Customer communications roundtable: What's hot, what's not, what's next?

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We recently brokered a discussion on customer collections strategies and the obstacles the industry needs to overcome.

Chaired by independent business journalist Sue Tabbitt, stakeholders from a number of high-profile organisations wrestled with the problem of how, in today’s digital times, organisations should evolve their customer engagement and contact strategies to meet rising consumer expectations relating to experience and convenience. 

Joining Tabbitt to debate this issue were independent communications analyst Martin Geddes, as well as decision-makers from in-bound voice service provider MBlox, pay-weekly rent-to-own retailer BrightHouse, debt recovery specialist Walker Love and UK digital department store Shop Direct.

Technology: help or hindrance?

A key topic was the contribution of the right technology, with analyst Geddes kicking off the conversation by discussing how software-as-a-service (SaaS), cloud and ‘social enterprise’ strategies are clearly emerging as a major means of managing and improving customer engagement.

“There is an opportunity to be more sophisticated about how the sector manages customer interactions now, drawing on ‘Big Data’” he said, pointing out that if you can capture and mine detailed information about when different types of contact work best – i.e. through which channels, at what times and in what context, such as type of contact and the age and profile of recipient, brands could “definitely start to maximise the results of each new campaign."

Geddes’ point was soon confirmed by one of the frontline practitioners in the room – for according to Alasdair Skeoch, head of credit operations at BrightHouse, his company is currently doing just that, piloting a system where customers can make quick account payments via a web link delivered straight to their mobiles.

“It’s very inexpensive and the impact has been incredible. We’re only five weeks in and have seen a 20% uptake of the customers we’ve targeted,” added Skeoch, who admitted that the last time his firm introduced a new payment mechanism it took 22 weeks to get anything like the same level of acceptance. Skeoch went on to share some details of another innovative mobile initiative his company is trialling: two-way interactive text-based conversations. “We expect this to solve the issue of customers we cannot reach by phone. It’s simple, direct and gets round the sensitivity of discussing potential financial problems out loud,” he explained.

The power of mobile

Meanwhile Andy Fraser, contact centre manager at Walker Love, has also found SMS messaging to be a powerful technology tool. “We’ve just introduced a second text facility, asking customers to call or make a payment,” he told his fellow panellists, adding that the idea is to encourage customers to respond by making it easier to interact with his team and it allows Walker Love agents to have what he characterises as a “two-way conversation” with them as a result.

Indeed, the stakeholders soon agreed there is huge scope for technology to help in this area. Rob Malcolm, senior vice-president for product marketing at MBlox, noted that in the industry there is a lot of experimentation with different modes of contact. While previously in many businesses, he noted, the emphasis was solely voice, SMS and email, now there are mobile apps and push notifications – and more social media – and combinations thereof.

Still, context is everything, he cautioned, as, “The comms mix differs by use case – so SMS and voice still have strong impact in other contexts such as CRM (especially verifying people’s ID, or confirming opt-in to other channels), logistics (repairs, appointments and deliveries), and payments, but in debt collection, the most effective mix is where the contact is personalised.”

Here, he warned the group, emails and push notifications are just not immediate or direct enough for what brands tend to want.

Summing up, Geddes said firms should be aware of the three distinct stages in the evolution of customer communications technologies. The first generation, including SMS and interactive voice (IVR), tended to be for discrete, one-off interactions, while the second generation improved on the customer experience, using mobile notifications and natural language processing.

It’s the third and current generation, still emerging, he and the panel agreed, involving new techniques like sensors, context, wearable devices and sentient machines that could soon allow highly intelligent interactions and take us on to the next frontier in customer outreach.

The customer – never lose focus on their importance

According to Sharon McIndoe, resource allocation manager at Shop Direct, for all the importance of new technologies, the customer must always remain at the heart of the collections process. “As our customers move increasingly onto smartphones and tablets to shop, we’ll adapt our strategy to reflect this – but as an industry it has to be all about providing maximum choice, being able to adapt to changing preferences. And in collections it’s particularly important that we’re customer-centric, focusing on the customer’s needs.”

The panel agreed that knowing the customer is critical but then feeding that knowledge into an engagement strategy is the next step. “Part of our customer engagement strategy is being able to tailor our channels to different age groups,” was a representative comment on this important theme from Walker Love’s Fraser, for example: “It’s important for Walker Love competitively that our clients can see we’re at the forefront of customer engagement practice – using the latest techniques and employing all of the available channels to reach all of the target demographics – so that’s an important driver for improvement too.”

Fraser also made an important point: outreach technology doesn’t always have to be the newest and most sophisticated to be effective – often, far from it. “Part of what we want to do is encourage a younger generation to get in touch: the more avenues we open to them, the better. And, although older generations may prefer the phone, the dialler has not proved to be a successful tool for us – around 65% of calls typically go to voicemail. When we then leave an automated message, a lot of people hang up on hearing an electronic voice.”

What might the ‘next big thing’ in customer engagement look like?

For Geddes, the answer’s clear: mobile. “Mobile notifications (via brands’ own apps) will be the next area of growth. The challenge here is for companies to develop more of an ability to react spontaneously to the customer. So, for instance BA is offering a deal on a seat upgrade in the run-up to a flight, there should be scope for negotiation if some of the extras are features the customers doesn’t need.

“That means companies need to be able to hear an answer they’re not expecting, rather than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – i.e. behave as though it’s a human relationship, even if it’s being managed using technology.”

“What’s exciting about the mobile medium is its direct access to an individual,” added Rob Malcolm, senior vice-president for product marketing at MBlox.

“These days, people could have three or more email addresses, but they usually only have one mobile number. In a recent survey we carried out, for example, 55% of respondent told us they would increase their use of SMS if they could introduce more two-way interactions.”

Technology leap-frog – a game that’ll never stop

Finally, the panellists were all unanimous that the challenge of an ever growing number of communication channels, and to understand how to blend them effectively for each and every demographic, is tough. BrightHouse’s Alastair Skeoch comments: “Chasing the integration dream is a bit like a kitten chasing a balloon though: just as we think we’ve nailed it, some bright 17-year-old will come up with a new channel that no one has thought of yet.

“Then that will need integrating too!”

Conclusions

Summing up, the discussion demonstrated the importance of broadening collections strategies to include more convenient, context-appropriate communications, as well as more human ones too.

What’s more, the importance of cloud technology and modern business systems was emphasised, as well as reporting and analysis technologies acting on Big Data to better understand and serve the customer.

Mark Oppermann is development director at VoiceSage.

About Mark Oppermann

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