To cater for modern customers, today's companies must support a wide range of different touchpoints. So how can brands deliver an end-to-end experience that surpasses customer expectations?
If there’s one takeaway that really jumped out from Forrester’s most recent Customer Experience Index, it’s that brands are finding it increasingly difficult to stand out against their competitors. The research found that both the number of brands delivering ‘good’ and ‘poor’ customer experiences has dipped, while the number of ‘OK’ scores has risen – swelling from 59% to 62%. This means that nearly two-thirds of brands are now delivering comparable experiences.
At a time when customer experiences are said to be the key brand differentiator, over and above product and price, this is bad news for most brands. So how can they achieve excellence and stand out from the crowd?
“More and more people are realising that the service you deliver is the experience that differentiates,” explains John Heald, global vice president of market development at SAP Customer Experience. “You will forget how nice the email was that you received. You will forget how easy the website was to order from. You will maybe forget how salesy the sales guy was. But you won’t forget that your item broke down and the service team didn’t turn up on time – because that is where the rubber hits the road and where you really understand the experience.
“Remember, when customers are in the buying cycle they’re emotionally excited anyway, because they’re getting something new, and so if you get it wrong and don’t deliver that superior experience you will shatter that illusion.”
The challenge for organisations is that today’s service journey can encompass a multitude of different touchpoints, channels, distributors and partners – and customers expect all of these components to be seamlessly working together.
“When you talk about service, most people think only about call centres,” notes Heald. “But actually it expands way beyond this – both before and after – because it is very rare that the conversation starts and/or stops at the call centre. There is usually something that has instigated the customer to contact centre, and quite often there is something that needs to happen after the call centre experience as well.”
Broadly speaking, these key touchpoints break down into three categories – and organisations that are seeking to differentiate themselves with their service will be exploring how each piece makes a contribution to delivering a unified end-to-end experience.
This covers self-service solutions such as automated phonelines, online knowledgebases and chatbots.
Organisations should be exploring questions such as:
- How do we help customers help themselves?
- How can we enable customers to find solutions to their own problems without ever having to engage them?
- How can we do that using chatbots, IVR, knowledgebases and/or online communities?
This covers one-to-one interactions such as chat, social media, SMS or email.
Organisations should be exploring:
- When a customer is in contact, how can we know how they got to this point?
- What information can we access that will help the conversation?
Heald explains: “If the customer is trying to resolve an issue we need to understand did they have something shipped yesterday so that we can assume that’s what they’re calling about; did they have a conversation with a chatbot and they haven’t got the resolution that they wanted; or, in the B2B environment, are we getting messages from the sensors on the machine that says the vibration ratio is higher than it should be? If you have that level of understanding of the engagement history you can actually provide tailored responses to the customer that not only saves you time as an organisation but also saves the customer time as well because you’re solving the problem at first point of resolution.
“Alternatively, if a customer is calling and there is a known fault with the machine he has, you can just transition straight to a field service technician as opposed to spending 20 minutes on a call trying to solve the issue – you can just proactively send somebody out on the first minute of the call because you know of the error. So that is where you need that understanding of history in order to work out how we do this in the most effective way.”
This concerns support for more complex requirements from well-trained staff, this includes field service but also the use of partner networks to solve customer queries.
Organisations should be exploring:
- If we need to send a field service technician out to fix a customer’s problem, how do we do this in the most effective way?
- How can we find out which field service technician has the most appropriate skills?
- How can we find out which field service technician is in the closes geographical location to the customer?
- How do we know whether it’s best to use our own field service agents or one of those from our partner ecosystem?
“The analogy here is that if a customer’s washing machine has broken, they care less about who fixes it as long as they fix it today, rather than waiting for a technician wearing the official manufacturer’s overalls who can only come in three weeks’ time. That is not managing the experience,” says Heald.
“Consumers and organisations are now being more and more demanding about having issues fixed right away, so organisations need to explore how they can provide that level of service without having to employ 100 million field service technicians in every town, to which a growing number of companies are looking at crowd-based field service solutions.”
Technology has the ability to significantly impact customer experience during the no-touch and low-touch scenarios as it can help to strengthen self-service capabilities which will enable traditional agents to focus on more complex, high-touch service interactions provider a higher quality of customer service. This is crucial because even though we are witnessing the proliferation of technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, Gartner estimates that “by 2022... though the proportion of phone-based communication will drop from 41% to 12% of overall customer service interactions, human agents will still be involved in 44% of all interactions".
The infrastructure that needs to be in place to help organisations answer all these questions, and ensure that a unified end-to-end experience can be supported, consists of three main components: a communication infrastructure, systems of record and a customer listening platform.
- Communications infrastructure. “With the correct channel infrastructure in place it is possible to take all of your different inputs and prioritise the customers appropriately,” explains Heald. “This would connect into your phonelines, your social channels, your SMS gateways and so on. And it would ensure, for instance, that if a customer is emailing your company, you will read the email in the context of the importance of the customer, as opposed to just being another email – because responding to that email could be more important than answering the ringing phone from another customer.”
- Systems of record. “It’s important to understand how and where you must touch systems of record,” says Heald. “If a customer is calling to find out when his spare part is going to be delivered, you need access to the fulfilment system to find out. If there has been a delay with the FedEx delivery because of a storm in North America, you need to know so that you can give the right amount of information back to the customer. Customers don’t like getting bad news but they prefer it rather than being told that the company doesn’t know what’s happening. The same is true from an employee perspective – if your company needs somebody with the right level of skill and you only have one person and he is on holiday for the next week, you need to know that so that you can manage expectations. And you need to have that understanding into the systems of record to find out.”
- Customer listening. “The final part of this is how do you listen and improve? This means collecting the real voice of the customer,” continues Heald. “Historically, Voice of the Customer has meant collecting an NPS score – at the end of the month taking a look to see how happy the customers are. That’s OK, but what if there’s a major problem? You can’t wait until the end of the month to improve upon it. So you need to be constantly listening to customer feedback and working out how to engage to respond to it – whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Companies need to deliver real-time engagement, and understand the general pulse of their customers, and understand how to respond.”
Obstacles to overcome
Of course, with the tools and technologies readily available, and a growing awareness of the competitive advantage of superior customer experiences, it does raise the question of why more organisations aren’t delivering unified end-to-end service excellence.
Heald believes that the legacy of ‘point solution’ approaches is to blame, with brands adopting a “sticking plaster approach” to solve tactical challenges as and when they arise, rather than taking a step back to achieve a more holistic look at what is required to improve customer experiences.
“There has been the mindset in the past that certain levels of system or information integration have been unnecessary because perhaps it was only required 5% of the time. But those organisations are now finding that if a customer has three questions they will have to be passed to three different teams as maybe one team is the only one to have access to the delivery information, another the only to have access to social information and another the only to deal with phonecalls. So they’ve never adopted a position of ‘what does great look like’ because they’ve just been focused on solving tactical problems.”
Businesses tend to suddenly respond when a competitor comes into the marketplace with a green-field approach, and they are able to deliver this kind of end-to-end unified experience as the first thing they do.
The danger for some organisations is that start-up businesses can emerge in their markets, unencumbered by legacy infrastructure to prevent them from delivering joined-up experiences.
“Businesses tend to suddenly respond when a competitor comes into the marketplace with a green-field approach, and they are able to deliver this kind of end-to-end unified experience as the first thing they do, as opposed to blending the existing pieces together,” says Heald.
By then, of course, it can be too late – and the newcomer’s superior customer experience can do untold damage to the incumbent’s position in the market. On the other hand, for those organisations in marketplaces which are characterised by little difference in the service experiences being delivered by providers, seizing the initiative and striking first can give them the opportunity to be the disruptor by delivering a unified end-to-end experience that represents a competitive differentiator.
For some, the potential investment in the project can be daunting. But Heald notes: “One of my favourite analogies is that if your car needs its suspension replaced, and then it needs a new gearbox and then a new clutch, there is a time when it is actually just more cost-effective to buy a new car. It could be a big investment, but actually that will be, even in the mid-term, a lot more effective from both a cost and a business perspective, than just repairing and replacing pieces bit by bit.”
And even for those that are unable to make the investment at this time, strategic preparation can ensure that they will be on the right track going forwards. Heald recommends starting with a final destination in mind, and ensuring that all subsequent investments and projects are headed in the appropriate direction, so that even if there isn’t a sustained effort to achieve a unified end-to-end experience, at least there are gradual steps towards it.
“Organisations need to decide on where they want to get to and set their expectations and then work out the best path to get there,” he concludes. “It is about making sure that the projects you undertake are moving in the right direction for where you want to end up, rather than something that you’re going to have to undo at a later date.
“If you still have to do some tactical things, that’s fine. But make sure they are aligned with the bigger goal that you’re aiming for as opposed to it just being seen as a tactical resolution in isolation.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.