Customer experiences are disappointing - how can the ITIL framework help?by
Customers continue to be regularly disappointed with the service experience delivered by their providers. So what can firms do to prevent this disappointment - and does the ITIL framework hold the key?
Time and again customers get disappointed when their product or service does not turn out to be what they thought they’d get. Promises get made, contracts get signed, and expectations are set - but too often the real-life experience does not match the dream that was sold! The result can be damaged relationships, customers leaving and at worst end up actively advocating against or even taking their provider to court.
Are customer expectations too high then? Or are providers making unrealistic promises? What can firms do to close this gap and better deliver on their commitments by providing customers what they expected?
Let's take a look at ways to bridge these differences from the B2B enterprise services perspective, taking the telecommunications industry as an example.
Why customer experiences turn south
One consequence of the fast-evolving digital revolution is organisations depending on information increasingly housed across various systems in different formats interpreted by a diverse user community who use the data in varying ways. To an important degree, these come about by organisational silos each using their own language, KPIs and documentation based on their own methodologies and ways of working. And, because no company can be all things to all customers, many large telecommunications providers increasingly rely on third party vendors to complement and enrich their portfolios.
Ensuring the performance commitments of these suppliers fit the contracted service adds further challenges and risks to delivering on the provider’s promises to the customer. Not only do these inconsistencies pose significant challenges for the providers themselves but they also impact the customer experience. Poorly managed data can double labour, increase costs, delay deadlines, and create tension amongst misinformed stakeholders. Besides requiring avoidable effort and costs to compensate for this lack of clarity, as end recipients the customers experience an inconsistent, varying and ultimately disappointing way these organisations sell, deliver and support their products and services.
This produces a risky disconnect between the expectations generated up front during the sales process and the actual service once it is delivered and operational. Much effort and work is normally spent on bundling products into an attractive offering wrapped by services to support and manage them during the length of the contract. The enthusiasm develops steadily during the sales phase and culminates in a signed contract which usually represents the high point of the relationship between provider and corporate client.
However, customer experiences often start turning south during delivery when the first cracks begin appearing in the viability of the complex bundle of products and service wrap. Although the completion of the implementation usually triggers a celebratory peak in CX, both parties will enter the business-as-usual phase already bruised by unexpected changes and disappointments eroding the precious trust built during the sales process.
Some clients will resign themselves to a mediocre few years and opt for another provider at the end of the contract. Others will barely trust the provider and continually refer to the contract to ensure they get what was promised in their eyes. In all cases, the provider must spend precious resources to right wrongs, reset customer expectations and twist themselves into costly bespoke work arounds to meet the customer’s expectations.
A particularly important point along the customer journey is the transition where the delivery function hands over to the support function as the relationship enters the operational phase. The lack of robust controls are an important cause for the disappointing CX during this in-life phase of the customer journey. It behooves us to recall that the in-life phase (AKA business-as-usual or use phase) happens to be the longest part of the provider-customer relationship.
For the enterprise telecommunications industry this also represents the all-important revenue generating phase which merits attention and resources to reduce churn and increase retention. This not only ensures an ongoing cash flow for the company but also, if not more importantly, creates satisfied clients. Executed well, happy customers are more amenable to up and cross selling and can become advocates burnishing the organisation’s reputation by agreeing to be a reference customer or publishing joint use cases for instance.
Zooming out from the transition phase from delivery to support we notice that in fact each transition across the entire customer journey risks impacting the quality of customer promise as it gets handed over from one organisational silo to the next. The typical end-to-end sequence usually looks as follows:
- Marketing - Service providers’ marketing functions are tasked to create awareness and influence the perception of potential clients through their advertising campaigns which create initial expectations.
- Sales - Leads are forwarded to the sales departments to follow up and translate these opportunities into new business.
- Design - Once a potential client signals their interest the bid, RFP (request for proposal) or design phase is triggered where customer requirements are matched with the provider’s products and services that culminate in a formal proposal.
- Contracting - Following further negotiations and adjustments a contract is drawn up along with a statement of work and project plan describing the deliverables and how these will be implemented and delivered.
- Delivery - Upon contract signature the delivery process is initiated which in the enterprise telco space often represent millions in TCV (total contract value) for complex, sometimes quite bespoke, set of deliverables that require many months and sometimes more than a year to fully deliver.
- Support - Following the completion of the delivery process the contracted products and services finally start producing the benefits expected by the customer (and revenue for the provider).
- Resign – As the end of the contract period nears the provider initiates a contract extension exercise which usually triggers a rush of service improvement initiatives and a recalibration of the commercials to tempt the customer to remain for another term.
Seems like a pretty straightforward sequence right? It can and should be. But, in reality, it is fraught with complications due to the fact that each business function uses their own terminology and understand things based on their own frames of reference.
Each siloed unit tends to have their own documentation, success and quality criteria, processes and ways of working. As each function receives the output of the preceding function, concepts need to be translated, understood, and verified before they can be worked on, processed, and once completed handed over to the next team who repeat the same motions. The more complex the customer needs are and the bigger the organisation, the more steps that need to happen which drastically increases the chances of things getting lost in translation, falling between the cracks, or changing because of misinterpretation and scope creep.
No wonder so many customers are disappointed when the entire chain of events finally produces an outcome that does not meet their initial expectations. Once the complaints start coming in and escalations are hitting the desks of senior management, the inevitable SIPs (service improvement plans) are drawn up to assuage customer sentiment requiring unplanned resources and time to put things right again. This does not only exemplify a typical lean case of muda (waste) but is an avoidable way to frustrate and disappoint the paying client.
How can the ITIL framework help?
A cultural shift needs to happen to move the balance of effort from focusing on winning the business and fixing the problems afterwards to a more consistent and predictable way of working. Firms need to achieve a healthier balance between acquiring new customers while nurturing their existing ones. Although each customer is unique in their own way, selling, delivering and supporting complex and bespoke contracts are relatively expensive and run a higher risk of failure.
One key to a provider’s success is to increase standardisation. Agreeing on common concepts improves a shared understanding and facilitates better collaboration. Companies relying on IT-enabled services need not look far for guidance. The ITSM (Information Technology Service Management) discipline describes the activities performed by an organisation to design, build, deliver, operate and control information technology services offered to customers. ITSM covers a number of frameworks like COBIT, CMMI and TOGAF - but arguably none of these are as focused on providing value for the customer as ITIL.
The ITIL framework is the most adopted and recognised framework for managing services in the digital era. It is a collection of industry best practices that help organisations to optimise digital technologies to co-create value with customers, drive business strategy, and embrace digital transformation.
While individuals can get trained and certified on ITIL, its complementary framework for organisations is ISO/IEC 20000. Another difference is that while ITIL promotes adopting and adopting best practices, ISO 20k is a set of specific standards an organisation must follow in order to get certified. For businesses looking to achieve superior service management it is simpler to begin by first adopting ITIL. Once an organisation has a good handle on the way its people, processes, and technology are providing a better support experience, they may then begin to consider ISO 20k certification. In many ways ITIL is a natural segue into ISO 20k. So let’s first proceed from the ITIL perspective.
Proceeding from the common sense ITIL principle of starting where you are, organizations will realise that they do not need to start all over and risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The first step is to look at what exists as objectively as possible and using the customer or the desired outcome as the starting point. The crucial next step would be to translate the company’s portfolio of product capability descriptions into standardised components by adopting and adapting ITIL principles. Each component would consist of two parts:
- What - The technical specifications describing its design features; and
- How – The service aspects describing how it is delivered and supported.
Bundled together these become the customer proposition which relies on both the what and how to produce the customer experience. By translating the company’s portfolio and support model into standardised ITIL-aligned building blocks it is well on its way to achieving the core of the single version of the truth (SVOT).
How the single version of the truth improves CX
A SVOT provides one and only one point of reference for a company. This way, every entity in an organisation base their business-decisions on the same information allowing different teams to seamlessly collaborate and strategise more effectively.
In practice, this SVOT could be a service library that evolves and develops iteratively with insights gained over time. It should be owned and updated by key stakeholder functions: starting with service assurance and product management. Service assurance represents the operate or run function responsible for the longest phase of the customer journey and is tasked with supporting the corporate customer on their contracted services. Product management represents the function responsible for the product portfolio which essentially describe the provider’s capabilities and services.
From both a customer journey perspective and an end-to-end lifecycle view one could argue the product and support functions sit at opposite ends. And if we recall the original problem highlighted at the start there was a fundamental disconnect between not only these two but all the various functions that come into play along the customer journey. To address this disconnect all functions need to sing from the same hymn sheet.
Retaking the customer journey with the SVOT in place, this time all the messaging and collateral used would be based on this single truth ensuring the necessary language and documentation in the different phases is standardised and aligned. Marketing and sales would base their collateral and conversations with prospective clients on the same basic information as would the deal governance and delivery teams. Language, terminology and definitions would align across contracts, design documentation, project plans, service descriptions, operations manuals, performance reporting and the other information shared internally between the different functions and crucially between provider and customer.
With everyone speaking the same language, sharing the same approach and working against the same single version of the truth, the customer will experience a smoother customer journey, where the different steps now seamlessly flow from one stage to the next. The expectations that were initially set, the promises made, the handovers from one business unit to the next all share the common denominator of the SVOT. The organisation will no longer be blamed for merely paying lip service to their clients, but are able to walk their talk, ensuring it delivers as promised and so consistently meet the expectations of their clients.
It will save time, resources and effort by reducing inconsistencies across the customer journey through more efficient and higher quality transitions between the phases. Standardised service modules also allow for easier re-use of collateral and avoid the need to build from scratch a new service wrap for each new opportunity.
But companies who adopt a single version of the truth won’t only reap the benefits of a more efficient way of working through less rework, escalation management, wasted marketing budgets and brand damage - they are equally likely to produce a more consistent and predictable customer experience, incentivising customers to trust the provider, remain longer with them and advocate the benefits to their peers.