Is the British public condemned to a lifetime of bad customer service?
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Helen Murray says it's high time that firms put a mantra often preached by business leaders actually into practice.

You don’t have to browse very deeply into the news headlines to uncover evidence of serious malaise in the relationships between many organisations and their customers. Banks, utility providers, phone companies, even parts of government seem to be repeatedly on the receiving end of complaints, criticism, and even official investigation, for failings in their service to customers.
I think many people today would be forgiven for feeling that the service they get from organisations is much worse than it was a decade ago. If anything, the growth of social media has accentuated this perception: isolated service problems can now rapidly mushroom into far more significant reputational issues. This new dynamic is putting many brands on the back foot, and presenting costly new challenges for businesses.
The paradox is that it is possible to understand and take action to contain these issues before they go social: the feedback your customers give over the phone, in letters, emails and text messages will contain all the clues a company needs. What’s more, provided they are harnessed correctly, these insights could have a major impact on everything from business strategy and product development to, indeed, customer service. 
What I’m talking about is a mantra often preached by business leaders but actually rarely put into practice: heeding the voice of their customers. 
The contact centre: a hidden goldmine
The place to start in the search for the voice of the customer is the contact centre. Whilst they often carry the can for customer service failings, they in fact provide a solution. Contact centres are responsible for thousands of interactions with customers each day, but only a small proportion of the content of these discussions is captured in CRM systems, traditionally the prime source of customer intelligence. 
However, call recording systems contain much more valuable information: the unsolicited feedback of thousands of customers about what is right and wrong with your products and service. Provided they are analysed thoroughly, these recordings can act as an untapped goldmine of customer insight – the true voice of the customer.
Yet companies are not drawing on these insights, let alone acting on them. According to a survey we commissioned among heads of customer service for some of the UK’s best-known brands this summer, four out of five said their businesses could make better use of the information their contact centres hold. They may know this valuable information exists but do they know how to successfully mine it and uncover intelligence they can use?
Making sense of the unstructured
The trouble is that the most useful nuggets of customer insight don’t lend themselves to being logged in databases or other ‘structured’ formats for easy retrieval and analysis. They’re asides, quips, reactions and comments customers make to agents which can’t be logged in conventional call centre applications, but which nonetheless have huge business potential, if they can be mined and analysed meaningfully. 
This is where the right technology can make all the difference. Speech analytics have reached a level of maturity and affordability where it can transcribe to text the content of every call. Semantic analysis of the transcribed calls can automatically surface for example, that a particular product is mentioned more in the past day, map out the context of those mentions, and understand the sentiment behind them. So you can see the reasons for significant spikes and understand the resulting impact on customers. Such insights make it much easier for businesses to understand the voice of the customer and decide what action they need to take.
Similarly, text analytics can analyse emails, web chat, agent notes, open ended customer feedback, and even social media channels. The content is ‘unstructured’ but the right tools can nonetheless unlock their meaning by ‘structuring’ and prioritising the key concepts they contain.
Time is on your side
This is becoming widely known in the industry as ‘voice of the customer’ analytics. It provides businesses with an unprecedented degree of insight in a matter of hours that even the most detailed customer research would have struggled to show them. As a result, voice of the customer analytics can provide early warning signs of issues so the business can take action to avert them.
This means businesses can track the public’s response to launches, marketing campaigns, and amendments to pricing and packaging in a way they couldn’t before. For example, the marketing department for O2 Ireland introduced a promotion that was available to customers as long as they topped up at least once every 30 days. By using speech analytics to analyse the growing call volumes from prepay customers, they found that many of them were forgetting to top up within the 30 days. 
These customers were missing out on the promotion and the business missed out on the revenue. Having done the analysis, the course of action was quite simple: O2 Ireland set up an SMS reminder on the 28th day leading to a significant increase in revenue. But it was the fact that the action was based on the voice of the customer that meant it worked. 
Service matters
Of course, the best analytics technology in the world is rendered useless without good quality data to drive it. In the case of voice of the customer analysis, this data resides across all customer interaction channels. Though many brands have taken real steps to integrate service into the rest of the organisation, there are still too many who keep it on the periphery. 
If executives are to stand any chance of retaining and growing their customers and remaining competitive in such a challenging business environment, they have to pay closer heed to the voice of their customers. The brands who get the formula right will ultimately gain the edge on their competitors.

Helen Murray is director of consulting at Verint Systems.


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31st Oct 2011 13:15

Hi Helen,


Forgive me for writing about the first few paragraphs of this article only.


After a break of four years, I finally had a chance to return to London and the UK, and it turned out to be so disappointing. It began with a really indifferent flight on Virgin Atlantic, a business that, in my mind, was one of the few that "get it." The staff just seemed so demotivated and tired, so I put it down to a bad flight. But on landing in London, and for the next five days, I just had a string of bad experiences: horrid hotel in Paddington, poor service at banks, London Bus Tours that now don't do much "live commentary" anymore, (that was always the best part,) terrible and expensive food, Hamleys, Madame Tussaud's, Lion King, and Tower of London overcrowded, and "something missing" in terms of the London spirit and sense of humour that I knew so well. And then, at the National Geographic Store, as I sat there on my final day, I thought about it, and came to the conclusion that Londoners and people in the UK must be suffering terribly.


Is everyone demoralised and fearful of their job safety having seen all the retrenchments around them? Are they upset and cynical with the uninspired and often crooked leadership of the politicians and business leaders in the UK? Did the recent student and other riots have a negative effect on the population at large? Are there simply too many "foreigners" in London who barely speak a word of English, and who come from cultures that are not customer-oriented? I don't know, and it may be something else, but it all made me very, very sad. After all, this is the country where the book on courtesy and manners was written ;-)


There was one exception that I simply have to mention: The people in the bright blue jackets that work on the London Underground. Every question answered politely and patiently, no behaviour that in any way showed disrespect for the same silly questions from the same silly tourists.


And in case you're wondering, the flight back home on Virgin was also really poor.



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