According to the ONS (Office for National Statistics), for the whole of last year, retail sales increased by 1.9% but represented the lowest annual growth since 2013. Meanwhile on-line sales continued to climb at the expense of high street trading with a 12.1% increase year-on-year in 2017.
Whilst overall growth was up for e-commerce, it was not as high as predicted and overall growth was slow. When you compare the fortunes of UK’s retailers over the Christmas period, some well-known brands reported poor performance and often more disruptive players enjoyed double digit sales growth.
Of course there are a unique combination of reasons why some companies have flourished while others have struggled, but with the ubiquity of social media, word-of-mouth and reviews coupled with greater personalisation and exceptional service now becoming the norm, customer experience (CX) is still one of the most potent and cost-effective ways to help distinguish yourself in a crowded market and steal market share in a highly competitive environment.
Here’s how CX is likely to develop over the next 12 months and some tips on how you can super-charge yours to match rising consumer expectations.
Still top of the agenda
Gartner reported that CX was the top concern for senior executives back in 2016. Since then its importance continues to strengthen as customers not vendors dictate what they would like from a brand. As more and more companies are investing in the customer journey, it is now a ‘must-have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’. The next challenge will be how technology can be embraced to take it to the next level.
There’s no doubt that marketing and customer experience will become smarter and more cost-effective with the help of AI and RPA. So whether it’s front-line support with the use of chatbots or behind the scenes using AI to optimise content or social media posts, technology certainly has the capability to provide more support at a lower cost and at the same time deepen the quality of interactions by drawing on knowledge management systems and individual buyer preferences.
The knack though will be in reaching a balance of automation and live engagement and predicting when each is appropriate and best suited to the needs of the customer. Lidl’s recent introduction of its Facebook Messenger winebot, Margot is a perfect example where automation fits in really well for brands who want to stand out and at the same time offer additional benefits and convenience to customers. Wine lovers can enjoy a fun and interactive dialogue with Margot who can recommend wines based on a range of criteria such as food pairings and budget and she can even explain how it is made.
According to statistics although over 60% of businesses are looking to increase investment in AI-driven technology, at the same time they acknowledge that complex queries will still need to be managed by human advisors.
Building a customer-centric culture
The delivery of your CX vision will only be possible with the support of your employees. The likes of Google and Apple are prime examples of organisations that are focused on keeping their staff happy through environment, training and the freedom to develop their potential. Likewise, customer-facing personnel must be spiritually connected to your brand, so they can act as evangelists, sharing and passing on their enthusiasm and passion during every touch point. Focus on getting your employees on board through investment in regular training and development within a workplace that truly inspires them every day.
The VIP assistant
Another trend that we saw really took hold last year with our own clients, especially for luxury brands was the concept of VIP assistants. This is where personalisation is taken to a completely new level with the idea of a customer service advisor offering advice and guidance around a specific purchase.
One real example of this from the fashion industry was where a customer was buying a pair of very distinctive shoes and then, with the help of a style consultant based their whole theme for their wedding around their shoes. Offering a service that spends rather than saves quality time with a customer may indeed complement the other end of the spectrum where quick self-service is preferred. Again it is all about getting the balance right and doing what’s best for the individual customer within the context of the situation.
Finding your voice
Providing convenience and enhancing the user experience is nothing new, but what is already changing are the mediums and methods in which customers are choosing to communicate.
One of these is of course voice and speech recognition, the growth of which has been fuelled by new devices such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home. According to Gartner by 2021, early adopter brands that redesign their websites to support visual and voice search will increase digital commerce revenue by 30%.
How fast this will mature is difficult to say, but the resurgence of voice has the potential to take the pressure off front-line staff but equally it could even prompt an increase in the number of calls with live advisors, as customers may require answers to more complex queries that are beyond the capabilities of Alexa-type web-bots.
Omni-channel to Opti-channel
Keeping a unified view of all channels is still critical, but this will move a step further with ‘Opti-channel’ which as the term suggests will be about the ability to understand the optimal channel that a customer prefers for specific activities.
So by drawing on customer information and real-time data, brands can cleverly anticipate the channel that is most likely to result in the highest customer satisfaction. So if a company has always communicated with you via SMS, then it makes no sense to bombard them with other types of communication which may frustrate or annoy them. In parallel use of data will also need to take into account privacy and compliance issues, particularly in light of the forthcoming GDPR legislation.
Having digitally fluent customer service advisors will still be essential, but the emphasis on where to focus efforts may change dependent on your customer demographic. With more concerns around privacy and consumers turning to more closed or more niche networks such as Nextdoor (a local equivalent of Facebook) or those associated with a particular interest or hobby, brands may be forced to look at other alternatives to connect such as messaging apps via WhatsApp or Apple’s Business Chat. In fact the ability of being able to provide service within apps will be vital.
Despite falling activity levels, Twitter will still represent the perfect platform for brands to monitor and respond quickly to complaints, demonstrating their willingness to publicly redress any support issues that occur and stop them going viral.
The pace at which the CX landscape is changing is both frightening and exciting, but whatever business you are in, there’s no question that how well it’s handled will have a direct correlation with loyalty and long-term sales. In an age where the world is every day becoming smaller and more competitive those organisations who will create an edge are those who are best equipped to look after their people, both employees and customers in equal measure.
About Dino Forte
Dino Forte is MD and founder of award-winning outsourced contact centre Ventrica (www.ventrica.co.uk) that provides multi-channel customer services for leading brands such as Barratt Homes, UGG Australia, McCarthy & Stone and New Look.