Customer service in 2013: Your challenge checklist

10th Jan 2013

Anne Marie Forsyth, CEO of the Customer Contact Association, outlines the customer service challenges companies must address in 2013.

While most businesses have transcended the antiquated view that customer support is simply a cost centre, on the whole there still remains much to do in removing many of the traditional obstacles of service delivery.
Recent research by the Customer Contact Association (CCA) and KANA, identified a number of challenges that customer service professionals believe are hindering their companies’ drive to get more value from service.
But according to Anne Marie Forsyth, CEO of the CCA, the good news is that just as previous years have seen progress in realising customer service’s potential as a value provider, so 2013 could be a similarly pivotal year in the evolution of the service department.
Forsyth spoke to about some of the challenges and changes that are in store for 2013.
Customer service will get better board representation
The CCA’s research uncovered dissatisfaction among customer service professionals over the extent to which customer service and contact centre concerns are adequately represented at board level, with almost one in 10 stating that the board is out of touch while a further 44% said these departments are only properly represented on some issues. This is a historical issue – but one that is finally showing signs of resolution.
“It’s a 20 year issue,” explains Forsyth. “And it’s because contact centres are always set up in a separate way and are often based some place else in the UK or abroad. It has also never been very clear who is managing the contact centre. Structurally, is it the head of procurement, the head of accounts, the head of marketing? And it is also a historical issue of positioning.”
However, she adds: “But there are signs now that it is starting to evolve, with some companies having client directors on the main board. If you look at organisations like O2, for example, where the customer is at the centre of the organisation. But there are still many organisations that don’t have that. What will really change things will be when social and data are owned by the contact piece of the business.
“So there are changes happening, and going forward there is probably a good case for the role of experience director or chief customer officer [a cross-departmental position that sits on the board].”
Chief customer officers will become more commonplace
The emergence of the chief customer officer – also referred to as titles such as VP of customer experience or experience director – is a trend first identified by Forrester Research a couple of years ago. A cross-departmental role, sitting on the board and reporting directly to the CEO, the role has become increasingly popular in the US, but has yet to really gather momentum in the UK. However, Forsyth can see this changing in 2013.
“One thing that this industry is incredibly good at is following quickly,” she explains. “Think about back in the 80s, when Direct Line introduced computers with new models – before long just about everybody has a new call centre of some shape or form. It’s a very fast-moving industry – one minute it’s adapting to mobile, the next minute it’s social and the next there’s something else. New roles become quite sophisticated and once you get roles established, they very quickly become widespread. It is just a case of making a business case for the role, and getting it established in the first place.
“I see the chief customer officer role being also about data – the person who controls the insight of the organisation. That is going to be where the power is, because at the end of the day, data is now central for the organisation. They really need insight and direction and there isn’t anybody who manages that piece. So the data piece and the customer piece are ultimately becoming one thing.”
Customer service will learn to make better use of customer data
We are in the midst of a data explosion, with 90% of the data in the world today having been created in the last two years. However, the customer service department has traditionally not handled customer data collection and use as well as it might – something that it will improve upon as 2013 progresses.
“Customers are confused why companies have all this information about them, yet their service journey is still so torturous!” says Forsyth. “Why doesn’t it make it more convenient? I’m not aware of many services where my journey has been better because I gave information up front.
“If you attempt to buy gift vouchers, for instance, you are asked for loads of information, and I’m told it’s for security. But it has nothing to do with security, because if I then ask whether there will be some kind of record of the purchase should I lose the vouchers, they say no and that if I lose them they are lost. So why am I giving them the information?
“I have to want to give you my details. But the only reason they want my information is so they can use it for marketing – it is nothing to do with security. So this kind of stuff really needs dialling down. So yes, companies have a lot of customer data, but what are they doing with it? How are they using it to make customers’ lives easier and make them feel good about doing business with them?
“Organisations want to be able to use this data in a million ways for marketing – and it can be gold dust if it is used to target in the right way. But there is going to be a backlash if they don’t show a win for the customer as well, and that win is convenience. Make the journey smoother because of the information I provide.”
Contact centre leaders will understand how to win the service argument
The economic landscape means that the bean counters are pressing for cuts across the organisation. In the past, customer service has been a popular area for scale backs when businesses feel the pinch. But service leaders are learning how to fight their corner, put the contact centre’s value into a wider context for the company, and tackle cost-cutting measures such as automation and agent metrics that ultimately harm service levels.
“I can think of numerous organisations that have said they are going to be much more service –oriented and enterprise-wide, and they produce metrics and survey the customer and all of these things, but then the further they get the more they panic because it is costing them a lot of money,” says Forsyth. “Then they go into auto-pilot mode, which is average call handling time, and all these inbound metrics, which shouldn’t be used to carry customer satisfaction measurements but still often do. And that tends to be a default comfort position for organisations.
“The temptation is always to cut things and it’s always great when you have financial control. So to counteract that you have to have a really powerful argument as to why your customer contact strategy should have the right balance of automation and personalisation. The strength of people running contact centres is the ability to present logical arguments which makes sense for the sustainability of the organisation. Because short-term, knee jerk responses cause chain reactions that contact centres have suffered from for years and years.”
Workforce issues will continue to come to the fore
Traditionally a sector that suffered from high staff attrition, the impact of the recession on the jobs scene has meant that the likes of contact centres have retained staff that would have otherwise have seized other opportunities. This has meant that businesses have had to take steps to ensure that their teams aren’t populated by unengaged staff that are trapped in their present job by the economic environment.
“The way to ensure that you don’t suffer from having people who don’t want to be there is to get more out of those people and to get them better motivated and engaged,” says Forsyth. “Engagement is paramount. There is still attrition in the workforce, but it is much more stable than ever before. So for the first time ever, the workforce is looking to be a bit more creative – whether or not they’re looking for other work doesn’t matter; they have still got more experience and so there is a huge opportunity to build on that.”
While there was a movement towards greater automation during the depths of the recession, this increasing acknowledgement of the value of a skilled and experienced workforce will lead to some further experimentation to find the right balance of agents and automation.
“More work is needed to get automation right and to get a better blend,” continues Forsyth. “There is still some uncertainty about it. I still don’t think we have enough good models – most bradns we deal with want to do fewer calls one minute, then the next they want to do more. Most organisations are responding to cost pressure and try to automate more, but at the same time they don’t quite understand that they can be making a huge mistake if they get it wrong. However, I think businesses have learned a bit more about this now.”
Lessons have also been learned about team management and structure following the cutbacks that were deemed necessary in recent tight times.
“The temptation was to cut lots and lots of management jobs – the middle jobs – and make do with less,” adds Forsyth. “But the lesson there was that trying to manage people by spreadsheets doesn’t work at all. So we have seen a bit more attention being given to first line management and their people skills, as opposed to their spreadsheet skills.”
A big question mark
So, a big year ahead for customer service, and no shortage of challenges to confront. And Forsyth also has an eye on longer-term issues as well, with big challenges lurking over the horizon for the customer service sector. Her advice to customer service leaders is to consider the following issues as we move through 2013.
“Big Data is one trend, and its implications for management and the technology piece that sits behind. The second issue is what I call the ‘system piece’ – how your organisation decides how personal they want to be and how automated they want to be. That is massive.”
She concludes: “The other issue is the workforce piece. There are around a million people working in call centres – what will all these people be doing in two years’ time? Four years’ time? Five years’ time? Will they become site managers? Will they become experts? Or will they just become obsolete because technology is taking care of a lot of stuff? So there is a big question mark.”

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