You’d think that in today’s customer-focused economy most companies would try to avoid deliberately ignoring customer concerns. Yet a new study reveals that over half (57 percent) of firms in the UK do exactly that with customer communications that arrive on paper. They say that they wait until the customer grows sufficiently frustrated to phone or e-mail in to ask why nothing’s happened, and then they act.

Behind this approach lies the worrying fact that many firms simply don’t know how to handle paper once they have moved to automated customer service management. This is despite the fact that for 59 percent of firms, most customer information still comes into the business on paper.

In fact, the study found that over one in seven (12 percent) prefer to deal with a customer service department by letter. Anxious customers writing letters that, more often than not, end up lost in an organisation that doesn’t have a process in place to deal with the correspondence. Not surprisingly, a third of the UK surveyed said that they are often confronted by angry customers whose request has been lost.

In our always-on, multi-channel world, people increasingly expect any company they deal with to instantly pull up a single, comprehensive view of their entire history with the firm. Yet the study found only a third (34 percent) of firms believe they have the processes in place to achieve this.

The end result is that consumers find themselves having to repeat their enquiry, request or complaint to several different people. The study revealed this to be the top customer service gripe for 82 percent of consumers.

Companies cannot survive in the new customer-centric landscape without a seamless customer relationship management system that can integrate and instantly update phone, e-mail, social, mobile and other interactions. And paper should not be left out.

Customers are voting with their feet. The study found that chasing up written requests is a top customer service turn-off for 50 percent of UK consumers. According to customer service group, Zengage, 82 percent of us have stopped doing business with a company following a bad customer service experience.

The effects are not just short term either. Dimensional Research has found that over a third (39 percent) of people will avoid a vendor for two years or more after a bad customer service experience. And with the rise of social media, the impact of a single bad experience can have far-reaching ripple effects.

So what can an organisation do? Employee behaviours, cultures and business processes cannot be transformed overnight and budgets are not infinite. A gradual evolution is more likely to succeed than an imposed revolution.

I recommend that companies consider embracing a paper-light approach, rather than just doing away with paper in one fell swoop – leaving many customers and employees bewildered and lost. In a paper-light world, new, inbound or important customer documents are automatically scanned and the relevant data extracted, validated and entered into the customer service process. Older or less essential documents are indexed and archived for easy retrieval if required.

There are many UK firms out there trying hard to integrate paper, but finding themselves dependant on manual data entry (63 percent of the firms surveyed in the study), a resource-intensive and error-prone approach. Just one in three currently digitises paper documents in order to extract the information. This means that a significant two-thirds of firms in the UK don’t, just as two-thirds don’t know how to retrieve customer information once it is stored in paper archives.

Firms could argue that as the use of paper declines and the challenge of managing new paper communications is diminishing, the problem could eventually resolve itself. However, a failure to respect and integrate paper-based customer service requests will leave some customers poorly looked after – and they will probably take their business elsewhere. Further, it means that all the valuable insight and intelligence contained within these communications would be lost. Can your business really afford to take that risk?