Who are tomorrow's customers and how will I serve them?by
A new report has examined the cultural shifts that are taking part in society, shaping the customer of the future. Suzette Bouzane Meadows discusses the next generation of consumers and makes recommendations on how businesses can effectively address the needs of customers of the future whilst continuing to serve the more established, less technology-driven needs of current generations.
By Suzette Bouzane Meadows, Jam IP
Synthesising opinion obtained from leading experts and current trend-led data, the 'Customer of the Future' study has been able to go beyond what can be seen happening today, without entering into the realm of science fiction. Commissioned by JAM IP, Cisco and Exony and written by ContactBabel, the report assumes that a customer of the future is a UK citizen over the age of 18, economically active between 2010 to 2020.
Suzette Bouzane Meadows, Jam IP
The findings suggest that the customer service industry is about to face its biggest challenge yet, as today's children develop a cultural voice and become fully-fledged consumers. Born in the 1990s, tomorrow's consumers - dubbed 'the silent generation' - have grown up with the internet and mobile technology as a de facto part of life. As a result they have entirely different expectations and communication patterns to previous generational groups.
They are inherently confident with IT and choose to use technology over direct communications in most situations, knowing it provides instant access and results. Never before has the coming of age of a single generation represented such a cultural challenge, or required such a radical rethink for businesses as they learn to adapt to serve the needs of the customer of the future.
Seven key areas have been identified from the report as crucial to businesses that are looking to win in the customer management game in the future.
1. The death of the queue
The customer of the future will not be prepared to queue. Current generations are already intolerant of queuing and most perceive their waiting time to be 27 times longer than it really is. Without doubt tomorrow's customer will be even less accepting - even the shortest queue will be sufficient to make or break a relationship.
The steady growth of peer review sites and online communities hands the balance of power to the consumers who will thoroughly research an organisation's service history rating before entering into a relationship. As the number one pet hate, length of queue time will be vitally important. Organisations will have to eliminate queues by over-staffing, integrating back office workers, offering the customer a call back at their own convenience, or superior self service options.
Queue busting technologies already exist to significantly improve the customer experience and the benefit of putting in place more effective call management solutions - including call back, natural language recognition, and predictive answer solutions - must not be underestimated. Improvements in speech recognition in particular will prove popular as people get more familiar with using it and realise they can get deeper, more efficient access to an organisation on an automated platform.
2. Some customers are more equal than others
The customer of the future will be handled more intelligently, based on a huge variety of variables - who they are, why they are in contact, how they are contacting, where in a current process they are, age, wealth, lifetime value, demographic, propensity to buy, etc.
The concept of polarised service may be a controversial one but it is simply not sustainable to treat all customers as equal. They key to success is to offer the most appropriate service at the appropriate time, therefore interactions with customers of the future will be a mix of automated and personalised depending on who that customer is and their individual transaction need at any given time.
Live customer service will be a reason for people to stay with a company and, via peer review sites and online communities, it will be a reason to purchase in the first place. It is therefore in the organisation's best interests to offer 'gold plated' live service where required to win and keep high-value clients, whilst offering quick, efficient self-service for the bulk of customers so they feel fairly treated and satisfied that their needs are also deemed important to the business.
3. Mind the gap
The customer of the future will experience greater differences between the levels of service they receive. More and more lower value interactions will be automated and the higher-value transactions will get routed to premium human service with knowledge and experience.
Just as all customers are not equal, all transactions are not equal either and the only way to kill the queue is to automate many of the lower value communications. Banks are already making some headway in this area; for customers with relatively simple needs, e.g. ordering a cheque book or chasing up a statement, it makes sense to the bottom line to automate transactions, freeing up time for agents to manage exceptional, more complicated calls, for example a mortgage application, a complaint or a technical issue that an FAQ could not solve.
Businesses looking to really get ahead need to become smarter in predicting why customers are calling them in the first place - today contact centres are too busy managing what's in front of them to wonder if some of their work load could be eliminated in the first place.
4. Technology catch-up
The customer of the future will be tech-savvy and expect to communicate over a preferred medium - be it voice, text, IM, web, email or whatever comes next. They will become technophiles, with networked home, mobile, car, business and gaming devices. Organisations will have to keep up with the explosion in new customer communications techniques and technologies.
There is no denying that the average child and teenager - tomorrow's customer - is highly skilled with technology and considerably more educated and confident in an online environment than even the most tech literate adult. They have access to more sophisticated technology at home than most of the working population in the office and a text, IM conversation or a Second Life persona are the norm to this fledgling generation. As such, businesses looking to reach these individuals in the future must tune into their world to gain their respect and custom.
Communities of like-minded people, for example those on Second Life, blogs and MySpace, hold growing influence over purchasing patterns and provide invaluable opportunities for businesses to meet customers and collaborate with them provided a sufficient level of objectivity is observed. Feedback gleaned from membership of these peer review groups on pricing, ethics, products etc will ensure that the consumer of the future calls the shots.
No report looking at this time period can overlook the potential of mobile telephony. With mobile penetration rates well over 100% and with 95% of 16-24 year olds sending over 100 texts per month there is no doubt about the huge potential of this medium, which to date remains a holy grail for businesses looking to enrich liaison with their customers. Mobile is seen as private in the way that other communications channels are not, therefore moves to utilise this outlet must be sensitively managed.
However, as the drive towards feature rich, single unified devices continues, the boundary between mobile, email and web communications will blur making it more palatable for consumers to be reached via their mobile device. The trend will become further pronounced as tomorrow's smartphones will have a level of 'intelligence' programmed by their owner to interrogate businesses IT systems to get the information required without bothering the individual at all.
For a number of reasons - time, social confidence and technology acceptance - tomorrow's customer will not generally be comfortable picking up the phone and dialling a contact centre. They will not tolerate even a few seconds wait, will expect service to be 24 hours a day/365 days a year, and will be highly confident talking to avatars, using self service or 3D video demonstrations. For these reasons businesses can't expect customers to accept their 'old school' ways and will have to develop new ways of reaching individuals in their preferred manner.
5. Customer service is everyone's job
The customer of the future will not contact a call centre. They will contact an organisation and be answered by the right resource with the right knowledge, anywhere in the world. Customer service will be seen as a behaviour, not a function, in the same way everyone has a responsibility to drive profit. This will require cultural change within the business away from contact centre silos and towards a pervasive customer service based culture.
For most businesses the vast investments made in their contact centre warehouses mean that the contact centre model will remain in place for some time. However with investment in emerging technologies including unified communications, Presence and SIP comes flexibility, improved agent autonomy and empowerment and more tailored customer interactions which are all steps in the right direction. Whilst there will probably remain specialist customer service teams, these must be placed nearer the strategic heart of a business in order to reflect the overriding importance of good customer management, ensure seamless access to senior knowledge and to provide direct output to management on key business issues.
By 2020 a few pioneering organisations might even take the bold step of scrapping the centralised contact centre model entirely, in favour of an ultra-centralised model where the whole enterprise acts as a resource and the right person answers the right call.
6. The all-seeing, all knowing employee
The customer of the future will expect anyone they talk with to be knowledgeable and empowered to make decisions. Organisations will have to find innovative new ways to harvest the complete organisational knowledge and make it available to every employee.
For many businesses this will be a huge challenge, especially those such as councils, where a wide range of employees need to become experts on an extensive spectrum of customer needs. Training to empower agents is invaluable in building and maintaining a broad, accurate knowledge base and eliminating today's culture of apathy and attrition within the call centre. Additionally, anything that can be seen to enhance delivery and automate routine elements of the call will be important - be that voice biometric security to immediately confirm who the caller is, or low levels of artificial intelligence to augment agents' roles (rather than replace them).
7. Customer service is the new advertising
The customer of the future will increasingly ignore advertising and instead use social networks, peer review sites and word of mouth recommendations to make purchasing decisions. Customer service experiences will be the main driver of these recommendations.
Tomorrow's customers will be people of the screen - they will not rate text based information in magazines, papers or on the TV, therefore multimedia channels will grow in importance. It will not be possible for businesses to mass reach customers in the future as they can today as technologies and legislation will evolve to protect the consumer and filter out broadbrush advertising. Instead the smart, customer-friendly business must invest in developing its reputation and customer service offering as its most powerful marketing tool.
In summary, poor customer service will have to become a thing of the past if businesses are to survive. Customer needs will not change per se - there will still be bills to pay and items to buy. But it is how customers of the future go about making purchasing decisions that will change, with service emerging as a primary reason to join and stay with a business.
Becoming customer-centric and meeting the needs of tomorrow's customer need not be to the detriment of business - there is mutual benefit to be gained from this evolution. Evolving to meet the needs of the up and coming generation might seem a huge challenge but done properly it is a win-win situation for all.
Suzette Bouzane Meadows is market development director for Jam IP.
For a full copy of the report, commissioned by JAM IP, Cisco and Exony and written by ContactBabel, please visit http://www.jamip.co.uk/research/default.asp.
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You cannot expect me to beleive that customer service is the new advertising. Advertsing is getting standard people to buy things they don't want/need. Perhaps customer service is the new marketing seeing that marketing's philosophy is customer based?