach that has established it as a key differentiator.

The economic downturn helped to accelerate this change. The challenge in a tough economy to win new business has put a stronger focus on strengthening the loyalty of existing customers.

Now, businesses are increasingly investing in customer service and support to help customers connect more intimately with their products.

They are using it to capture the voice of the customer and mobilising it as a mechanism to collect feedback on customer experiences.

Ultimately, the art of the new customer service and support function will increasingly play a critical role in improving future versions of products, services and policies.

Source of information

Customer service and support professionals and customer-facing employees are a great source of information because they have past reports on customer challenges and new product features needed by customers, which can be used to evolve products and services.

Customer interaction

Another key trend in customer service and support is the emergence and increasing importance of using online channels to interact with customers.

This offers the tech-savvy demographic a new platform in communicating their feedback about products and services and provides resolution for millions of customers who seek support from companies, especially information technology (IT) providers.

Large companies have been the first to understand and implement the new approach to customer service and support.

However, no matter what size your business is, you need to listen to your customers, identify the challenges they have experienced with your product or service in the past, and take this data on board when planning new products and services.

Businesses that ignore this critical function risk missing customer insights and retention, and falling behind the competition.

Here are some ideas to shift customer service and support from a reactive function to being more strategic and valuable to your business:

1. Fully utilise existing knowledge in your company

This includes information from sales people, product designers and engineers. It is especially important for customer service and support to establish strong links with sales and marketing.

Using the experiences of all customer-facing employees builds a repository of information that can be drawn on for planning new products and services.

2. Make service and support available via multiple channels

In the Web 2.0 world — which includes web-based communities, social networking sites, video-sharing sites and blogs — there are numerous opportunities, even for small companies, to innovate how customer service is delivered.

Make the most of social media and online communities. Communicate to your customers wherever they congregate.

3. Benefit from trials

Allow customers the chance to test new products and services before they are officially launched. Use the feedback to tweak the end result.

4. Tailor your information

Vary the customer information you issue based on the different types of audience it is targeting.

5. Don’t just wait for a problem to occur to talk to customers

Maintain consistent communication with them to develop a total understanding of their experiences. Only in this way can you become a trusted adviser and start building up a repository of valuable feedback.

6. Go beyond fixing problems as they arise

Proactively help your customers find solutions to the challenges they face.

For example, in an economic downturn, take the initiative to help your customers find ways to cut costs. This will build customer loyalty.

7. Constantly improve your service delivery and support

Find ways, no matter how small, to do this. For example, call a customer back instead of making him wait on hold.

Ultimately, changing customer service and support into a strategic asset is the responsibility of customer service and support professionals and customer-facing employees.

You need to come out from the back of the office and share the unique insights that you have, and demonstrate how these can be turned into opportunities for the business.