unsatisfactory customer service appsWhat do we really want from our branded, self-service mobile apps? The numbers tell a mixed story. Usage data shows we appreciate instant access to the companies we do business with via mobile apps aimed at taking the heavy lifting out of resolving customer service issues and questions. Meantime, a raft of reports suggests the appeal of instantly downloading the latest apps is losing its luster.

But rather than speculate about consumer attitudes toward customer service apps Nuance teamed up with Vocalabs to find out what consumers really think about their self-service apps. The findings are a wake up call for companies everywhere.

Based on a December 2011 survey of 900 smartphone owners conducted by Vocalabs on behalf of Nuance Communications, the vast majority of respondents (72 percent) have a more positive view of a company if they have a mobile app.

And, if the app experience is positive, then these customers become brand advocates and ambassadors on a mission. The survey reports 81 percent will tell others, effectively recruiting more users for the apps (and brands) that succeed in satisfying their service requirements.

Apps users across all demographics

Think that people downloading and using you customer service apps are Digital Natives who prefer high-tech to high-touch? Think again. Christy Murfitt, Sr. Manager, Solutions Marketing, Nuance, tells me mobile apps have a significant appeal among more mature users, a customer segment that “typically values convenience, ease of use and life-simplifying solutions.”

Thanks to the advance of smartphones, users across all demographics now share a common trait: they are empowered. Their devices provide them easy and instant access to information they need. Interestingly, respondents have also come to expect their customer service apps (like all their other mobile apps) to deliver what they want on their terms.

What is the appeal of these apps? Almost half (45 percent) of respondents say they like to use customer service apps because they are convenient. Another 40 percent are hooked on the always-on nature of mobile apps, answering that they like and use apps because they are “always available.”

Clearly, customers use apps that provide them value. However, the new research from Nuance and Vocalabs shows that not all verticals offering customer service apps are doing a good job of it

Significantly, banks and mobile operators lead with the largest number of app downloads. However, these same verticals stand out as the companies that experience the most serious drop-off in usage.

While 60 percent of respondents have downloaded customer service apps from mobile carriers, only 25 percent are actually using them. That means over one-third (35 percent) of respondents are not using the apps. Banking apps show a similar disconnect.

Banking apps disappoint

The serious shortcomings in banking apps is also the topic of a new report by My Private Banking Research headquartered in Switzerland. Based on a survey of 350 users and an audit of some 300 mobile apps the report confirms that banks are failing to meet our customer service requirements.

But it’s not just about being able to conduct banking transactions or find the nearby branch or ATM. The report shows there is also a demand for app features that allow us to move directly and seamlessly from our mobile app to a real-time conversation with a bank advisor.

best banking apps

The report criticizes banks for the “big mismatch between what users expect from their banking apps and what banks offer.” It advises banks to “start now with integrating not only all banking services, but also with opening up their apps to each client’s preferred medium of communication, be it e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or any other communication channels.”

Turn it around, and the research from both Nuance and My Private Banking also shows there is a huge opportunity for these two verticals to increase traffic to their customer service apps — if they get their app strategies right.

Freedom to choose

What features and functionality could convince consumers to use their customer service apps more? Nuance consumer research highlights areas where improvements would pay dividends. Over one-third (35 percent) of respondents would appreciate a seamless and effortless way to shift from a self-service task on their app to connect with a call center agent.

It’s all about the freedom to choose. If consumers can’t accomplish what they want within an app, they have to disengage and try another channel. But transitioning to another channel means starting all over, explaining why they are calling in the first place. That adds up in both call minutes and increased customer frustration with the brand.

Nuance infographic

My take:

Mobile apps started out as a great way to access games and entertainment, but they are also an extremely important channel to the customer. Granted, there will always be people that want to talk to agents first. But there is also a significant and growing group of consumers that want to perform self-service tasks on an app and connect to an agent (without having to hold) only when an issue can’t be resolved using other channels. Smart companies see apps as a means to deliver customer service. Unfortunately, research from Nuance and My Private Banking reveals that some verticals are shortchanging their customers — and themselves. Kudos to Nuance for stepping up to provide us key data points that will allow companies to understand what is at stake — and the improvements they must make to deliver personal, convenient customer service people will genuinely appreciate.