It’s difficult to imagine a time when customer support wasn’t a major aspect of business. But live chat, email, and even phone calls represent relatively recent developments in the expansive history of customer service. After all, trade spreads back at least five thousand years, with the advent of water-based trade routes and commerce.
Of course, the history of customer service is inseparable from innovations in technology and society in general. Because as new inventions and systems pave the way for advances, businesses discover more efficient ways of handling everyday functions. So, in some sense, the history of customer service is simply a retelling of major parts of history itself. Keep reading, and you’ll see how.
The Origins of Customer Support
The idea of customer service isn’t something to nail to a definite date. In fact, though the term might not have been coined until recently, traders and merchants have engaged in customer support since the onset of commerce. So, no single person came up with the concept of “customer service”. Instead, it’s an idea that’s constantly evolved throughout time – one that will undoubtedly continue its progression toward new methods.
Interestingly, for the majority of the past five thousand years, customer service looked relatively the same. It was only within the past three hundred years that it moved well beyond the face-to-face interactions which predominantly characterized it. The impetus for that shift during the Industrial Revolution was almost definitely the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876.
However, even before development, several trends pointed toward the future of customer support. For example, when Watkins Liniment began offering the first Money Back guarantee in 1868. These sorts of advancements heralded what would come within the next few decades.
The Telephone in the History of Customer Service
Phone support is still a major aspect of customer care and brand image today, cementing it’s vital importance over the past century and a half. Of course, the way phones have been implemented in this service has changed drastically throughout time. However, the basic operation has remained similar.
Prior to this invention, customers would have to physically return to a shop or merchant with the product, request to return it, and hope for the best outcome. With no guarantee of a refund, the entire, complicated effort might simply be in vain. However, telephones made possible the option of calling a business to inquire before wasting time and energy.
Interestingly, phone service remained largely the same in customer service for nearly a century. From its onset in the mid-1870s to the 1960s, businesses took calls directly. However, nearly six decades ago, the first call centers began popping up. These services made it possible to take large volumes of calls at the same time, directing them to different agents who could help.
The Late 1900s to Early 2000s
Alongside the innovation of call centers, the first “primitive” version of email emerged. MIT’s CTSS mail system is generally understood as the earliest version of electronic mail, with printable files. However, it’s importance in the history of customer service wasn’t fully recognized until later in the century.
In the 1980s, three primary developments further spurred customer support onward:
- Interaction Voice Response (IVR) – A function of phone service which could help automatically direct calls based on simply “yes” and “no” responses.
- Database software, which would eventually lead to the implementation of customer relationship management (CRM) software.
- Help Desks, which could help both employees and clients with general technical issues for computers and other key technologies.
While the internet was created in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it gained extensive traction with the general public. But from its emergence until now, it has played a massive and vital role in business functions, particularly customer service. For example, by the turn of the century, many companies began offering live chat and even started outsourcing support functions.
In the mid-1990s, CRM began making a larger emergence, developing out of previous database software. This customer relationship management focus also saw the implementation of rewards systems for customer loyalty, a strong current trend today as well.
National Customer Service Week, established by President George H. W. Bush in 1992, recognized the pivotal skills of support workers. And this official recognition further paved the way for developments in the 2000s and onward.
The 2000s and Modern Day
The early 2000s saw an explosion of technologies related to customer support unrivaled by previous decades. Online helpdesks like Zendesk blew up onto the scene, and social media took center stage for both personal and professional spheres. During this time, customers also began recognizing the value of in-house customer service. So, many companies cut ties with outsourced services in order to meet this demand.
In the 2010s, social media continued its triumphant march forward, with new implementations for businesses like Facebook Messenger. This made it possible for companies to interact directly with clients across their various social platforms.
Further innovations like chatbots and Slack messaging further enabled both employees and customers to have better access to service anywhere, through their mobile devices. And during the later years of the last decade, customer service finally saw wider and more concrete coordination. Now, different conferences and events occur regularly to help customer service representatives further develop their abilities.
Moving forward, the 2020s have continued many trends from the previous few years, with a larger focus on the involvement of AI in support. This sort of predictive help aids customers in getting what they need in more efficient ways that previous methods might not have met. However, whether this sort of service will ultimately succeed or not remains to be seen.
Learn More About the History of Trade and Customer Service
Naturally, the history of customer service extends far beyond the bounds of what we’ve discussed here. And if you prefer a closer look, consider taking our History of Trade course. It walks learners through different stages of business and trade throughout history, across a wide variety of cultures and locations. But it does so in an interactive, story-based format. That way, you’ll walk away with a more concrete understanding of the history of trade and service.
Article written by Braden Norwood
Last updated October 30, 2023