Three States of Customer Service | Proactive, Reactive Chalkboard

How to Make the Three States of Customer Service Work for You

No matter what you are doing, you are always in one of three states with your customer: proactive, reactive, or inactive.

While this framework is broad, categorizing your customer focus in this way can bring ineffective behaviors and inefficient priorities into sharp relief.

Do you ignore proactive customer service because you are frequently in reactive mode, creating a vicious circle that only worsens over time? Do you have team members with one-sided skills, excelling at proactive service but not reactive service? Are your periods of inactivity too long, predicating more problems and more reactive service?

Proactive Customer Service: Anticipating Customer Needs

Proactive service is where we want our organizations to spend most of their time. Proactive service is about anticipating not only customer needs but also customer problems. Taken to its highest level, proactive service is also about creating products and services that customers do not even know they need yet (think iPad). Well-executed proactive service often creates the WOW moments we hear discussed so often.

Some examples of proactive service:

  • Calling the client the next day to ask about their haircut experience
  • Noting a hotel guest’s birthday and having a card and champagne waiting in the room
  • Remembering that the customer thought the meal was overcooked last time and preparing it to their expectations

Proactive service is one of the hallmarks of all world class service organizations, but many fail to utilize it properly.

Why? Because most companies spend the bulk of their time in reactive mode.

Reactive Customer Service: Handling Customer Challenges

Most companies want to deliver stellar, proactive customer care, but they spend the majority of their time stuck in reactive cycles. How many companies spend most of their day dealing with things like the following:

  • The order did not ship on time
  • The warranty paperwork was never issued
  • The wrong name was put on the contracts

In today’s information-soaked business climate, the time dedicated to reactive issues has skyrocketed. The more complicated our businesses have become, the more potential for problems.

Three States of Customer Service | Proactive, Reactive ChalkboardLook at your job (and your life) — has it gotten simpler in the last decade or more complex? This complication has occurred at the entity level as well. Customer interactions have many more layers to them and many more expectations with them.

Reactive service is not always negative. It can be as simple as a question that needs to be answered.

However, almost all reactive service results from a failure to proactively anticipate the customer’s needs. Of course, this is only partially avoidable. We are not mind readers and cannot know every need or desire of the customer. Yet, we can attempt to know, and proactive service gives us the opportunity to preempt situations that require reactive service.

Inactive Customer Service: The Absence of Service

Assessing your organization’s inactivity is important in two ways. On the macro level, you must ask yourself how much time your organization spends inactive in customer service. How much time does your organization spend chasing shiny objects? Obviously, other things are important — sales, accounting, regulatory reporting — but look at the larger picture. Are you inactive in customer service when you shouldn’t be?

On a micro level, we must look at how inactive we are with individual customers. We will obviously be inactive with individuals for certain periods of time. If you spent all of your time with one customer, they would be the only customer you had.

Also, inactivity, for the right reasons, is important. How many times have you ordered something from a company and been cyber-stalked by them afterwards to the point that it completely turned you off? Knowing the right level of inactivity in general, and if possible, individually as well is crucial. With that caveat, it should be said that the more inactive time with each customer, the more chance to end up in reactive situations.

Where Does Your Organization Spend Its Time?

Inactive, Reactive, Proactive. Are these categories broad? Sure. Yet, it is this 50,000 foot view that can illuminate the need for improvement in way that a granular analysis cannot. We only need ask ourselves two simple questions:

  1. Where does our organization spend most of its time?
  2. Where should our organization spend most of its time?

Pick a one week period to evaluate and see how close your answers to the two questions are. If your organization is like most, you will find that it spends most of its time in reactive mode — putting out fires and dealing with ringing phones. In fact, one of the easiest metrics for most businesses in the above evaluation is to simply compare how many inbound calls are handled compared to how many outbound.

This exercise is almost always illuminating. Once you see how much time is spent in reactive mode, try to take a stab at what the ultimate mix is for your business. Then map out a strategy to move in that direction.

Understanding the three states of customer service is easy; moving our organizations to the correct mix is the greater challenge.

Where does your business spend most of its time?


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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