For chemical companies, customer service plays a central role in forming the “face” to the customer, and in understanding, shaping, fulfilling and even exceeding the expectations of buyers. Often, however, its contribution is underappreciated, and it is something of an untapped resource. But Accenture’s Global Buyer Values Study for Chemicals shows that there are key areas where improvements can help chemical companies make better use of this function to drive increased customer centricity.
Customer service in the industry typically involves a wide range of customer interactions and touchpoints. It includes taking orders, helping set up commercial terms and delivery dates, managing shipping and order changes, and providing customers with information about product quality, specifications and REACH compliance. The customer service function is also the first point of contact for dissatisfied customers, making it the “troubleshooter” that handles complaints and resolves problems. Altogether, customer service involves numerous, frequent interactions that play a large role in shaping the customers’ overall experience.
The research examined the importance that customers place on a variety of factors, compared to what chemical companies think that their customers find important. The findings show several key differences between seller and buyer perspectives when it comes to factors related to the customer service function. These differences emerged for both buyer groups in the study—converters, who transform chemical products for manufacturing segments and end-use markets, and manufacturers, who produce finished products for industrial sectors and consumers. (Figure 1)
Figure 1: Perception gaps between sellers and buyers for customer service attributes
For example, the study found that sellers’ perceptions are fairly well aligned with those of manufacturers. The most significant gap is that this buyer group is more interested in having a single point of ordering than sellers think. At the same time, sellers slightly overestimate manufacturers’ interest in flexible delivery options and support for regulatory compliance.
Sellers are less in sync with converters. The largest gap for this buyer group—as with manufacturers—was their relatively higher interest in having a single point for ordering. But sellers also significantly underestimate the importance that converters place on having easy access to product information, flexible delivery options, regulatory support and seamless transactions. On the other hand, converters value 24/7 complaint handling far less than chemical companies think.
Considering the essential role that customer service plays in customer interactions and the customer experience, the extent of overestimated and underestimated attributes seen in the research is a clear call to action for making improvements in this functional area.
When it comes to customer service, buyers are essentially looking for ease, efficiency and flexibility in their interactions with sellers.
Moving from insight to action
These findings point to several steps that chemical companies can take to bring the customer service function into closer alignment with customer expectations:
Use technology to streamline interactions: Because both buyer groups (converters and manufacturers) are interested in a single point of contact for ordering, sellers should create customer portals that give them a full range of ordering capabilities, including automated transactions. These portals can also provide easy, self-service access to product information, flexible delivery options and even regulatory support.
Create faster electronic “conversations:” Often, electronic interactions simply involve buyers filling out an online request form that is then routed to customer service representatives, who may take hours to respond. Instead, companies should allow customers to access up-to-date information and receive immediate feedback about requests online. For example, buyers should see accurate product availability and delivery time options. When they place an order, they should then quickly receive an online confirmation with a set delivery date—much as they would in a live conversation with an agent.
Enable a multichannel customer service experience: While customers—and especially converters—seem open to the increased use of electronic interactions, companies should think in terms of offering both human-agent and digital customer service channels, and allow for easy movement back and forth between them. That’s because different companies—and different individual buyers within those companies—will have different preferences, and those preferences may change depending on the specific situation. Thus, sellers should integrate data, create a consistent experience across channels and invest in training customer service reps to support the multichannel strategy.
Increase automation in after-sales service: Buyers place relatively low importance on having human reps handle their issues on a 24/7 basis. Thus, sellers can complement their rep-based complaint handling with automated self-service capabilities. These capabilities are increasingly sophisticated, and there are now a range of bots, widely used in other industries, that can automatically handle customer interactions through a variety of channels. The increased number of digital interactions in customer service could also enable chemical companies to more systematically gather and understand customer complaint data—which would help identify broken processes and systems that are causing recurring customer issues.
When it comes to customer service, buyers are essentially looking for efficiency, ease and flexibility in their interactions with sellers. As a result, chemical companies should balance the traditional “high touch” of human agents with online, self-service interactions. This will allow them to focus their investments on things that have the greatest impact on the customer experience and improve their ability to tap into an array of customer-service touchpoints to ultimately get closer to customers.
The Accenture 2020 Global Buyer Values Study for Chemicals assessed and compared the perspectives of chemical companies (sellers), their customers (buyers, including converters and manufacturers), retailers and end consumers. The study identified areas where seller and buyer perspectives are aligned and where they differ, and where sellers have an opportunity to do a better job of meeting buyers’ needs.
This report covers only a portion of the study’s extensive findings, which can be used to provide an in-depth understanding of a range of factors affecting customer centricity—for specific companies, as well as the industry as a whole. The next report in this series looks at what the research means for the sales function at chemical companies.
Thank you to Accenture’s David Apel, Bruno Djapanovic, Michelle Ganchinho and Karin Walczyk for their help in executing the study and writing this report.